EU-Ukraine Summit Europe to Offer Kiev Cautious Encouragement

The European Union is set to offer Ukraine closer ties on Tuesday but will stop short of any explicit pledge on future membership. While the EU is cautious about antagonizing Moscow, the ongoing political instability in Kiev is also a factor.

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko will be in Paris on Tuesday for talks with the EU.

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko will be in Paris on Tuesday for talks with the EU.

The European Union would like to forge closer ties with Ukraine. Eventually. But the the country's seemingly semi-permanent state of political crisis is making things difficult.

Add to that a lack of appetite for further straining relations with Russia and it is unlikely the EU-Ukraine summit on Tuesday in Paris will end with any explicit pledge of future membership for Kiev.

Ukraine, a huge country of 46 million and a key energy transit route, is regarded as crucial to the EU's long-term security and energy strategy. At the same time, Moscow still regards the former Soviet Republic -- which has a sizeable Russian population -- as within its sphere of influence. The fact that Russia bases its Black Sea naval fleet on the Crimean port of Sevastapol makes Ukraine all the more important to its strategic interests. Moscow is already furious that NATO held out the prospect of eventual membership to both Ukraine and Georgia. Added to the mix is the fact that much of Europe is dependent on Russian energy supplies.

All of these factors will be at play on Tuesday when the leaders of the 27 EU member states meet with representatives from Ukraine in Paris. The bloc is likely to offer an "association agreement" which would hold out the prospect of gradually forging closer ties. A draft text seen by Reuters acknowledges Ukraine's European aspirations and adds that the "gradual convergence of Ukraine with the EU in political, economic and legal areas will contribute to further progress in EU-Ukraine relations." The leaders will also discuss an eventual visa-free regime. However, any explicit statement on future membership was blocked by the Benelux countries, with the support of Germany and Italy, not least to avoid provoking Moscow.

After all, it was only on Monday that French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, led an EU delegation to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on the issue of Georgia. After fraught negotiations the Russian president eventually agreed to set a deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Georgia proper. The Russian military presence has continued a month after a short war with Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Moscow's subsequent recognition of the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia infuriated the West.

Russia's war with Georgia was ostensibly the trigger for the current political crisis in Ukraine. Last week the ruling coalition, made up of the former allies from the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, broke up in bitter acrimony after President Viktor Yushchenko accused Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of failing to condemn Russia's actions in Georgia enough.

The political brawl has, however, been brewing for months, as the two politicians, both likely to contest the 2010 presidential elections, have been locked in an ongoing power struggle. Last week Yushchenko's party pulled out of the government after accusing Tymoshenko of having deliberately refrained from criticizing Moscow in exchange for the Kremlin's support in her bid for the presidency. The political mess in Kiev hit a new low on Monday when the prime minister announced that she had been summoned by prosecutors to answer accusations of high treason and of involvement in the unsolved poisoning of Yushchenko in 2004.

Such instability is hardly ideal as Ukraine heads into talks with the EU. While the resolutely pro-Western Yushchenko has pushed strongly for closer ties with the EU and with NATO, the country's large Russian-speaking minority, particularly in the autonomous Crimea, want deeper relations with Moscow.

Kiev's ambassador to Moscow Konstyantyn Gryshchenko said in Brussels on Monday that Ukraine has no option but to join the EU eventually. "We are a European country, our place is in Europe," he said.

However the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, while praising the progress of bilateral relations with Ukraine, said that the bloc had "reservations as far as the political situation is concerned. This needs to stabilize. Parliamentary life has to normalize."

Amanda Akçakoca, an expert with the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, told Deutsche Welle Radio that she thought that "fear of Russia" was the main reason that the EU was avoiding closer ties with Kiev: "Giving Ukraine the prospect of joining the EU, bringing the country closer to the West, does not exactly endear it to Moscow."

smd -- with wire reports


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