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22nd Feb 2020

EU risks losing Ukraine, minister warns

Ukraine's economy will in the coming years integrate more closely with Russia than with the EU unless the union becomes more open, Ukraine's EU affairs minister has said.

"People in my leadership are extremely pragmatic. If we don't have real deliverables from contacts with the EU and we just see more and more pre-conditions, of course we will have closer business relations with countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In practical terms, our markets will become closer to Russia," Ukraine's EU affairs minister Konstantin Yeliseyev told EUobserver in a phone interview on Wednesday (28 April).

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  • The "extremely pragmatic" Mr Yanukovych (r) prefers to visit Moscow, because the trips get results (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The minister noted that the EU did not give Ukraine a roadmap for future visa-free travel as a reward for holding democratic elections in March.

He said the EU blueprint for a new Association Agreement, to be concluded by the end of the year, is designed to open Ukraine's market to EU companies while keeping the single market fenced off in a "selfish" and "asymmetric" plan.

Mr Yeliseyev added that at a "human level" it is easier for President Viktor Yanukovych to more frequently visit Moscow than Brussels because his EU trips see him coming home empty-handed.

In the first 50 days of the Yanukovych presidency, Russia has given Ukraine a $40 billion (€31 billion) discount on gas prices in return for keeping its Black Sea fleet in Crimea until 2042. It has secured Gazprom's involvement in a scheme to modernise Ukraine's gas industry and it is set to unveil on Friday a new set of joint ventures in the nuclear, oil, water, electricity, aviation and ports sectors.

Mr Yeliseyev downplayed the ideological significance of the Crimea deal, which has been depicted by Ukrainian opposition politicians and Western commentators as a sell-out to the Kremlin.

He said the $40 billion discount will help crisis-hit Kiev to put in place domestic reforms and to normalise relations with Russia - two key EU demands in recent years. He added that the Russian naval presence does not rule out Ukraine's EU membership, even though it scuppers any chances of joining Nato. The minister also said "it is out of the question" that Ukraine might join a customs union with Russia and Belarus or recognise two Russian-backed rebel regions in Georgia, both of which are red lines in terms of its EU relations.

But he attacked the EU for lacking a coherent strategy for his country.

"The EU does not know what to do with Ukraine. It has no vision for where it sees us in the next 10 years, or 20 years. It cannot clearly decide that, together with Ukraine, the EU would be more stable and more prosperous. When it finally decides this, it may be too late," he said.

"This Eastern Partnership - it's nothing, it's nothing. What can you do with €50 million a year for such a country as Ukraine?" he added, on the EU's flagship policy for relations with post-Soviet states, which includes modest financial aid.

EU officials are monitoring developments in Kiev with some concern after a vote on the Crimea deal saw fist-fights in the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday and prompted talk that the Russia-wary western half of the country may one day split off on its own.

An EU source said the Yanukovych government gave assurances to EU commissioner Stefan Fuele that it will press ahead with pro-EU reforms during his visit to Kiev earlier this month, however.

"In practical terms, it would not cost the EU anything to have a visa roadmap and an EU membership perspective in the Association Agreement. But it would seem paradoxical to reward Yanukovych for his pro-Russian policies," the contact added.

"Yanukovych's tactics resemble those of Lukashenka. He plays on both sides and he is trying to raise the stakes," the EU official said, referring to Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenka, who has in the past year secured concessions from both the EU and Russia after threatening the Kremlin that he will shift toward the West.

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