Ukraine has long desired closer ties with the European Union and eventual entry into the bloc. However, ahead of an EU-Ukraine summit, which begins tomorrow, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is expressing dismay that his country is apparently unwanted by the EU.
Prague, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some of the most senior figures in the European Union and European Commission fly to Yalta in the Crimea tomorrow for what has become an annual EU-Ukraine summit. The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, will be there, as will the current head of the EU's rotating council, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The one-day summit is usually seen as an opportunity for pleasant words to be exchanged -- not for breakthrough agreements to be forged. However, the Ukrainian leadership has signaled it is becoming frustrated that prospects for EU membership seem as far away as ever.
That frustration is also tinged with anxiety, as some of Ukraine's neighbors and former fellow Soviet colonies prepare to join the EU next year. The fear among Ukrainian politicians and ordinary people is that Ukraine is doomed to rot on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain, dividing the continent into an economically affluent West and a backward, relatively impoverished East.
Last week, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said at a press conference in his country's capital, Kyiv, that Ukraine should abandon its dreams of EU entry, although it should still strive to attain "European standards." He lamented that no senior EU officials have expressed interest in Ukraine joining the union.
But, confusingly, Kuchma said he would refuse an invitation for Ukraine's entry into the EU if one was offered today because his country is unprepared for entry. Instead, he said, Ukraine should deal with other economic blocs -- a reference to the recently signed agreement between Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to create a Single Economic Space free-trade zone.
But the next day, Kuchma said Ukraine remains on its course for integration with the EU and the West. That view was reiterated by senior government figures who said, however, that the EU must set out concrete steps by which Ukraine could transform ties with the bloc from the present relationship of cooperation to one of "association," which implies eventual membership. They also want increased access to EU markets and measures to prevent the rupture of trade between Ukraine and the new member countries.
A spokesman for the European Commission's office in Kyiv, Steffen Kovmand, said the EU will tomorrow try to assuage Ukraine's fears of becoming isolated in an expanded union. But he said Ukraine should not expect any dramatic breakthroughs at the summit.
"The summit on 7 October is an annually recurring event. I think it's interesting and important that we have a quite high-level representation this year. The commission president, Mr. Prodi, will be there. The external relations commissioner, Mr. [Chris] Patten, and the high representative, Mr. [Javier] Solana, will be there. But the agenda is pretty much the same items [as every year]. It is an occasion to speak, if you like, about the developments in Ukraine and the EU, where the Ukrainian side will speak about developments in their country and we will speak about developments within the EU," Kovmand said.
Many Ukrainian politicians and some Western diplomats express concern that Ukraine's agreement, signed last month, to join Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in the formation of a Single Economic Space (SES) signals a shift away from the West -- one that would make it more difficult for Ukraine to pursue its bids for EU and World Trade Organization memberships.
Kovmand said EU members are keen to learn more about the agreement, but he doubts it will dominate discussions, which are scheduled to include such topics as Moldova, Iraq, the Middle East, and the nonproliferation of weapons technology.
"I think we'll be informed about the agreement," Kovmand said. "We'll certainly wish to be informed about it. But I think our position is very clear. It is Ukraine's prerogative and, indeed, the right and duty of its national leadership to decide what is in Ukraine's best economic interests. [Free] trade and increased cooperation with its neighbors, including the three countries with which Ukraine has signed the Single Economic Space [agreement,] is something that, per se, does not run contrary to Ukraine's EU commitments."
Kovmand said Ukraine has to ensure that any SES commitments do not run counter to its obligations to the EU or the World Trade Organization. And he said he does not think Kuchma's statements about the EU are contradictory.
"For us, these two things go hand in glove. They're part of the same thing. We think it's a realistic assessment that Ukraine is not ready yet. I appreciate the fact that President Kuchma reiterates the fact that Ukraine is committed towards closer movement to Europe. So we don't really see a contradiction there. We don't see President Kuchma being in contradiction with himself. We just see it as two different statements, which essentially say the same thing," Kovmand said.
Prominent opposition politician Yuriy Kostenko said many European politicians and diplomats are disturbed by Kuchma's declarations about the EU and the SES.
Kostenko is a member of Ukraine's delegation to the Council of Europe and last week attended a joint session of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He said that although European politicians, like their Ukrainian counterparts, know very little about the details of the SES agreement, many are concerned about its implications.
"But everyone comments on the inconsistency of the actions of the Ukrainian government, in particular the president, with regards to our foreign policy priorities," Kostenko said. "They call attention to the fact that the president a year ago appeared with a declaration announcing a new course for Ukraine, a course toward European integration and with regards to this a lot of things were done. Ukraine conducted talks with tens of countries about entry into the World Trade Organization, and then suddenly there's this fundamental change in the foreign policy course and foreign policy priorities."
Kostenko said confusion about Ukraine's intentions harms its future prospects.
Kovmand, the EC's spokesman in Kyiv, agreed with Kuchma's assessment that his country is not ready for EU entry and said Ukraine cannot expect a timetable for joining the EU yet. "I think the question of a firm [entry] date is 'ruled out for the time being,' is the phrase that we use," he said. "We're leaving the question open. But we are certainly not leaving things as they are."
He said Brussels is keen to make progress on Ukraine's access to EU markets and help it move toward a position where chances of entry are no longer the frustratingly remote possibility of which Kuchma complains.