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Ukrainian President Quietly Downgrades EU Ambitions

European Council President Herman van Rompuy (right) with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at a joint press conference in Brussels today.
BRUSSELS -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's talks with EU leaders in Brussels steered clear of political controversy, focusing on the dual Ukrainian ambitions of free trade and visa-free travel with the bloc.

Both issues will be highlights of the EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels on November 22.

The top EU officials Yanukovych met today were the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.

Yanukovych -- who was seen as Russia's preferred candidate in the elections he won on February 10 -- said after meeting Van Rompuy that he now wants "gradual" integration with the EU.

"We would like to have a free-trade agreement that would allow for a gradual integration of the Ukrainian economy into the European Union," Yanukovych said. "And we have agreed that that road should be one of compromises and mutual concessions."

The Ukrainian leader made no public reference to his country's ambition to one day join the EU.

Shift Of Emphasis

EU diplomats say Ukraine's present leadership appears to have dropped former President Viktor Yushchenko's avowed goal of taking the country into the bloc. A formal application for membership would be Kyiv's logical next step once it signs an Association Agreement with the EU -- the political climate in Brussels permitting.

Kyiv's shift of emphasis has been quietly welcomed in many continental EU capitals, where the idea of Ukraine's eventual membership remains far from popular.

Yanukovych is struggling, however, to capitalize on his pragmatic approach to the EU. Free-trade talks with the EU have slowed down -- officials in Brussels say as a result of Ukraine's intransigence.

Meanwhile, Ukraine enjoys less than full backing within the bloc for visa-free travel. An EU "action plan" Yanukovych said today he expects on November 22 was initially due to be delivered as early as February this year.

One senior Ukrainian official in Brussels last week blamed the EU for lacking a "clear-cut strategic vision of Ukraine."

Ukraine's negotiating position and tactics also appear to be hardening. The economic integration of partners has been traditionally viewed by the EU as a one-way street, with very little room for concessions on the part of the bloc itself.

Van Rompuy today subtly underscored the point, noting free trade would mean "modernizing" the country and "approximating" Ukrainian laws and standards to those of the EU.

Rights Record Under Scrutiny

Ukraine's rights record has come under increasing scrutiny as reports spread of threats made against -- and ill-treatment of -- journalists and civil society activists.

In clearly coordinated statements, EU leaders today appeared to acknowledge they are aware of the allegations but stopped short of directly criticizing their Ukrainian colleague.

Barroso pointedly observed that he believed the Ukrainian president's public assurances to the effect that political and democratic rights will be upheld in the country.

"Ukraine has a strong record of democratic development. President Yanukovych has publicly stressed the importance of human rights." Barroso said. "We therefore look to Ukrainian authorities to ensure full the respect of these values, in particular the freedom of the media and independence of the judiciary. And, of course, regarding the forthcoming local elections [on October 31]. I trust that under President Yanukovych's leadership, these values will be further consolidated."

Earlier in the day, Van Rompuy had made analogous comments, observing also that the "legacy" of Ukraine as an open society must endure.

Van Rompuy also gave expression to the EU's relief that Yanukovych has put an end to years of top-level infighting in official Kyiv, noting today the new president has ushered in a "period of stability" in the country.

Both Van Rompuy and Barroso stressed the importance for Ukraine of maintaining good relations with Russia.

Barroso and Yanukovych today jointly announced that Ukraine will in December sign the accession protocol to the European Energy Community, cementing a series of market reforms initiated by the Ukrainian president.

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