PARIS (Reuters) -- Leaders of the European Union and Ukraine say they expect to conclude a pact next year on deepening ties but the 27-nation bloc stopped short of offering Kyiv the firm membership pledge it had hoped for.
Despite concern about Russian moves to roll back Western influence after intervening in Georgia, many EU states have been unwilling to offer such a pledge because of waning public support for EU expansion, Kyiv's poor record on reform, and a desire to avoid further straining ties with Moscow.
A declaration agreed between EU leaders and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko acknowledged Kyiv's EU aspirations and status as a European country and resolved to launch talks on visa-free arrangements for Ukrainian citizens.
The leaders also agreed that a broad pact under negotiation would be called an "Association Agreement" -- wording that can imply the possibility of future EU membership.
There was no explicit offer of future membership that Ukraine has been seeking.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the rotating EU Presidency, told a news conference: "It is the first time that the European Union has made such a clear statement about Ukraine's European calling.... This Association Agreement does not close any path and even opens some."
"This relationship is already very dense. We want it to be deepened, we want it to become an exceptional relationship."
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters that while there was no membership offer, "we are not prejudging the future."
Yushchenko called the summit an "absolute success."
"Today we are starting a very ambitious plan that should lead us to ultimate victory," he told the news conference.
"The main thing is that today we qualified as a European country.... This is the first step of this great road, which all countries that then became EU members, walked on."
He said Ukraine expected the Association Agreement would be signed in the second half of 2009. Sarkozy said the deal would be completed next year.
Key Energy Route
Ukraine is an important energy route for Europe and seen as crucial to the long-term goal of the EU to secure its energy supply, for which it relies heavily on Russian oil and gas.
An explicit statement of future membership prospects has been blocked by the Benelux countries, with Germany and Italy also not keen, not least to avoid straining ties with Moscow.
Britain, the Nordic countries, and former communist states such as Poland championed Ukraine's cause.
Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Andriy Veselovsky, said Kyiv was a victim of a lack of EU unity but had still made progress.
"Of course the recent developments show us that we would wish more and it is necessary for the European Union to give us more," he said in reference the Russian intervention in Georgia and concerns Kyiv could be the next target for Russian pressure.
Russia has been incensed by the pledge of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet state, and many see this as the spur for its intervention in Georgia.
Russia agreed with Sarkozy on September 8 to withdraw its troops from Georgia's heartland within a month but there was no commitment to scale back its military presence in two Georgian separatist regions.
Sarkozy said there was no sign in his talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Moscow wanted to shift the borders of neighboring Ukraine.