Snubbed By EU, Ukraine Edges Toward Russia

SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia -- Ukraine agreed on Wednesday to take a closer look at joining a Russian-led customs union after getting snubbed by the EU over its jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin

The surprise announcement came a day after Russia’s Vladimir Putin unveiled a new free trade zone for the former communist bloc — a major step toward his dream of grouping ex-Soviet states into a so-called Eurasian Union.

Russia’s current prime minister and likely future president met with his counterpart from Ukraine as ties between Kiev and Brussels began to unravel ahead of the planned signature of a key cooperation pact in December.

The EU had on Tuesday humilitated Kiev by postponing a scheduled summit with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych over the jailing of his leading foe Tymoshenko.

Ukraine said a few hours later it was joining a free trade zone for the 11 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and on Wednesday added it would take a closer look at the benefits of joining the Russia-led Customs Union that already groups Kazakhstan and Belarus.

“I have given an order to the economics ministry to look at the technical regulations from the point of view of us possibly joining them,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said.

Putin immediately hailed the decision as “a very important step” and wished Ukraine “the best of luck.”

“In my opinion, economic interests, a pragmatic view of things cannot but force our Ukrainian colleagues to at the very least show an interest in this group,” Putin told reporters after a full day of talks.

“It is a question of economic advantage. You have to sit down, count, weigh things up and get rid of various political phobias of the past and look into the future,” said Putin.

The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan — rocked by bloody ethnic riots last year — said it also wanted to quickly join the bloc.

Azarov had earlier said it was only “a matter of days” before Moscow and Kiev resolved their disagreement over energy prices — one of the main sticking points in their current ties.

Rapprochement in ties comes after Putin made a surprise announcement Tuesday that Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics in the 11-nation CIS had agreed to set up a free trade zone.

Putin said Wednesday the free trade zone would exclude trade of energy and metals.

The free trade zone and customs bloc projects would bring the former KGB agent closer to his dream of creating a “Eurasian Union” — the first foreign policy initiative Putin offered since announcing plans last month to take President Dmitry Medvedev’s job after March presidential polls.

Putin stressed that the countries were joining the free trade zone “on their own volition” and said it “significantly changes the configuration of economic and trade relations in the post-Soviet space.”

Ukraine had been pushing for closer EU integration until the two sides’ relations stalled over Yanukovych’s refusal to release Tymoshenko. The Ukrainian leader has said he would be breaking the law if he did.

A government source in Kiev was quoted as saying Wednesday that Yanukovych was “irritated by how he was being treated in Brussels” and was now slowly starting to drift closer to Russia.

“Europe will not help us, and we need points of agreement with Russia right away,” the official in Kiev told the Russian broadsheet Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The respected Kommersant daily for its part said news of the EU cancelling Yanukovych’s visit was greeted with excitement on the Russian government plane flying into Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.

“Yanukovych will not release Tymoshenko because he knows that his supporters will jump ship at that point,” the daily quoted a senior Russian diplomat as saying.

“And the EU will not compromise on its principles. So Yanukovych will come to us,” the unidentified Russian official was quoted as saying.

Source: AFP