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Ukraine: European Union Expected To Keep Kyiv On Hold

A high-ranking EU delegation meets Ukraine's leaders today in Kyiv to discuss bilateral relations and exchange views on developments in both Ukraine and the EU. With both sides increasingly preoccupied with other issues -- the EU with enlargement and Ukraine with a domestic political scandal -- analysts are predicting no great breakthroughs. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels. 13 February 2001 (RFE/RF) -- The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, and the foreign ministers of Sweden and Belgium arrive in Kyiv today with what many will regard as empty hands.

They will offer Ukraine little in the way of a "European perspective" -- that is, binding and inclusive long-term links with the EU and the West in general. This is something Ukraine's leaders have been seeking for years.

Instead, EU representatives will tell Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko to press ahead with reforms, and bolster human rights and democratic freedoms. This is a message they have been delivering for the past 10 years.

This time, however, the message will have critical urgency. The EU delegation will raise the matter of Heorhiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian Internet journalist who disappeared in September after writing articles that were critical of President Kuchma's business dealings.

A corpse that almost certainly is Gongadze's was found in November not far from Kyiv. Kuchma has been circumstantially linked to the journalist's disappearance by secret and allegedly incriminating audio recordings that were made in Kuchma's office by one of his bodyguards. Kuchma has denied the tapes' authenticity and any involvement in the journalist's disappearance.

The Gongadze affair has sparked a strong anti-Kuchma movement, and pressure is growing on the president to step down.

Last week, the EU's Swedish presidency issued a sharply worded statement demanding an open investigation into Gongadze's disappearance. Still, EU involvement in the matter is not expected to go beyond a lecture on the significance of free media in a democratic society.

It's no secret the EU remains unconvinced by Kyiv's attempts at political and economic reform. But Michael Emerson, an analyst at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, says the reasons for the EU's attitude toward Ukraine go deeper. Having left Ukraine out of the circle of candidates, Emerson says, the EU simply does not have enough time for it right now.

"The EU itself has such enormous and complex responsibility for the whole of the enlargement process -- through to and including Turkey, which is not an imminent candidate -- coupled to the internal institutional challenges -- [the] post-Nice [summit debate], the next [intergovernmental conference] in 2004 on the fundamental reform of EU structure -- all of these questions are the dominating items on the agenda. I would read [the EU] policies towards Ukraine as being in a sympathetic but 'holding' mode."

The EU delegation is expected to praise Kyiv for shutting down the Chornobyl nuclear reactors in December and reaffirm the allocation of 25 million euros -- today, more than $23 million -- to help bridge the resultant energy gap. EU officials will also discuss loans for restructuring Ukraine's energy sector.

Yet longer-term issues -- especially those related to enlargement --remain unaddressed. This causes particular concern in Kyiv because, instead of opening up, the EU looks set to effectively cut off Ukraine -- both from the Union and, with expansion to the east, from the country's trading partners in central and eastern Europe.

Following EU rules, candidate countries with free-trade agreements with Ukraine have agreed to drop them upon accession. Current visa-free arrangements between Ukraine and candidate countries will have to be ended, too, possibly even before accession.

The Ukrainian government has put its concerns in a paper presented to the EU. Officials in Brussels said last week the concerns were given "serious consideration."

Analyst Emerson says, however, that it remains unclear how these sensitive issues could be resolved in the longer term.

"On the EU side, as the enlargement process deepens and moves ahead, sensitive question number one is the visa regime between Ukraine and Poland -- that frontier is the most important one. There are two million people per month crossing that frontier, as I understand it, and the introduction of visas would seriously limit those movements even if there was massive investment in expanded consular services on both sides of the frontier."

The EU has so far also given the cold shoulder to [that is, ignored] Ukraine's offer to provide long-range aerial transport for its planned 60,000-man rapid reaction force.

The EU's unwillingness to offer Ukraine even a perspective on eventual membership has led to disillusionment in Kyiv in recent months. The government has replaced its pro-European foreign minister and is making increasingly warm overtures to Russia.

Ukraine has agreed to sell off parts of its energy infrastructure to Russia in compensation for unpaid loans. It has recently also attracted increasing investment from Russian businesses.

Political tensions between Ukraine and Russia have eased. Eight presidential summits between the two countries in past years were followed by another Sunday and yesterday. Meeting in Kyiv, presidents Kuchma and Vladimir Putin agreed to set up a joint energy supply system, paving the way for the removal of one of the thorniest issues in Ukrainian-Russian relations in recent years.

Solana, Patten, and the Swedish and Belgian Foreign Ministers will leave Ukraine for Moldova tomorrow (14 February). It is the first time that EU officials will visit Moldova in the so-called "troika" format (the delegation includes the EU's foreign policy chief, the external affairs commissioner, and the foreign minister of the country holding the EU's rotating presidency), marking heightened interest in the country.

Moldova, like Ukraine, has not been recognized by the EU as a candidate country. But, according to Emerson, Moldova's close relationship with Romania could make an important difference. He says Moldova would present serious problems for the EU's Schengen visa regime since its citizens can freely apply for Romanian passports.

Romania is an EU-candidate country. That means that the building of a Schengen-type EU border between Romania and Moldova will not be easy once Romania becomes a member -- boding well for Moldova's possible aspirations for candidate status.