BRUSSELS, September 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Today's visit to Brussels by Viktor Yanukovych was not his first as Ukraine's prime minister.
Given, however, that the last time Yanukovych was prime minister was immediately before the Orange Revolution in 2004, the current visit was eagerly awaited by EU and NATO officials as an opportunity to probe his government's intentions.
And true to most expectations, Yanukovych today confirmed Ukraine will continue seeking EU membership.
His EU host, the Finnish foreign minister and current EU chair, Erkki Tuomioja, gave Yanukovych's renewed call for an accession perspective a courteous, if clearly noncommittal welcome.
"I would say that the most important result of this meeting was that we were able to confirm, to take first of all on our side to welcome and take note of Ukrainian intentions to continue their European vocation, and from our side our firm commitment to furthering this," Tuomioja said.
When it comes to action, however, the EU remains cool. Only this week, the European Commission floated plans to negotiate a new partnership treaty with Kyiv -- underscoring that the treaty would not address the issue of membership.
One EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that the Ukrainian side was told in the run-up to Yanukovych's visit not to press the issue. "Don't ask, because you won't like the answer," was how the official summed up the EU message delivered to Kyiv.
The official said the EU today met Yanukovych with a pre-prepared "defensive point" to ward off demands for a membership perspective. The "defensive point" boils down to the standard EU line -- Ukraine's EU membership is not presently on the agenda. This does not mean that the EU has formally ruled it out, but simply that it wants to focus on concrete cooperation and reforms to bring the two sides closer.
The EU is encouraging political and economic reforms in Ukraine to bring the country closer to its own legislative standards. And the union is holding out for the prospect of a free-trade zone with Ukraine, but on condition the country first joins the World Trade Organization.
Ukraine is also hoping to sign an agreement by the end of this month easing EU visa rules. Although Yanukovych today described the agreement as the first step on the road towards the abolition of visas altogether, it will in the foreseeable future be limited to cutting red tape, visa fees, and waiting times.
Ukraine itself must sign up to a readmission treaty obliging it to take back illegal immigrants who reach the EU via its territory.
The EU was also keen to win assurances from Yanukovych that Kyiv will continue its strict enforcement of controls on the border with Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. Yanukovych said today Ukraine will continue supporting the peace plan put forth last year by the country's president, Viktor Yushchenko.
Finnish Foreign Minister Tuomioja today took pains to acknowledge that the fact that Yanukovych hails from the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine will not in itself hamper cooperation with the EU.
"We [also] covered relations with Russia, because our common view and understanding is that there is no contradiction between Ukraine's good relations with Russia and good relations with Europe -- and neither with [the] EU's good relations with Russia," Tuomioja said. "So, we do not see any competition in this respect."
However, Yanukovych revealed his pro-Russian colors while visiting NATO headquarters today. The Ukrainian prime minister told NATO ambassadors that his country wants to move step by step about plans to join the alliance because of public opposition.
This means Kyiv has given the cold shoulder to those NATO member states -- led by the United States and Poland among others -- who were preparing to indicate at the alliance's November summit in Riga that a membership invitation is in the offing. Ukraine's relations with NATO are, in the words of one NATO diplomat, now "on ice."
Torn Between East And West
Yushchenko (center) with Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin (left), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (rear), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AFP file photo)
IN WHOSE ORBIT? Just over a year ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainians led an extended public uprising that toppled the country's entrenched, pro-Russia regime. But the country remains deeply divided between the east, where ethnic Russians look toward Moscow, and the west, which yearns for deeper integration with Europe. Can Ukraine elect a legislature that represents this torn country? (more)