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Ukraine's Winding Road To EU, With Detour Through China

Participants at the YES conference in Yalta on July 12

Participants at the YES conference in Yalta on July 12

YALTA, Ukraine -- As we arrive in this Black Sea resort city on the Ukrainian coast, my Crimean colleague warns that storms are on the way. The prediction fortunately doesn't prove true, but the water is cold, just 16 degrees Celsius. The clouds have apparently moved onto Kyiv, to hover ominously over the government of Yulia Tymoshenko, which faced -- and ultimately survived -- a no-confidence vote in the Verkhovna Rada.

The tempest that is Ukrainian politics is felt even in sunny Yalta. The country's continued political instability is harming its European perspectives. This is the warning of the participants of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) , an international NGO that aims to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. YES is the brainchild of Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine's richest men and the son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. For the fifth year in a row, Pinchuk has sought to lure top names in world politics to the seaside resort. It's a rare opportunity for Ukrainian experts and journalists to mingle with those who have a say in global affairs.

Bright Lights, Big Names

This year the feathers in Pinchuk's cap are International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is also present. During the plenary session, he speaks about cooperation in the Black Sea region and Georgia's experience with reforms, but he carefully steers clear of the mounting tensions with Moscow over Abkhazia. His press briefing is canceled. When a few lucky journalists finally manage to corner him, the Georgian leader says only that his country is not seeking confrontation with Russia.

Soon it's dinner time. Saakashvili spends the meal answering numerous phone calls, then enjoys a long chat with Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. No wonder, says one of the Western experts privately, they have a common enemy -- the Kremlin.

Wine is flowing, jazz is playing. Some people are even dancing, first and foremost the French. One of my colleagues notices how Kuchma shares a kiss on the lips with former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski -- a gesture redolent of Soviet tradition, and a reminder that both men began their careers in the communist era.

Heading West?

The next morning, people have slept off their wine and serious debate is once more under way. Kwasniewski is a strong advocate of Ukraine's bid to enter the European Union. He thinks that the EU's current crisis over Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is neither new nor fatal, and that European unity will prevail. But many others are truly worried. A future model for the EU is not clear.

On the other side of the equation is the question of work remaining for Ukraine. The more reforms the country implements, the sooner it can join the EU. This is a common view. However, Ukrainian politicians tacitly acknowledge that the top issue for them is not accession, but the 2009 presidential elections. The jockeying for position has already begun.

Inevitably, the gas issue is discussed. Ukrainian participants call for bringing transparency to the Russian monopoly on gas deliveries. They cite the example of the EU, which pushed airlines to reveal their ticketing price structure. Such an approach in energy matters would benefit Russian consumers as well, the argument goes. However, the call goes unanswered. Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin has turned down the invitation to come to Yalta. Forum organizers explain that he is sick.

The China Factor

The YES sessions are held in the Livadia Palace, the summer retreat of Tsar Nicholas II and the site of the historic Yalta Conference in 1945. To remind us that that was then and this is now, Pinchuk presents the audience with a painting by a Chinese artist. It closely resembles the famous photograph of the Yalta Conference leaders sitting side by side. There is one striking difference, however. Mao Zedong, the former Chinese communist leader, is sitting snugly between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. The world is changing, is it not? Pinchuk asks journalists whom he should invite to Yalta next year. The Chinese, comes the answer.

As Tony Blair himself puts it during the Yalta talks, China's rise can be seen as a threat, or an opportunity -- better to make it the latter. As the former British leader notes, Beijing's new influence means that the world will no longer be subject to a single dominant power.

As I take a brisk walk across Yalta, however, I feel that, for now, there's one power here that has no competition. Russian pop songs are heard in every bus and cabs. Russian investors are building like mad along the coastline. And in Sevastopol, not far from here, the Russian Black Sea Fleet retains its base. But as I return to the hotel, I bump into a big group of German tourists. A sign, perhaps, that Yalta today is becoming a more attractive place for everyone.