EU hits out at Russia in East-West tussle for Ukraine

Published November 29, 2013
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (C) stands during a family picture at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in this picture provided by eu2013.lt.  -Reuters Photo
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (C) stands during a family picture at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in this picture provided by eu2013.lt. -Reuters Photo

VILNIUS: European Union leaders hit out at Russia at a summit Friday after Ukraine refused to sign a landmark accord, dealing a blow to EU plans to draw ex-Soviet states into the Western fold.

The snub by jewel-in-the-crown Ukraine highlighted a worsening EU-Russia tug-of-war over former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe.

“The times of limited sovereignty are over in Europe,” Barroso said after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned a deaf ear to pleas from the bloc's 28 leaders to strike the far-reaching trade and political deal, claiming economic pressure from Moscow.

“We cannot accept... to have a kind of a possible veto of a third country,” Barroso added.

The two-day summit held in the Lithuanian capital on the EU's eastern flank was to have celebrated a five-year drive to cement ties between the bloc and Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But days before the summit Yanukovych pulled out of the signature of the accord that was to have been the event's crowning moment.

The EU “door will always remain open for Ukrainians should they wish it,” said French President Francois Hollande.

Georgia and Moldova meanwhile initialled political and trade agreements that will still need to be officially signed to come into effect, hopefully within the next year.

“We hope that sooner or later Ukraine will be ready,” said EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy said.

“We will not give in to external pressure, not the least from Russia.”

Van Rompuy meanwhile hailed the “determination, courage and political will” of Georgia and Moldova amid worries they too like Ukraine will come under Russian pressure to eventually pull back from the EU deals.

“Russia has already begun to increase pressure on these states as well,” said global think-tank Stratfor.

Yanukovych meanwhile requested extra EU funds to help the nation's struggling economy and demanded three-way talks between the EU, Russia and Ukraine on trade, an idea bluntly rejected by Brussels.

As one EU official put it this week “it would be like inviting China to the table at talks to agree an EU-US free trade deal”.

Yanukovych also said he hoped to sign the historic pact “in the near future”, which could mean as soon as February or March at an EU-Ukraine summit.

“For us, the European choice remains a strategic direction of Ukraine's further... development.”

Kiev's surprise decision to scrap the landmark accord with the EU has unleashed a war of words between East and West recalling Cold War days and sparked some of the biggest protests seen in Ukraine in a decade.

As pro-EU Ukrainians took to the streets demanding Yanukovych side with the West and turn away from traditional master Moscow, even his arch-foe, jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, said she would rather stay behind bars than see the country go East.

Tymoshenko's daughter Eugenia had told AFP that if Yanukovych “fails to sign the agreement... we cannot predict how people will react”.

Keen to show Moscow's former communist satellites in Eastern Europe that the summit matters, almost all EU leaders attended the two-day talks, including the “Big Three” of Britain, France and Germany.

The accent is on the future, they argue, rather than the past.

“We should overcome the mentality 'either us or them.' The Cold War is over,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, admonishing Russian President Vladimir Putin to look at the wider picture.

“It is our task in the future to talk even more with Russia about how we can overcome a situation where it is either being tied closer to Russia or being tied closer to the EU,” Merkel added on Friday.

The EU's Eastern Partnership project aims to strike trade and aid deals on its eastern periphery and counter Russian influence, but vast Ukraine, with its 45 million people, industry and farms, was the major prize.

To make matters worse, Brussels has seen Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus turn back towards a Moscow which has reminded all of how much they stand to lose if they make what it sees as the wrong choice.

Brussels says that after months of arm-twisting by Moscow, Ukraine's exports to Russia dropped 25 per cent, in some industries by 40 per cent. Ukraine is also heavily dependent on Russia's natural gas.

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