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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 23, 2005

23 February 2005, Volume 7, Number 8
MOSCOW STEPS IN TO CHECK KYIV'S EUROPEAN DRIVE. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kyiv on 21 February to remind the new, pro-Western government of President Viktor Yushchenko that it has some important obligations in the "eastern direction" left to it by its predecessor.

In September 2003, then-President Leonid Kuchma signed an accord on the CIS Single Economic Space uniting Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan

"Under the present conditions, when the European markets are closed for us,... it's better to have a real bird in the hand than two in the bush," Kuchma commented at that time. But the situation has since changed.

The same day that Lavrov was visiting Kyiv, Ukraine and the EU signed a three-year Action Plan envisaging EU support for Kyiv's bid to obtain market economy status in the coming months, to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU. Moreover, President Yushchenko was to leave the same day for Brussels to take part in a Ukraine-NATO Commission session, where he reiterated Ukraine's commitment to closer rapprochement with NATO. Lavrov's trip to Kyiv thus appeared to be primarily a check of Kyiv's true intentions under the Yushchenko presidency, who has recently set Ukraine's priorities as remaining in an "eternal strategic partnership" with Russia and seeking vigorous Euro-Atlantic integration at the same time.

"Russia is Ukraine's eternal strategic partner," Yushchenko reportedly told Lavrov in Kyiv, which might have been expected. But subsequently, perhaps having remembered how nasty Moscow behaved toward him during the Ukrainian election campaign, Yushchenko went on in a less suave mood: "But I would not like to comment on all the pages of our bilateral relations. If we are friends, we should turn these pages." Additionally, Yushchenko told Lavrov what the latter was predictably prepared in advance to hear: "But it is important that our relations with the East do not block our path to Europe."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk appears to have been equally noncommittal and smooth with Lavrov. "We face the need to develop a strategic partnership under agreements reached by our presidents," Lavrov told Tarasyuk. To which Tarasyuk responded: "If we are talking about a free-trade zone [within the CIS Single Economic Space], in principle this would not cause any problems in terms of our integration with the European Union or our membership in the World Trade Organization. If we are talking about a deeper level of integration [within the CIS Single Economic Space], there could be problems."

It might sound peculiar, but both Yushchenko and Tarasyuk might still be less than fully aware of the level of integration -- or problems, for that matter -- stipulated by the accord on the Single Economic Space. The text of that accord has never been made public in either Ukraine or any other signatory country, and Yushchenko's legal experts are now reportedly studying it to advise him as to what the document actually commits Kyiv to doing. Judging by earlier press reports, the agreement calls for the formation of a free-trade zone and a customs union of the four states, as well as a high level of political coordination of their economic and financial policies. Kuchma reportedly signed the accord with a reservation saying that Ukraine would commit itself only to those provisions that did not contradict its constitution.

The Verkhovna Rada ratified the agreement on the creation of the Single Economic Space comprising Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in April 2004, also reportedly unaware of its verbatim provisions. Opponents of the agreement, who at the time included Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party, argued that its full implementation would deprive Ukraine of any prospect of joining the European Union.

Only Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko appeared to have unambiguously lifted Lavrov's spirits during the visit. According to Lavrov, Tymoshenko "clearly confirmed" to him that Ukraine is interested in the further development of the Single Economic Space. But Lavrov should know that Tymoshenko's pledges or ideas are not always in line with those of Yushchenko. For example, last month Tymoshenko suggested that Ukraine might seek NATO membership jointly with Russia. "My personal view is that Ukraine and Russia cannot find themselves in qualitatively different, let alone mutually hostile, defense [alliances]," Tymoshenko wrote in a Russian newspaper in January. Prudently, Yushchenko has remained silent on this idea in Brussels this week, while promising to develop strategic partnerships with both the EU and Russia.

Russian press comments on Lavrov's trip to Kyiv can be aptly summarized by a subhead in "Kommersant-Daily" that reads: "Sergei Lavrov was given a warm indifferent reception [in Kyiv]." Russian reporters underscored the fact that Lavrov's visit was primarily an exercise in diplomatic verbosity and has brought no practical results in bilateral relations. At the same time, most Russian press comments admitted that in the current situation, Kyiv has no apparent reason to be especially eager for integration with Russia, in particular, or with the Single Economic Space in general. Even if both Kyiv and Brussels carefully avoid mentioning any prospects or time frames for Ukraine's EU or NATO membership, Russian commentators now appear to realize that such integration options for Kyiv have become considerably less fantastic than they were just several months ago. (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINE, EU SIGN THREE-YEAR ACTION PLAN. The European Union and Ukraine signed a joint "action plan" on 21 February, laying the groundwork for political and economic reforms in the country over the next three years. Both sides carefully avoided addressing the controversial issue of Ukraine's long-term relations with the bloc. Ukraine has made it clear it eventually wants to join the EU, but there is currently little enthusiasm for the prospect among the bloc's member states.

