Ukraine’s EU ‘U-turn’ dominates East Europe talks
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Ukraine’s decision to scrap a planned trade agreement with the European Union following pressure from Moscow has darkened the mood as a summit between EU and Eastern European leaders gets under way Thursday in Vilnius.
The Eastern Partnership Summit between EU and Eastern European leaders starts Thursday in Vilnius in the shadow of Ukraine’s decision to scrap a key trade deal with the EU following pressure from Moscow.
The European Union’s Eastern Partnership is a diplomatic initiative launched in 2009 to develop cooperation with six countries close to the borders of the enlarged EU: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The partnership is largely an economic one and its most advanced expression to date is preparations for tariff agreements intended to bring the countries into a common free-trade zone with the EU. This aspect is clashing with Russia’s plans for a customs union including several former soviet republics.
But the Eastern Partnership also includes governance and human rights provisions, which led to controversial EU demands to have the detention regime of Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko relaxed.
The Eastern Partnership stops short of offering the six countries prospects for EU membership.
Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has nonetheless said that he will attend the meeting.
“Yanukovych said that he wanted to come and explain himself to his European counterparts, but the real reason is that the negotiations here in Vilnius are still going on right up until the last minute,” said FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg in the Lithuanian capital.
While the Ukrainian government has admitted to pulling out of the deal with the EU after pressure from Russia, diplomats were still discussing possible concessions on Wednesday.
On the fourth day of mass pro-European street protests in Kiev, the Ukrainian prime minister said his government still wanted to strike an agreement with the EU.
“The document is physically on the table here in Vilnius,” Cragg said. “But Yanukovych’s main purpose here will be to convince the EU to have three-way talks with Russia.”
He added that European officials were divided on the prospect of negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government over their competing spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.
Trade and energy dependence on Russia
From Moscow, Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker told FRANCE 24 that a deal with Ukraine was unlikely this week but that this may be only a temporary delay.
“Eventually they do want European integration, but it’s just not the right economic decision for them right now,” he said.
Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia for trade and energy supplies, and the EU’s offer
appears to have been insufficient to counter Moscow’s threats of commercial retaliation.
Although Ukraine is the largest and most visible of the six countries engaged in the much-lauded EU Eastern partnership, Walker said it was not the first time Europe’s efforts to develop ties in the region have been thwarted by Russia.
“Armenia was another country – all the paperwork was ready to sign on the dotted line. A couple of months ago Vladimir Putin travelled there and the next day, Armenia announced it wasn’t joining this EU partnership – that it was in fact joining Russia’s EU-style Customs Union,” he said.
Walker and Cragg both argue that the European Union’s image and diplomatic clout have suffered in the Ukrainian rapprochement fiasco – at least in the short term.
Russia’s deputy prime minister has already warned that it will apply pressure to these countries as well.
“We can expect commercial weapons to be used against Moldova and Georgia, perhaps in the form of gas supplies to Georgia being reduced and migrant workers finding it more difficult to get a job in Russia,” FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Armen Georgian said.
Georgian added that Moscow has already been influencing the situation in the pro-Russian region of Transnistria in Moldova to force its agenda.