BRUSSELS -- "The EU was and will be the main priority for Ukraine" is a statement that sums up the main thrust of the message delivered by the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, Andriy Veselovskyy.
This, Veselovskyy said, is a position confirmed by President Viktor Yanukovych during his visit to Brussels on March 1 -- his first foreign destination in the role -- and remains one that enjoys the support of the majority of Ukrainian people, who feel they "belong in the European family of nations."
Briefing journalists in Brussels on March 12, Veselovskyy hinted at a moment of doubt that appears to have seized Kyiv in the immediate aftermath of Yanukovych's defeat of Yulia Tymoshenko, who represented the overtly pro-Western forces in Ukraine in the runoff.
But Yanukovych was quickly reassured. The EU decision to dispatch foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement and Neighborhood Commissioner Stefan Fule, along with the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, to Yanukovych's inauguration in Kyiv on February 25 demonstrated the bloc's respect for Ukraine's maturity as a democratic country, Veselovskyy said. The seniority of the EU representatives present in Kyiv paved the way for the new Ukrainian president's decision to travel to Brussels a mere three days later.
The "signals" sent to Kyiv by the European Union, exemplified by a letter signed by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, surpassed all expectations. Reading out parts of the message, Veselovskyy lingered on phrases such as "close European partner" and "member of the European family of nations."
The EU's charm offensive was crowned by assurances given to Yanukovych during his visit that visa-free travel for Ukrainians is an entirely realistic prospect provided the bloc's preconditions are met. Reassured, Yanukovych was said to have told his team to occupy themselves "day and night" with Ukraine-EU links.
Yanukovych (left) was reassured by his visit to Brussels, Veselovsky says.
Three main issues will dominate the relationship in the short and medium term. On visas, Veselovskyy said Ukraine is expecting an EU questionnaire, delayed by a few weeks. A "road map" with a detailed timeline should be in place by June, Veselovskyy said. He said it is "difficult but not impossible" that the EU could tentatively lift the visa requirement in time for the European soccer championship in 2012, to be hosted jointly by Ukraine and Poland.
A second Ukrainian goal is a free-trade agreement with the EU, along with the conclusion of an Association Agreement.Gas Issues
On the part of the EU, reforms in Ukraine's energy sector remain the most urgent desirable. Yanukovych was told in Brussels a quick passage of the gas-market law was essential. The law would bring Ukraine's energy legislation into line with that of the EU and should significantly ease the inflow of foreign investment.
The main objective of the law is to liberalize the market. Veselovskyy said the signal was "received" by Yanukovych. A draft of the law has been approved by the relevant committee of the Ukrainian parliament. The country's first deputy prime minister has been charged with responsibility for the natural-gas sector.
Veselovskyy said that while Ukraine's new government is not looking to renegotiate the controversial gas accord struck by Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko in January 2009, Kyiv would like the deal to be adjusted to reflect a certain number of "changes."
He listed cheaper gas prices, the coming into being of a world spot market for gas, Europe's increased capacity to receive liquefied natural gas (LNG), and the current global gas surplus. Everything depends on Gazprom's realism, Veselovskyy said. "No reassessment would be unfair."
The Ukrainian ambassador rejected criticism of the state of the country's gas-transit infrastructure. He said the pipeline network was in "good shape," despite Russian actions in January 2009 that shut off gas flow in large parts of it. The network, Veselovskyy said, needed constant gas pressure at some 60 atmospheres like "the brain needs blood" -- or cracks in the pipes would result. But the ingenuity of Ukrainian engineers, who pioneered the technique of reverse flow, prevailed.
Veselovskyy also gave short shrift to proposed alternatives to Ukrainian gas transit -- in the shape of the Russian Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines. Gas transit through Ukraine was "at least twice as cheap as any 'streams,'" he said.
Veselovskyy said Ukraine was now ready to increase gas prices for domestic consumers, which are currently subsidized to the tune of 90 percent.Navigating Brussels
Overall, Ukraine appears much more relaxed about its relationship with the EU than at any time in the past five years. Veselovskyy's predecessor until 2008, Roman Shpek, never wasted an opportunity to berate the EU for treating Ukraine as a neighbor, rather than as a potential member.
Ukraine is looking for a "balanced, friendly, and open relationship" with Russia, as it does with the United States.
Veselovskyy said today Ukraine is content with the EU's Eastern Partnership project, describing it as a "strong tool for bringing European values and laws to Ukraine." In the long run, however, there is only one goal from Ukraine -- full EU membership. Veselovskyy has no doubt this is where Ukraine belongs. "Europe ends where people -- and not governments -- do not want to be in Europe," he said.
The Ukrainian diplomat is understanding of the teething problems of the EU's new leadership structure under the Lisbon Treaty -- which Yanukovych was among the first major outside leaders to personally test during his visit.
Veselovskyy said all three EU presidents seem to have clear-cut roles. Barroso, he said, represents the "government," or management of day-to-day EU affairs. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which consists of EU heads of state and governments, is a "strategist." Buzek's role is to lecture neighbors and others on values and democracy. Ashton and Fule, meanwhile, have "concrete things" to say in the field of foreign policy.
In Brussels, Yanukovych, who has a reputation as pro-Russian, said Ukraine's status vis-a-vis NATO "will not change" -- widely seen as code for putting membership aspirations on ice. Today, Veselovskyy said Yanukovych's failure to meet the alliance's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on March 1 was due to an absence of "time and need" for such a meeting in so short an order. The visit, he said, needed to be "quick and convincing, without sending too many signals."
But a meeting between Yanukovych and Rasmussen is in the offing soon, Veselovskyy said. NATO is "too important a partner" for Ukraine to "pretend" it doesn't know what it wants. Yanukovych has already made it clear Ukraine will not withdraw its contribution from the NATO Response Force. Veselovskyy said the president will support "everything that is positive for Ukraine's military forces."Clearing The Air
Bemoaning the deep-seated political malaise in his country, Veselovskyy said the new government under Mykola Azarov, who became prime minister on March 11, will need a month for a thorough stock-taking. The "politicization of government" over the past five years has been so intense, Veselovskyy said, that the new ministers must find their bearings in terms of "what they govern and where their responsibilities lie."
Addressing relations with Russia -- which Yanukovych visited on March 5 -- Veselovskyy said Ukraine is looking for a "balanced, friendly, and open relationship." Significantly, he included the United States in the same formula. During the visit to Moscow, Yanukovych mostly discussed economic matters and "sensitive bilateral issues," including energy security and the management of the two countries' common border.
Asked by RFE/RL if leaders in Moscow had quizzed Yanukovych on the particulars of his Brussels trip, Veselovskyy's smiling response was: "You can guess. And you would be right, even more [than you can guess]."
Veselovskyy attached great significance to comments made in advance of Yanukovych's Brussels visit by his chief of staff, Iryna Akimova, who said Ukraine's membership in a customs union with Russia would be incompatible with the country's entry into the World Trade Organization. This assessment, Veselovskyy said, has not been "challenged" since. He said Yanukovych has also taken pains in Brussels to "explain" to his EU interlocutors that this "reality" is understood in Ukraine.