BRUSSELS -- Ukraine's newly sworn-in president has been given the red-carpet treatment on a visit to the EU capital.
Viktor Yanukovych was welcomed as "a friend" this morning in Brussels by Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission.
Expressing "delight" that Yanukovych's first foreign trip since his inauguration on February 25 was to Brussels, Barroso told him he was "among friends of Ukraine, committed to supporting [the] stability and prosperity of your country and engaging fully with Ukraine and Ukrainian authorities."
The EU breathed a sigh of relief last month when the new leader of its largest eastern neighbor apart from Russia defied expectations by choosing Brussels -- not Moscow -- as his first foreign destination.
Elected mostly on the back of his support in Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine, Yanukovych positioned himself as an alternative to the spirit of the Western-oriented Orange Revolution represented by his defeated rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
In Brussels today, Yanukovych did his best to allay the fears of Ukraine's Western backers, saying integration with the EU remains a key priority for Ukrainian for policy.
He snubbed NATO, however, by not taking the opportunity today of visiting the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. Yanukovych said this morning that Ukraine's "status will not change" during in his tenure as far as its ambitions to join NATO are concerned. But he also confirmed that his country will not pull out from existing cooperation projects with the alliance that include contributions to the NATO Response Force.
Balancing East, West
Yanukovych today said he is seeking to enhance Ukraine's partnerships with both the EU and Russia. This balancing exercise appears to perfectly suit the current mood in the EU, too. The bloc's new enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fule, has made a point of saying good relations with the EU must not preclude good relations with Russia.
Today, Barroso reiterated this view, saying relations with one must not come at the expense of the other. Saying that developing relations with the EU weren't "detrimental to [Ukraine's] relations with Russia or the opposite." Barroso said, "we believe that it is important to deepen all this European market. We also try to develop a constructive relation with Russia, and so I believe there is a huge potential in Ukraine."
Barroso today repeatedly described Ukraine as a "European" partner, thus tacitly confirming its eligibility for EU membership in the long run. Ironically, Yanukovych's quest for a balance between the EU and Russia has made it easier for Brussels to make encouraging noises. Ukraine's EU membership has little support today among EU member states, which prefer a more arm's-length relationship.
This is precisely what Barroso and other EU leaders are offering today. After meeting Yanukovych, Barroso spoke of "de facto" integration. This includes eventual free trade and visa-free travel, to be enshrined in a new Association Agreement within a year. But political integration into the EU will continue to elude the country for the foreseeable future.
"Regarding accession, or the possibility of accession, we have always stated that instead of discussing the possible dates for negotiations, it is much better to focus now on the reforms that are needed to [bring] Ukraine closer to Europe and de facto integrated in our economic system," Barroso noted.
Yanukovych, for his part, has good reasons to accept whatever the EU is offering. The dire social and economic situation of the country is taking up most of his time in meetings with the bloc's officials today. The EU's backing is crucial for Kyiv in securing loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As a partner in the EU's Neighborhood Policy, Ukraine also stands to benefit from billions in EU aid. Most of these funds, Barroso made clear today, are conditional on Ukraine's meeting the conditions set by the IMF and drawing up what EU officials privately describe as a "realistic" budget for 2010.
Another key topic in today's talks is the reform of Ukraine's murky gas sector, currently dominated by shadowy middlemen. Eighty percent of the EU's Russian gas imports traverse Ukraine. Apart from reassuring the EU, Barroso today said reforms in the gas sector, introducing EU standards, would also significantly boost foreign investment flows into the country.
A key Ukrainian desire is visa-free travel for its citizens in the EU. Yanukovych said he wants a "road map" -- setting out all conditions and deadlines -- by the end of the year. Yanukovych also asked the EU to send a "technical assistance mission" of experts to look into ways of streamlining government expenditure.
In addition to Barroso, Yanukovych will meet in Brussels with all the top EU leaders: European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, EU foreign-policy high representative Catherine Ashton, as well as Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament.