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EU Turns Attention To Ukraine

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) with France's Sarkozy and Ukraine's Yushchenko
EU leaders shifted gears from the conflict in Georgia to relations with another nearby state lying in the shadow of a resurgent Russia during key talks in Paris with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Before the September 9 EU-Ukraine summit, the bloc had signaled that it would provide encouragement about closer ties, but, as expected, did not offer Kyiv a specific pledge on future membership.

The recent war between Russian and Georgian forces over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has lent urgency to the calls for the European Union to open its doors to Ukraine, where Moscow has battled politically and economically to limit Western influence.

The breakup of Ukraine's ruling coalition further complicates bargaining positions in Brussels and Kyiv, particularly given Yushchenko's frequently stated hopes of bringing his country into the EU fold.

The EU has signaled it is willing to bring Ukraine a bit closer, but did not define Ukraine as a "European" country at the meeting, let alone consider any fast-track EU membership.

"The summit will not give Ukraine a European perspective, a key word for eventual membership," Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the London-based Center for European Reform, told RFE/RL ahead of the meeting. "It will say all the right things about Ukraine's importance and it will say that Ukraine and the EU are on a path toward a progressively closer relationship, but that is diplomatic speak for, 'We're not quite ready to seriously consider you as a candidate.'"

Georgia Crisis

The crisis in Georgia was on the agenda in Paris, too, with both the Ukrainian president and the EU looking to send a message to the Kremlin that Russia's military intervention in the South Caucasus would not be tolerated in Ukraine. Yushchenko said during the post-summit press briefing that his country would not recognize the independence of Georgia's two separatist regions.

"We recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia. And Ukraine cannot recognize the sovereignty of South Ossetia or Abkhazia," Yushchenko said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the opportunity to reassure Ukraine over any fears Kyiv may have regarding Russia, saying during a press conference after the summit that Ukraine's territorial integrity is "nonnegotiable."

The summit was moved from its original venue in Evian to Paris in large part because Sarkozy -- who brokered the cease-fire that stopped the most intense fighting between Georgian and Russian forces last month -- was engaged in shuttle diplomacy on September 8 to hammer out a follow-up deal to get Russian troops out of undisputed Georgian territory.

Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced after a meeting outside Moscow an agreement to pull back hundreds of Russian troops still stationed in so-called buffer zones outside Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The summit will not give Ukraine a European perspective, a key word for eventual membership.

The Ukrainian president and his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, were the key figures in the "colored revolutions" that saw pro-Western governments come to power in post-Soviet countries. That fact has never sat well with many in the Russian government, and Yushchenko has accused Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of moving closer to the Kremlin in an effort to improve her status as a future presidential candidate.

"In some ways the entire process of Ukraine's moving closer to the European Union...says to Russia that the European Union doesn't recognize spheres of influence, and that countries on Russia's border like Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, those that Russia considers within its own sphere of influence, should have the right to make their own independent foreign policy decisions. If that means joining the European Union or even joining NATO, that's their right," the Center for European Reform's Valasek said. "The European Union is saying in fact that it recognizes those rights, that the Georgia war doesn't changed this and that Ukraine should be free to choose EU membership."

Energy Hub

Ahead of the summit, Yushchenko made the case that Ukraine is politically and culturally a good candidate for inclusion in the European Union and is working to meet EU social and political standards. He also touted his country's role as a future hub for Central Asian and Caucasus energy supplies destined for Europe.

But for its part, the European Union had to consider the waning public support for further EU expansion and the consequences of further straining relations with Russia, a major supplier of energy to EU countries.

Some EU countries remain skeptical that Ukraine is ready for EU membership, noting Ukraine's poor record on reform and high levels of corruption within the government.

The EU also revealed details in Paris about its Association Agreement with Ukraine, which conjures up parallels with the agreements that Brussels has worked out with its new, eastern member states.

Yushchenko said that the agreement represented progress on Ukraine's path to full EU membership.

"We agreed that the new document, which will define and regulate our relations in the near future, will be titled an Association Agreement," Yushchenko said. "This agreement is therefore based on the same philosophy and is close to the association agreements that were signed in the 1990s with countries that have since joined the European Union."

Yushchenko said he expected that agreement to be signed in the second half of 2009.