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Ukraine again

Bernd Riegert, Brussels / sgbDecember 17, 2013

The EU foreign ministers have criticized Russia for its treatment of Ukraine - but without further consequences. Despite an earlier statement, EU diplomats are saying the Association Agreement remains on the table.

A man wrapped in a European flag stands in front of police barricades in Kyiv. (Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk)
Image: Reuters

It seems the invitation to Ukraine to sign an Association Agreement with the EU is still open after all. If Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych met the requirements, the EU could sign the agreement at a summit this week, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Unfortunately, he added, Yanukovych was constantly sending out ambiguous messages, so it was unclear what he really wanted. Bildt rejected statements by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, however, who had written on Twitter that the Association Agreement was frozen for now.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague made it clear: "There has been no new development for the last few days. The EU door remains open for Ukraine, but clearly they're not willing to or able to walk through it at the moment. They must make these decisions for themselves. But it is also important that they are able to make these decisions for themselves."

Bildt was sharply critical of Russia for putting economic pressure on Ukraine to block its path toward the EU, saying in Brussels that relations with Russia has been damaged: "What we have seen from the Russian side is that they have launched a rather intense propaganda campaign, based on misinformation and sometimes outright lies, against the agreement."

Building bridges

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the midday EU discussions to prepare for the next EU-Russia summit in January. But there were harsh words between Lavrov and his European colleagues, with EU diplomats saying there was no convergence of the two sides' positions.

Portrait Guido Westerwelle. (Photo: Bernd Riegert/ DW)
Westerwelle had a tough last day on the job facing RussiaImage: DW/B. Riegert

Outgoing German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the EU had to ask no one's permission to invite Ukraine to a partnership agreement. "We have built a bridge," Westerwelle said. "We also took Russian interests into account. But ultimately it is a Ukrainian decision. This is not a decision that can be taken in Moscow, but a decision that must be taken in Kyiv."

Strategic EU-Russia partnership

In a Russian television interview on the weekend, Lavrov accused the EU of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs. "There is no doubt that provocateurs are behind it," Lavrov said in response to the ongoing mass demonstrations against the Ukrainian leadership. Bildt dismissed Lavrov's views, while Westerwelle struck a more conciliatory tone.

"My advice is that we should continue to seek discussion, including in the future, that we do not weaken the thread of conversation with Russia but instead strengthen it," Westerwelle said. "There are, after all, many examples where we have worked well together. I am thinking, for one, of the Iranian nuclear program. Here an agreement without Russia would have been impossible."

Russia, Westerwelle said, remained a strategic partner of the European Union. It was essential to keep talking, especially in cases of disagreement. Russian involvement will also be needed in the search for a political solution to the civil war in Syria, Westerwelle said.

Solving Ukraine's economic issues

The previous week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held talks with Yanukovych in Kyiv and met both protesters and opposition politicians. She now explained to her European ministerial colleagues the financial demands the Ukrainian leadership is evidently making. The EU has dismissed the figure of 20 billion Euro suggested by the Ukrainian government. But Ashton said she was ready to talk, even though she was concerned about some statements that had been made.

Sergei Lavrov waving at the press. (Photo: REUTERS/Ruben Sprich)
Lavrov claims EU provocateurs are behind the protests in Maidan SquareImage: Reuters

"My purpose in talking to President Yanukovych was to discover what the short-term economic issues are that have prevented him from signing. And I feel that we can work with him to resolve those," said Ashton. "I don't believe the crisis in Ukraine should have a negative impact on our relations with Russia. It does mean, though, that we have to look very seriously at the way in which countries make their decisions and are entitled to make their decisions." Ashton wanted to make it clear to Lavrov in a one-on-one meeting that Ukraine must retain its sovereign right to choose alliances and treaties.

On Tuesday (17.12.2013), the Ukrainian president plans to travel to Moscow for talks. He is expected to sign a number of agreements with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to provide Kyiv with urgently needed funding.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said in a television interview that he hoped primarily for a reduction in gas prices. Ukraine pays around 400 U.S. dollars per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian gas at present. But Russia supplies its gas to the EU for only 370 to 380 dollars.

A farewell to Westerwelle

For Guido Westerwelle, this was his last appearance as a minister on the European level. Following the failure of his party, the free-market FDP, to enter parliament, he will leave the government on Tuesday. His 27 fellow EU foreign ministers bade him an emotional farewell, Westerwelle said at the meeting. He said he had formed friendships over the preceding four years, and grown fond of many of his counterparts.

Westerwelle did not reveal any details of his future plans to reporters, leaving open the question of whether he would be a candidate for a seat in the EU parliament in next year's European elections. Westerwelle's successor in office, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was already foreign minister in 2005-2009.