Europe’s hopes of anchoring Ukraine in the west through a bilateral pact lay in tatters yesterday after Kiev halted talks with the EU days before the agreement was to be signed and announced overtures to its traditional ally, Russia.
The agreement, a sweeping deal six years in the making that would have liberalised trade and required Kiev to incorporate EU law into its domestic legal code, was seen by many EU leaders as the critical step in a decades-long effort to spread democratic values further into the former Soviet bloc.
European officials blamed an eleventh hour intervention by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, for turning his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovich, against the deal. It had been due to be signed next week in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, another former Soviet republic that has joined the EU.
“Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin,” Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt tweeted. “Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”
The Ukrainian government said it would “suspend the process” of concluding the deal. It ordered a new “active dialogue” to revive soured trade relations with Russia, focusing on a customs union that the Kremlin is pushing as an alternative.
But EU and Ukrainian officials insisted that the pact was not dead. The resolution did not declare an end of talks, instead suggesting the creation of a “tripartite commission” between Brussels, Kiev and Moscow to work out differences.
Mr Yanukovich vowed to “continue the path of integration” with Europe. “The Ukrainians have not pulled the plug,” said a senior EU official. “They’re not giving up, that’s not what they’re saying. We’re not giving up, either.”
Mr Putin said he supported Mr Yanukovich’s “commission” and that he was “not opposed” to Ukraine signing the EU deal. “We are not against Ukraine’s sovereign choice,” Mr Putin said. “If we heard that Ukraine was joining Nato, then we would really be against it.”
The EU and Ukraine face a hurdle in the form of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose release many European leaders have made a condition for the pact. The Ukrainian parliament yesterday rejected legislation to allow her to seek medical treatment in Germany.