Brussels - The European Union faces tough choices over Ukraine, wanting to finally seal an association accord with Kiev but uncertain of how far it will have to go to overcome Russian opposition.
“The situation is complicated,” said one EU official as Brussels prepared for talks on Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We are trying right now to work out exactly what” the Ukraine government wants to do, the official said, as mass pro-EU protests continued in the Ukrainian capital.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych is scheduled to visit Moscow on Tuesday amid speculation he will agree to join the Kremlin-led Customs Union, pressed on him by President Vladimir Putin as the best option for Ukraine's future.
Analysts say time is running out for Yanukovych to make a decision, with his country increasingly torn between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
Yanukovych late last month ditched an Association Agreement and trade deal with the European Union at the last minute, sparking dismay in Brussels and anti-government demonstrations in Kiev.
“The EU faces a dilemma,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Brussels.
It needs to keep the accord “on the table but make it more attractive to increase the benefits,” Techau said.
The EU appeared to hold out just such a carrot on Thursday when EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele met Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov, saying if Kiev made a firm commitment to sign the deal, then Brussels would help prepare a “roadmap” for its implementation.
This would include talks to “examine in depth all issues related to the implementation of the agreement,” Fuele said.
The EU could also “facilitate and continue supporting Ukraine and its endeavour ... to sign (a financial aid) agreement with the International Monetary Fund,” he said.
No figures were mentioned but the Ukraine government earlier this week effectively put a 20-billion-euro ($27.5-billion) price tag on signing the accord, saying it wanted a loan of that amount for investment.
Brussels rejected the idea out of hand, saying Ukraine's future “cannot be subject to a tender where the highest bidder gets the prize.”
Techau wondered how far the EU could go to get the accord signed.
“The EU can pick the fight but it is ill-equipped to fight it,” he said.
“Nobody knows how to play it (or is) willing to invest large sums of money. I would not expect too much from the EU.”
For Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, the EU's credibility is at stake as it approaches a “flexion point to be a strategic player.”
It is a “question of credibility ... it is too late to walk away after (the) demonstrations with the European flag” in Ukraine, Trenin said.
At the same time, for the EU, taking on the Ukraine could prove to be a bigger burden than the former Soviet states of central Europe, many of which have joined the bloc, he said.
“Any modernisation would be a huge task.”
Against this uncertain backdrop, Lavrov attends an EU foreign ministers' meeting Monday with Ukraine set to be the main talking point, as it will also be later in the week at an EU leaders summit.
Ministers will speak frankly with Lavrov, said the EU official, who asked not to be named.
“They will convey a message of firmness but we do not seek confrontation,” the official added.
“The possibility for dialogue has not been exhausted,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament.
But now is not the time to drop the baton when “for the first time we are seeing such large pro-EU demonstrations” outside of the European Union itself, Verhofstadt said. - Sapa-AFP