Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Kiev Seeks to Assuage Moscow

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine sought Wednesday to soothe Russia's fears about the expansion of the European Union, even as he declared in the European Parliament that his country's destiny lay with the West.

"We have chosen Europe not just geographically, but also its spiritual and moral values," Yushchenko said.

In his first address to the Parliament in Strasbourg, Yushchenko, who won power in December following a rerun of disputed elections, said Ukraine wanted to start EU accession negotiations, possibly as early as 2007, although he also conceded that the internal reforms necessary to join the EU "would not be easy."


Viktor Yushchenko (l) and Javier Solana (r)

Earlier in the day, in a move that is likely to antagonize Moscow, he signaled the probable reversal of the flow of a major Ukrainian pipeline, a step that could reduce Western Europe's reliance on Russian oil.

But in a gesture toward Moscow, he said: "Our moving toward Europe is not a problem for Russia because it will mean Russia will also move closer. We would not use our membership in the EU and NATO against Russia and its people."

European Union officials also sought to ease Russian concerns by playing down the prospect of an early entry by Ukraine into the EU.

Javier Solana, the EU's chief diplomat, warned the Ukrainian people not to expect too much from Brussels too soon. "In a very short period of time, we have done a lot together, but we have to move at a rhythm that is possible," he said after Yushchenko met with him and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in Brussels earlier Wednesday.

Solana's cooler stance reflects a split in the EU toward closer links with Ukraine.

Poland and the Baltic countries want to secure Ukraine's place in the Union, fearing delay could weaken reformers such as Yushchenko and cause Ukraine, a former Soviet state, to slip back toward Russia.

But others, such as Solana, believe Ukraine is not ready politically to join the EU. They fear eastern regions, which still have a strong allegiance to Moscow, could split away if Yushchenko leans too quickly to the West.

They also believe that the EU is not ready to accept another big country. France is among the most reluctant to countenance the prospect of Ukrainian membership. France is expected to hold a referendum on the new European constitution in the spring. Voters may reject it because they are worried that the EU, which grew from 15 to 25 countries last year, is becoming too big and unwieldy. The French government wants to avoid deepening these concerns by considering Ukraine's membership.

On Tuesday, President Jacques Chirac of France left a NATO-Ukraine meeting early, which some diplomats interpreted as a snub to Yushchenko. However, officials Wednesday insisted the departure was not meant as a gesture against Ukraine.

Yushchenko met NATO leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to push for closer ties. However, he did not apply for formal entry, and in the past has said that many Ukrainians still harbor anti-NATO fears from the Soviet period when the trans-Atlantic military alliance was vilified.

A poll published Wednesday, by the Fund for Democratic Initiatives in Ukraine, showed that 48 percent of Ukrainians rejected NATO membership, while only 15 percent were in favor. But 44 percent supported EU membership.

In Brussels and Strasbourg, Yushchenko said he wanted to improve relations with Russia. One key condition for EU membership is that Kiev not bring disputes with its neighbor into the union. "I understand it is not possible to move toward Europe," he said in Brussels, "without having good relations with Russia."

Despite Yushchenko's conciliatory remarks, his comments on the key pipeline, the Odessa-Brody, are a rebuff to Moscow.

Last year, Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko's Russian-leaning predecessor as president, ignored Western protests and reversed the pipeline's flow, so that instead of taking Caspian oil to the West it moved Russian oil to the Black Sea.

However, the Ukrainian government is now considering returning the pipeline to its original use and could extend the pipeline to Gdansk in Poland.

"We believe" the Odessa pipeline "project can be organically included in the concept of a unified energy market" in Europe, he said. "The project will allow us to explore new fields and new markets."

The move would reduce Ukrainian and Western European dependence on Russian oil. This would ease some fears about the EU's rising dependence on Russia for its energy needs at a time when Europeans and the United States are worried about the decision by the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, to roll back democratic reforms and crack down on dissent.

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