EU Grapples With Disappointment Over Ukraine

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Undoubtedly, it was an uncomfortable moment. President Viktor F. Yanukovich of Ukraine, who last week ditched plans to sign far-reaching political and trade agreements with the European Union, found himself confronted last night by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the host of the summit meeting here, President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania.

Yanukovich (L), Merkel (C) and Grybauskaite

Ms. Merkel, holding a glass of white wine, stood in front of Mr. Yanukovich, a beefy man who is at least a head taller than her.

“We see you here,” Ms. Merkel, said, nodding her head with a disapproving shrug.

“But we expected more.”

Next to her, Ms. Grybauskaite nodded in assent.

Mr. Yanukovich had nowhere to turn.

The scene, captured on a video released by Ms. Grybauskaite’s office, summed up the European Union’s Eastern Partnership conference here — an event that officials had hoped would mark a giant westward step by Ukraine toward European integration.

Instead, leaders had to settle for preliminary agreements with Moldova and Georgia, and were left grappling with how best to deal with a challenge from Russia, which pressured Ukraine to drop the accords.

Mr. Yanukovich, who has called for new negotiations with Russia and the European Union, had little to say beyond what was already well known.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard,” he is heard saying on the video.

“And we have big difficulties with Moscow.”

Ukraine, a nation of 46 million people that borders on four European Union states – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – faces an increasingly grave economic crisis and is in desperate need of a financial aid package.

Officials here said that Mr. Yanukovich had reiterated his request for assistance in a meeting on Thursday with the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy.

The request suggested that Mr. Yanukovich had received no guarantee of economic assistance from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

While some European leaders are calling for additional aid to Ukraine, it is not clear that the International Monetary Fund, which has been in negotiations with Mr. Yanukovich’s government for months, will ease the requirements that it has set for a large loan deal.

Those requirements include a number of painful austerity steps, including an increase in public utility rates.

While officials expressed excitement over the steady progress of Moldova and Georgia, and their initialing of preliminary agreements that keep them on track toward European integration, the disappointment over Ukraine was palpable.

There was less visible regret over a similar decision by Armenia in September, also made under pressure from Russia, to give up its plans for signing agreements with Europe.

“With Ukraine, look, we are very, very clear that we want to have a strong relationship with Ukraine,” Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said, with a note of exasperation in her voice, as she arrived for talks at the summit meeting on Friday morning.

“We believe that, particularly on economic issues, there is much to be done together to the benefit of the people of Ukraine and to the benefit of the European Union – and to do that in a way that is complementary to any other relationship they would wish to have,” Ms. Ashton said.

“We absolutely appreciate that.” 

She added, “The European Union’s door is open.”

President Grybauskaite announced Friday morning that there had been no change of heart by Mr. Yanukovich, and said she believed that it was a mistake.

Asked if she was disappointed, Ms. Grybauskaite replied, “I think that the Ukrainian people are disappointed. It’s not about Europe to be disappointed. I think today’s Ukrainian leadership chose a way which is going nowhere.”

Street protests in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and other cities, which began after Mr. Yanukovich’s government announced its decision last week, continued on Friday. 

Many supporters of European integration in Ukraine had been hoping for a last-minute surprise.

They were hoping that perhaps Mr. Yanukovich was simply seeking to increase his leverage, either to gain more favorable financial aid terms or to avoid some preconditions set by Europe, which included the release of his rival, the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko.

In a briefing for German journalists on Friday morning as the summit drew to a close, Ms. Merkel said that she was thinking of Ms. Tymoshenko, as well as of the people in Ukraine and in Belarus, who she said were living under difficult conditions.

The initialing of preliminary agreements with Georgia and Moldova bring those countries to a point that Ukraine reached in March 2012, raising the possibility of further efforts by Russia to prevent the accords from ultimately being signed. 

Moldova had already come under substantial pressure from Moscow, including a ban on Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports, and threats of an immigration crackdown that could expel more than 100,000 Moldovan citizens living and working in Russia.

Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, has been less vulnerable, in part because its relations with the Kremlin have been bad since then.

Source: The New York Times