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LEFT TURN: Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich turns his back on the EU in favor of Russia.
VILNIUS - Ukraine’s surprise decision earlier this month to pull back from negotiations leading to the signing of a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, and instead turn toward Russia, leaves a big cloud hanging over this week’s Vilnius Summit. The signing was supposed to be the main event, capping one of Lithuania’s key initiatives in its Presidency of the EU Council.
Reactions were swift in the West. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said that “If the position of the Ukrainian government about not signing the association agreement with the European Union stays in force, it will prove to be a strategically poor choice for the country,” reports LETA.
“The natural interest of both the EU and Ukraine should be to forge closer relations and the association agreement and free trade are reasonable and logical developments in this respect. Thus I hope that Ukraine won’t turn off that road completely and that the association agreement can be concluded some time later,” Paet told Public Broadcasting’s news portal.
Salvaging the summit
Paet said that the Eastern Partnership Vilnius Summit won’t be less important if Ukraine postpones signing the agreement. “Approving the association agreement and free trade with Moldova and Georgia is also important. These states coming nearer to the EU is also very important,” said Paet.
Ukraine abruptly spurned an historic new alliance with its EU neighbors on Nov. 21, suspending an imminent trade pact with the European Union and saying it would revive talks on a deal instead with Russia, its old Soviet master, reported Reuters.
Kiev’s sudden eastward pivot was a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once described the Soviet Union’s demise as the tragedy of the century.
European officials were dismayed. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a veteran of east-west diplomacy, tweeted: “Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin. Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”
Ukraine had been due to sign a wide-ranging trade and cooperation agreement with the EU on Nov. 29 which would have tugged it westwards and away from Russia’s sphere of influence. Brussels said the deal would have boosted investment in the cash-strapped country of 46 million people.
Earlier, EU officials said President Viktor Yanukovich had cited fears of losing massive trade with Russia when he told an EU envoy that he could not agree on terms.
Ukraine is the most populous of the states that escaped Moscow’s orbit when the Soviet Union collapsed, and is closely bound to Russia historically and culturally. During its two decades of independence it has often been bitterly polarized between those who see its future with the West and those who look to Moscow.
Luring it westward has been a strategic objective for the EU, to tear down the last remnants of the old Iron Curtain.
There is still hope
MP Audronius Azubalis calls on Lithuanian politicians to refrain from preliminary assessments and comments that could jeopardize the outcome expected from the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. “We must be patient, focused and we should not hurry to cast Ukraine aside in advance. Let us be happy about the fundamental changes taking place in recent years in the Ukrainian society, which shows increasingly more determination in support for the European direction of the country,” said Azubalis, referring to its decision.
According to MP, no matter how the Vilnius Summit ends, processes observed recently in the Eastern Partnership countries lead to two conclusions. “First, democratic transformation surely is taking place, though its speed and degree of success varies depending on the country. And this is the outcome of the EU policy. Second, this policy must be continued, sparing no time and money,” said Azubalis.
According to Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to President Dalia Grybauskaite Jovita Neliupsiene, Ukraine’s decision demonstrated that Ukraine did not resist Russia’s economic pressure and blackmailing.
“Ukraine has not resisted Russia’s economic pressure or blackmailing and Ukraine was threatened by the restriction on imports to Russia, especially by companies located in eastern Ukraine (..) and associated with Russian production,” said Neliupsiene on Nov. 22.
A major part of the country’s industry is concentrated in the eastern part of Ukraine. The suspension of imports to Russia would cause losses reaching billions.
Ukraine’s parliament also refused to pass legislation that would free jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the freeing of which the West has made a central part of any agreement.
Train keeps rolling
Ambassador of Ukraine to Lithuania Valerii Zhovtenko remains an optimist. According to him, the fact that Ukraine most probably will not sign the Association Agreement will not change the relationship between Ukraine and Lithuania. The ambassador said the fact that Vilnius has become a temporary center of Ukrainian culture with the opening of the Ukrainian Town in Vilnius shows that the future may be seen with optimism.
“The train of Ukraine cannot be stopped. If any problems arise, we will deal with them,” said Zhovtenko on Nov. 23.
The ambassador ensured that he will participate in the Eastern Partnership Summit on Nov. 28-29.
“I have many meetings scheduled and will participate in the Summit. (...) Those who solve political issues may be divided into pessimists and optimists. I am an optimist. (...) We must seek and do what is best for Ukraine, regardless of who is in power,” said the ambassador.
Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets last Friday to protest the decision and demand that the government sign the agreement with the EU. Through her lawyer, Tymoshenko also encouraged people to protest. She said that she was ready to ask Brussels not to demand to free her if this convinced President Yanukovich to sign the agreement. However, the EU has not yet reacted to this proposal.