At a signing ceremony, EU and Ukrainian representatives agreed to make the most of the moment -- and leave the really difficult questions for another day.

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg who currently chairs the EU Presidency, said the bloc is committed to supporting the "ambitious program of political and economic reforms" launched by the administration of President Viktor Yushchenko.

Asselborn said the reforms will open a "new perspective" in EU-Ukrainian relations. He said the EU offers immediate support to Ukraine, but he made it clear this will happen within the European Neighborhood Policy and not a with a membership perspective.

"The European Union has underscored its commitment to support Ukraine at this key moment -- really a key moment -- in its history," Asselborn said. "We have adopted an EU-Ukrainian Action Plan within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. The putting into practice of this plan must start immediately."

Asselborn and other EU officials studiously sidestepped questions of whether or when Ukraine might be able to join the bloc. They repeatedly pointed to the need first to see the "action plan" put into practice. The plan will run over three years and the EU has previously made clear it will not take a stand one way or the other until then.

Yushchenko and other top Ukrainian officials have, in recent weeks, said the country hopes to start talks with the EU on a closer relationship eventually leading to full membership, as soon as 2007.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleh Rybachuk, who represented his country at the Action Plan signing ceremony in Brussels on 21 February, was careful not to offend his hosts' sensibilities and refrained from restating the time frame.

He praised the "friendly smiles" he saw on 21 February and limited himself to comments about the reform challenge facing the new government.

"I'll tell you that one message that I'm getting to Brussels -- now you have a very responsible Ukrainian government, you have very responsible partners, and if we put our signatures on something, there is no way we're not going to deliver it," Rybachuk said. "So I would repeat, again, our commitment to this Action Plan."

Rybachuk said if Ukraine "proves itself" it could receive more concrete offers, without specifying what those might be. Rybachuk also said he "does not want to spoil" the relationship with the EU by moving too fast.

One EU official said privately after the meeting that the bloc was very satisfied with Rybachuk's low-profile approach.

Diplomats say giving Ukraine an EU-membership perspective is not a popular idea among the bloc's 25 member states. Only Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania fought -- and failed -- to upgrade the key reference in the 21 February EU foreign ministers' declaration to Ukraine's membership ambitions. It reads: "The EU acknowledges Ukraine's European aspirations and welcomes Ukraine's European choice." This is a formulation used in situations where the EU wants to keep its options open.

The ministers on 21 February approved a 10-item list of additional late concessions to Ukraine, which is attached to the Action Plan. The country is promised support in its bid to join the World Trade Organization, recognition as a market economy -- which would help its exports -- as well as extra funds.

Diplomats say recent developments in Germany caused one late hiccup as the list was finalized. The country's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, currently faces accusations of complicity in long-term visa fraud involving thousands of Ukrainian citizens, among others. As a result, Germany forced a change in the part of the text that refers to the possibility of easing EU visa restrictions vis-a-vis Ukraine. It now mentions unspecified "security requirements," the fulfillment of which is an additional condition for obtaining a visa. (Ahto Lobjakas)

"We all see the difficult situation in which we have to preserve stability and augment our achievements. Our homegrown oppositionists -- if one may call them so -- cannot stomach the social policy pursued by Belarus.... They have already switched to demanding that the West introduce economic sanctions against Belarus.... One usually does not act this way toward one's own country. They don't have a country of their own.... For its efforts to enhance international and regional security, Belarus has been declared an outpost of tyranny, they have rained down lies on us and tried to mislead our citizens. Even today you can see how oppositionists have broken loose proposing their associates and themselves as candidates in the future presidential election. It is still a long time until the election. [But] all of them have crawled out of their hobo shelters and are ready to plunge into a struggle for power.... The West spares no money for [funding the Belarusian opposition]. They consider that Belarus is ripe for some sort of an orange or, I'm [even] terrified to utter it out loud, some blue or cornflower -- which is the same thing, I think -- revolution. We have already had enough of that blueness! They can come to power only in one case -- if a political chaos overrides the country and if we give up the course we have been pursuing so far. Otherwise, their chances are illusory." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 22 February; quoted by Belarusian Television.