At an EU-Ukraine summit Friday, EU officials will discuss trade, visas and energy. But the subtext of the meetings is the future of EU-Ukrainian relations after a pro-Russian prime minister took over in September.
Energy issues loom large over the summit
There is always plenty to talk about when a former Soviet satellite state knocks on the EU's door. This time around, at the EU-Ukraine summit in Helsinki on Friday, the agenda is longer than usual.
That is because Russian President Vladimir Putin angered western leaders by refusing to sign an energy agreement guaranteeing access to Russian oil and gas last weekend. Thus, energy will be the hot topic when Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko meets with Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and EU officials, including European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Both sides want to reassure EU member states there will be no repeat of last year's fiasco, when a Russia-Ukraine showdown over gas prices threatened supplies that transit through the Ukraine to EU countries. It reminded Europeans of their Russian energy dependence, some 80 percent of Russian gas supplies to Europe pass through the Ukraine.
A deal made between Ukraine and Russia on Tuesday secured supplies through 2007, guaranteeing Ukraine cheap fuel at almost half the market rates in exchange for closer cooperation between the two countries on foreign policy, particularly Ukrainian aspirations to join the World Trade Organization and NATO.
Yushchenko wants to look west, not east
"I would say quite openly that we need to synchronize the negotiation process of our countries regarding WTO," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said after announcing the deal.
Pro-Russia stance paying off
These days a new chapter has begun in EU-Ukrainian relations as well as in Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Pro-Russian former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych again became prime minister in August after chaotic elections earlier this year and has worked to improve relations with its large neighbor.
In some ways, this has paid off for the Ukraine and the EU so far -- Yanukovych was always the favored candidate of Russia, especially during the 2004 elections that ushered in his opponent Yushchenko and the so-called Orange Revolution.
It was Yushchenko's pro-EU stance that many say led Russia to punish the Ukraine -- and its heavily energy intensive steel and chemical industries -- by trying to double energy prices in January.
"Ukraine is in a difficult situation as they must constantly maneuver between the west and Russia," said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia and the former Soviet states at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations. "And they are particularly dependent on Russia, even if they don't like it."
Looking for a "beacon"
Strife within the ruling party helped the pro-Russian faction
That dependence is putting a damper on Yushchenko's EU aspirations.
In advance of the summit, the pro-western president said he wants the EU to be a "beacon" for the Ukraine.
"A ship must always know what its destination harbor is," Yushchenko told Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. "The same holds true for our strivings for Europe. We would like to see the shine, the light that shows our country and our people what the destination is.
"Please note that we are not asking when," he added. "We are only talking about the aim, the goal that should stay more or less in place. Everything else is the responsibility of my people and my country."
Hat in hand
Although he has not asked for formal talks on EU or NATO accession, the president is not coming to Finland without requests.
One is that the EU set up a free trade zone with Kiev -- the bloc is Ukraine's largest trade partner with exports valued at 7.7 billion euros ($9.8 billion) in 2005. Travel is another of the issues on the Ukrainian president's card. Ukraine wants a simplified process for visas issued to its citizens and in some cases a waiver of fees, an initiative preliminarily agreed to this month.
Once cozy relations with Russia are warming again
The main subtext of the summit, however, is the future of EU-Ukraine relations.
The EU lent strong support to Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution in 2004, but since then, the country's orientation has become more uncertain as the government split, with only Yushchenko and the foreign and defense ministers appointed by him looking to the west. Most of the rest of the government -- and the majority of Ukrainians who still back Yanukovych -- do not.
The EU states have come to realize that "these people are back," Rahr said, adding that the Ukraine's pro-Russian prime minister might not be such a bad thing for the EU.
"Western leaders might feel relieved that they need not keep promises made at an emotional time," he said. "Yanukovych is better able to negotiate with Russia and takes a more pragmatic approach, something badly needed. And since he enjoys such support at home, maybe he can achieve more regarding the internal situation of the country."