Community News

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ukraine leader set for visa disappointment in Brussels


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Ukraine's new leader, Viktor Yanukovch, is planning to visit the EU capital next week. However, the bloc is unlikely to reward him with an early deal on visa-free travel.

The president elect is in talks with the office of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton to come to Brussels on Monday (1 March), three days following his inauguration in Kiev and more than a week before a planned trip to Moscow.

The EU visit is intended to signal Mr Yanukovych's foreign policy priorities and to help dispel his image as a Kremlin stooge.

Poland at an EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday (22 February) stuck its neck out with a proposal for the union to reciprocate by offering Ukraine a roadmap for visa-free travel when the president drops by.

A roadmap would not commit the bloc to lifting travel barriers if Ukraine failed to pass milestones, such as passport security reforms. But it would offer a start date and a target end date for talks and would be an important political signal for the new Ukrainian elite as well as for ordinary Ukrainians.

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski also suggested the EU could temporarily lift visas during the Euro 2012 football championship, to be held in Poland and Ukraine, as a "test."

The Polish proposals represent progress for Ukraine after just Lithuania, Estonia and Slovakia backed a similar idea at an EU meeting last November.

A Polish diplomat said Ms Ashton accepted the Polish argument that the EU should not rush into giving visa-free travel to Russians while leaving Ukrainians behind - Russia is also awaiting an EU decision to open talks on dropping travel barriers.

But there was not enough support round the table for the EU to make an announcement next week: "We have clearly stated in our previous agreements with Ukraine that visa-free is a 'long-term perspective.' Nothing has changed," a French diplomat told EUobserver.

An EU official said: "Perhaps we can find a middle ground between the roadmap and the status quo," suggesting that the Yanukovych meeting could see a friendly EU declaration on visas, but without the roadmap being put in place.

The news is unlikely to be greeted warmly in Kiev. Ukraine's EU affairs minister, Konstantin Yeliseyev, has battled against the EU's arm's length visa policy for the past three years, while accusing EU powers of a "lack of strategic vision" in the east.

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