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15th Apr 2024

EU and Ukraine inch closer together

Ukraine and the EU are moving ahead on a free trade and visa agreement, but the deeper integration goals of joining NATO and the EU remain distant prospects as the west comes to terms with the new man in Kiev, Russia-friendly prime minister Viktor Yanukovych.

"As soon as there's agreement for Ukraine to join the WTO [World Trade Organisation] we are ready to go further for a free trade agreement with Ukraine," European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said, while meeting Mr Yanukovych in Brussels on Tuesday (27 March).

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"We are doing everything we can for the visa facilitation and readmission agreement to be concluded and enter into force by the end of the year," the commission boss added, in a move that will roll back the doubling of Schengen visa prices for Ukrainians in March to some €65 per visit.

Mr Yanukovych - a former hardman in the pre-Orange Revolution regime who returned to power in free elections last year - has attracted interest in Brussels and Washington by bringing more stable energy relations with Russia while pressing ahead with pro-EU economic reforms.

EU officials and Ukrainian diplomats expect Ukraine to join the WTO in Spring or Summer - before Russia. The WTO entry would allow the EU and Ukraine to sign a "deep" free trade agreement down the line, which would remodel Ukraine's economy along EU lines.

The visa deal is also key in terms of EU relations at a popular level - most Ukrainians live on less than €200 a month and they can now get EU visas from just one commercial company in Kiev. Earlier this month, the Belgian government declined visas for 45 Ukraine experts due to attend an MEP's gathering.

"We realise very well these considerable steps between Ukraine and the EU will bring us closer in the future to our strategic goal of joining the EU," Mr Yanukovych said. Later, while meeting EU top diplomat Javier Solana, he squeezed his elbow like an old friend amid a chat on visas, and spoke of frequent telephone contact.

In foreign policy terms, Mr Yanukovych also gave Brussels political promises he will extend the mandate of the EU's border-monitoring team in Moldova, which has been a pain in the neck to pro-Russian rebels in the Moldovan region of Transdniestria since it started work.

Drawing the line at NATO

But the steely-eyed Ukrainian, whose Party of the Regions to an extent represents the old Ukraine of oligarchs and the Russophone, anti-NATO part of Ukrainian society in the east, showed the limits of his pro-western feeling when reacting to news the US Congress had approved Ukraine's future NATO membership.

"Nowadays Ukraine is not ready for accession. The level of public support is about 20 percent and the decision on NATO will be taken by a national referendum," he said, adding "no dates" were ever mentioned in a deal he made on foreign policy with Ukraine's pro-NATO president Viktor Yushchenko last year.

When Mr Yanukovych's political rivals come to Brussels, they paint him as a danger to the country's pro-EU path. "Let's see this process [Yanukovych's return to power] not as a tragic one but as a test," Mr Yushchenko said on 8 March. Last November, ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko called Yanukovych "Kuchma-lite," referring to Leonid Kuchma, the repressive, pre-Orange Revolution president.

But in Brussels and even in some of the Russia-wary capitals of the EU's new member states, Mr Yanukovych has earned himself the reputation of a "pragmatist" and a cool-headed professional, who fits the EU's current agenda of bringing Ukraine closer without any promise of enlargement.

"He is, I think, someone who's different than when he was prime minister in 2004," senior US diplomat David Kramer told EUobserver two weeks back. "It is extremely important for Ukraine to have close, vibrant relations with Russia...we approach him with our eyes wide open and with a view to helping Ukraine."

"Let's stop talking about Russia and Ukraine as if it was still the old Soviet Union - those days are gone now," a Ukrainian diplomat said.

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