Knocking On A Closed Door

YALTA, Crimea -- Ukraine is keen to join the EU, but existing members are less than excited at the prospect.

Aleksander Kwasniewski

Passing under an ornate marble arch and into the Livadia Palace, high on a hill above the Black Sea resort of Yalta, a hush descends. No explanation is needed as visitors brush past the large round table where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill carved up Europe in the last months of the second world war.

The simple table, decorated with the flags of Britain, the US and the former USSR, provokes powerful emotions for Poles whose country was thrown behind the iron curtain when Stalin staked his claim to his neighbour with the chilling declaration: "Throughout history, Poland has been the corridor through which the enemy has passed into Russia. Poland is a question of life and death for Russia."

Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland who first visited the Livadia Palace in the 1980s when he served as a communist minister in Warsaw, highlighted the emotions Poles feel when he recently made a return visit.

"We were victims of the treaty signed in this palace. When I was first here, this table and these chairs were much bigger. Today, the table is not big and the chairs are modest. This is a sign that the Yalta treaty does not exist anymore. Europe is not divided, but now we have new challenges."

Mr Kwasniewski was speaking at a conference where leading political figures from across Europe contemplated the ultimate trashing of the legacy of the Yalta treaty: charting a course to admit the very soil where the iron curtain was created into the European family.

The world's worst butcher will probably be turning in his grave at the news that a cross-border group, the Yalta European Strategy (YES), wants to admit Ukraine, the bread basket of the Soviet Union, into the European Union. (Stalin has his nemesis to blame for this. Nikita Khrushchev handed Crimea, then part of Russia, to Ukraine in 1955.)

At its annual conference in Yalta this month, YES outlined a timetable that would see Ukraine join the EU by 2020. This is an ambitious aim that would be launched with a formal application when Poland holds the union's rotating presidency in 2011.

Mr Kwasniewski, who was instrumental in admitting Ukraine's neighbour, Poland, into the EU in 2004, threw his weight behind this goal when he told the conference: "My deepest conviction is that Ukraine should occupy a place in European institutions. You cannot talk about an integrated Europe in the 21st century without Ukraine. It has a place in the European family."

Ukraine has every right to expect a place in the EU. As the largest country by land mass in Europe, Ukraine has the right under the union's founding rules to be considered for membership.

But Ukraine will be lucky if it makes it in this generation, or the next, as a series of factors conspire against the country of nearly 47 million people. In the first place, Ukraine appears ungovernable as the orange revolution collapses into a rather pathetic mess.

Victor Yushchenko, whose victory in 2004 over forces who appeared to think that life revolved around awaiting the next set of instructions from Moscow, pulled out of the conference as he struggled to cobble together a new government. Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party may now have to share power with Moscow favourite Viktor Yanukovich.

The dismal petty back-biting of Ukrainian politics was highlighted by a cross-party group of politicians who bickered at the conference and offered no vision for their country.

Mr Kwasniewski told the conference: "I am a bit afraid. The political leaders are so engaged in this small place - the tactical place of parliament - that they are forgetting about Ukraine."

This is not lost on European leaders who are growing tired of an ever-enlarging EU and who are wary of upsetting Vladimir Putin. "Russia still sees Ukraine as part of an integrated space organised by Russia," Mr Kwasniewski said. "That is not just a political strategy. It is also part of history. Ukraine is not a neighbour, it is a part of the family."

Germany, which takes over the EU's rotating presidency in January, believes it has struck on the right formula to keep alive Ukraine's membership hopes while ensuring that nothing happens overnight.

Berlin is planning to rewrite the European neighbourhood policy for countries whose membership hopes are distant or impossible. Germany will reach out to Ukraine, which could join, by separating it from countries, such as Algeria, which could never join because they are not in Europe.

But Ukraine appears to be stuck in an awkward place. It is keen to join the EU, while there is little appetite for this in Brussels. The one institution in the west that appears to be keen to admit Kiev -- Nato -- is hugely unpopular in Ukraine.

Some Ukrainians appear to be realistic about their chances. Victor Pinchuk, one of the country's richest men who is the driving force behind the YES group, admits that membership is a long way off. "I am not sure that in 10 to 15 years Ukraine will be a member of the EU," he said. "But we need these reforms: democracy, a market economy and the rule of law."

His intervention is highly significant: Mr Pinchuk is the son-in-law of Leonid Kuchma, the former Ukrainian president whose authoritarian rule fuelled the orange revolution.

In Mr Kuchma's last days in office, Mr Pinchuk bought the giant Kryvorizhstal steel mill for a bargain €670m, to the outrage of the Orange revolutionaries. The state bought it back and later sold the mill for its true market price of €4bn to the Mittal group.

Mr Pinchuk gave Mr Kuchma pride of place in the conference's front row, but he would be wise to retire his father-in-law before next year's conference. Promoting a former authoritarian leader, with a questionable record on human rights, may not be the best way to impress the EU.

Source: Guardian Unlimited