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Association put on ice

Bernd Riegert / smsNovember 22, 2013

Ukraine and the EU were set to sign a key agreement that would strengthen ties between Kyiv and Brussels. But Ukrainian leaders and lawmakers, under pressure from Moscow, appear to have turned away from the deal.

Activists of Ukrainian movement 'For European Future' hold EU flag with the Ukraine national emblem during a rally Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych informed EU Expansion Commissioner Stefan Füle of Kyiv's intention not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union on Wednesday (20.11.2013) - a day before he made his country's plan public, according to EU diplomats. Ukraine, the government announced after a cabinet meeting on Thursday, will put off talks on the Association Agreement indefinitely, and instead pursue trilateral trade negotiations with the 28-member bloc and Russia.

A European Commission spokesman told DW in Brussels that Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle has canceled his planned mediation trip to Kyiv. Füle had planned to meet again with Yanukovych on Friday to explore how the association agreement might still be saved. EU diplomats greeted the reason Ukraine gave for ending the talks, namely "national security," with disbelief.

"The Russian claim to have a say in the EU's economic relations with Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable. Ukraine has been a sovereign state for 20 years, not a Russian province," Member of European Parliament Werner Schulz, who sits on the committee that addresses the bloc's ties to Ukraine, said in Strasbourg.

EU leaders are set to meet their eastern European counterparts at a summit next week, where they were expected to sign economically important association deals with Ukraine. The Ukranian parliament, however, refused to allow imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to leave jail for medical treatment. This step was seen as the last hurdle for an association deal with the EU. The EU has accused Yanukovych of holding Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, in prison after a politically motivated trial.

Ukrainian opposition deputies hold a large flag with the portrait of jailed former Prime Minister and the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
Lawmakers have protested for Tymoshenko's releaseImage: AFP/Getty Images

The president still has the option of pardoning Tymoshenko, which could reinvigorate talks with the EU.

"We want to see an end to selective justice," Schulz told DW. "The Tymoshenko case is an example of that. The ball is in the president's court and he has some time until the summit next week."

Massive pressure from Moscow

EU foreign ministers on Monday said Yanukovych had to decide if his country would move toward Europe or Russia. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian president met several times with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. What was discussed during the meetings has not been made public, but EU diplomats have said Moscow put enormous pressure on Kyiv and threatened economic consequences if Ukraine deepened its ties with the EU. Ukraine currently gets much of its gas from Russia and generates income as a transit country for Russian gas headed to western Europe.

The Ukrainian parliament had already introduced changes to the electoral system and judicial reforms that constituted the other conditions for an EU Association Agreement, leaving only the Tymoshenko issue unsettled. But that's an issue where the EU can't compromise, according to Schulz, a member of the Greens.

"No one should forget that she was the one who started the association negotiations in 2007," he said. "It would be absurd if she were behind bars when the agreement is signed while the people who blocked her then profit from the fruit of her labor at the summit."

The presidency is at stake

European foreign ministers disagree on whether the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius next week represents Ukraine's last chance to strengthen relations with the EU. Some diplomats have said that after some time passes, it could be possible to restart talks and that the EU should not stand by and watch the former Soviet republic drift back toward Russia. But whether Brussels would be willing to engage in trilateral talks with Kyiv and Moscow is unclear.

Putinspeaks with Yanukovich Photo: REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool
Russia is said to have threatened Ukraine with economic consequences if it moved toward EuropeImage: Reuters

Schulz said whatever path Yanukovych takes, he will have to defend it in front of voters and the opposition during elections in 2015.

"I think it will cost Yanukovych the presidency if he misses the chance to sign the Association Agreement - or cannot sign it at the summit," Schulz said. "I cannot imagine that the majority of people in Ukraine want a president who obstructed their future in Europe."

Last-minute talks

In addition to EU Commissioner Füle, European envoys Alexander Kwasniewski and Pat Cox are also working for a deal between the EU and Ukraine. The former Polish president and former president of EU Parliament have traveled to Ukraine 20 times and are scheduled to give their final report on the country at next week's summit.

Now some observers in the EU are left hoping for an 11th-hour compromise.

"Technically, the approval of all 28 member states for an agreement with Ukraine could be organized during the summit in Vilnius," said a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.