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World / Europe Print article | Email
EU leaders seek to win over Ukraine
By Tom Warner in Kiev
Published: October 6 2003 18:28 | Last Updated: October 6 2003 18:28

Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi are to arrive on Tuesday in Yalta for a tense summit with Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president, who is threatening to drop efforts to integrate with the European Union amid a clamp-down on domestic politics.

In a series of recent speeches, Mr Kuchma has said he is fed up with waiting to hear from the EU whether Ukraine will ever get its chance to apply for membership. Mr Kuchma says he now sees more immediate gains to be had from building ties with Russia.

"No one, not even among the ranks of bureaucrats, has ever said they want to see Ukraine in the EU," Mr Kuchma said at a recent press conference.

Last month Mr Kuchma signed an economic union treaty with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan which, if fully implemented, would be the most serious effort to re-integrate the former Soviet economies since the split of the USSR.

He also forged a compromise between his centrist allies in parliament and the Communist party on a new constitution, seen by the EU as a step back from democracy.

The pro-Russian tilt continued last week when the supervisory board of Ukraine's state oil pipeline company agreed to reverse the recently built Odessa- Brody pipeline to ship Russian oil to the Black Sea.

The EU had recently sent a note to Mr Kuchma urging him to use the line for its originally planned purpose of carrying Caspian oil to central Europe.

Mr Prodi, the European Commission president, and Mr Berlusconi, whose government holds the EU presidency, face the delicate task of trying to woo back Mr Kuchma to his previous pro-European course. EU commissioners Chris Patten, Javier Solana and Gunter Verheugen will also be at the summit.

Both Mr Prodi and Mr Berlusconi have made their personal views known. Mr Prodi has said he believes Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries could eventually form a customs union with the EU but would never be EU members, while the Italian prime minister has said the EU should expand to include even Russia and Israel.

The EU's official line falls somewhere in between: as a European country, Ukraine has the formal right to apply for EU membership, but the EU is not ready to say whether it might some day welcome an application.

Mr Verheugen made clear on a visit to Ukraine last month that the EU could not give Mr Kuchma what he says he most needs: a date by when the EU could be ready to sign an "association agreement" recognising Ukraine as a candidate for membership.

However, despite deep reservations about Mr Kuchma's authoritarian rule, European diplomats in Kiev say the EU could give him some kind of positive statement on Ukraine's chances of future membership before the end of next year, when he is due to step down.

The European diplomats say Mr Kuchma has made some progress with the EU, especially on trade issues. A recent agreement would dramatically lower mutual trade tariffs when Ukraine joins the World Trade Organisation, which Mr Kuchma had been pushing to do by next year.

But Mr Kuchma has recently been wavering on that goal as the industrial groups which support him in parliament have come out strongly for a delay. The diplomats said the economic treaty with Russia, if it led to lower natural gas prices, could also get in the way of WTO membership.

One diplomat said the EU's main concern was the plan to change the constitution, which he said would be "the equivalent of a coup" and would lead the EU to downgrade ties. Mr Kuchma's latest draft, expected to be voted on next year, would shift power to the prime minister before a new president is elected.

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Roman Shpek, said the decision on the oil pipeline wasn't final and that any change to the constitution would comply with "European and democratic standards".

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