Ukraine's EU Neighbours Push To Give It Visa-Free Plan

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union's eastern members on Monday pushed for the bloc to offer Ukraine a plan leading to visa-free access to Europe in a bid to strengthen ties with the new administration of president-elect Viktor Yanukovych.

The Schengen zone - travel without borders.

Yanukovych is seen in Europe as a more pro-Russian and less pro-Western leader than his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, making the EU keen to cement ties with him at an early stage.

"We have to look first at President Yanukovych's foreign-policy priorities ... Visa liberalization is one of the issues which from my point of view is important," Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins said as he arrived for a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said that the EU "should strengthen those in Ukraine who wish to become more European by offering Ukraine a road map towards a visa-free regime."

Ukrainian citizens enjoyed visa-free travel to EU states such as Poland until 2007. But the EU's new members then joined the bloc's Schengen zone which abolished all passport controls between EU states - and therefore obliged them to introduce visa regimes for their non-EU neighbours.

That move was deeply resented in Ukraine.

Sikorski stressed that any visa-liberalization plan would come with strict conditions attached.

"A road map is not a guarantee. A road map only says that if you follow the road, you will arrive at the destination, but if you stop on the road you won't," he said.

Riekstins stressed that "the Ukrainians have a way to go on internal reforms" before they can hope for free travel to the EU.

Other ministers arriving at the meeting did not comment directly on the proposal.

But Germany's deputy foreign minister, Werner Hoyer, said that Europe "needs Ukraine as a reliable partner" and that ministers must debate "how we can actively support Ukraine in its reform process."

A number of EU commentators in recent days have said that they would welcome Yanukovych's inauguration if he proved predictable and effective.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, an EU diplomat said, "If the election of Yanukovych gives clarity, stability and a leadership with whom we can have a clear relationship, so much the better."

Yanukovych is expected to visit Brussels later this month.

Source: DPA