• Linkevicius: 'Clear messages do not create a confrontational atmosphere, but on the contrary, they create better relations' (Photo: eu2013.lt)

Interview

Ukraine accession promise would help EU-Russia relations

13.02.14 @ 18:25

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Russia would be more constructive on Ukraine if the EU gave it a clear enlargement perspective, Lithuania’s foreign minister has said.

Drawing on his experience as Lithuania’s defence chief in the period before the Baltic country joined Nato in 2004, Linas Linkevicius said Russia’s big men used to ignore him until, in 2002, Nato said it can one day join.

“It was not said as a declaration of war. It was just a clear message,” he told EUobserver in an interview.

“Before 2002, we used to invite Russian military officers, ministers, to meetings and they treated us like we didn’t exist. But afterward, I invited the Russian defence minister at the time, Sergei Ivanov, and he came and discussed the issues without dramatising the situation. It was a lesson to me that clear messages do not create a confrontational atmosphere, but on the contrary, they create better relations,” he said.

EU countries this week declared that their offer of an association treaty with Ukraine “does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine co-operation.”

But Linkevicius described the words as “deliberate ambiguity” on Ukraine’s accession prospects, which reflects divisions between EU capitals: “It’s as far as we can go jointly at this point.”

He noted that in the current situation Russia feels free to play geopolitical games in Ukraine: “If we are not willing to give a clear message, this will be taken as a signal that we are not united and that we don’t know what to do, and that opens the field for maneuvers.”

He added the EU is playing “soccer,” while Russia is “playing something else - rugby, or wrestling.”

The EU has also offered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a financial bailout, with the help of the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in return for pro-democratic reforms. It has hinted it will impose targeted sanctions if he uses force.

EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele was the latest in a line of envoys to deliver the message in Kiev on Thursday (13 February).

But regime-opposition talks remain at a standstill, while arrests of activists continue in a situation which, in the worst case scenario, could spiral into civil conflict and split Ukraine into two or three parts.

Linkevicius gave an insight into why diplomats from former Iron Curtain EU states care deeply about the outcome.

He noted that when he visited Kiev in December, the protest camp looked like protest camps in Soviet-occupied Lithuania at the end of the Cold War. “It reminded me of January 1989 in Vilnius, even the smell of the fires, because it was also winter, and the smell of the fires was just the same,” he said.

The minister, a few days ago, spent two hours talking to Dmytro Bulatov, a Ukrainian opposition activist who came to Lithuania for medical treatment after being tortured by unknown assailants.

Linkevicius noted that Bulatov did not call for punitive measures or for Yanukovych to go.

Solidarity

“He just said he wants to live in a free country and he stressed that people are using peaceful methods. He said he respects very much our solidarity and that we are trying to help.”

With Lithuania sometimes portrayed as a hawk that wants the EU to punish Yanukovych, the minister added that Belarus-type sanctions should be “a last resort.”

But he said EU states have a legal and moral obligation to help bring to justice to torturers and killers in Ukraine and to seize corrupt money in their banks.

Six opposition activists have been murdered since the troubles began, while another 36 have vanished.

Meanwhile, it is an open secret that regime members, such as former PM Mykola Azarov, or Yanukovych’s chief-of-staff, Andriy Kluyev, have amassed wealth in Austria, the Netherlands, and the UK.

For its part, the Council of Europe (CoE), a human rights watchdog in Strasbourg, is to create a panel to oversee investigations by Ukrainian authorities into the acts of violence.

The body, to be chaired by Nicolas Bratza, a former head of the European Court of Human Rights, a part of the CoE, is ready to go as soon as Yanukovych gives the green light. But if the exercise fails, the CoE expects victims, or families of victims, to bring cases to the court itself.

Accountability

“I trust Bulatov’s story. These things are really happening in 21st century Europe, but not a single person has been held accountable,” Linkevicius said.

“It’s hard to say who is behind it. But it must be investigated. The people accused of these violations cannot live in an atmopshere of impunity, which is prevailing today.”

He noted that Lithuania itself has launched an anti-money-laundering probe to disclose any illegitimate Ukrainian assets.

He declined to name and shame other EU countries. But he added: “When it comes to banks, it is the legal duty of banks to examine the roots of the assets of their clients. It doesn’t need any [EU] policy intervention. The directives and other regulation already exist. It’s business as usual, or it should be.”