Ukraine still intends to sign an historic trade pact with the European Union, but the country would first need a hefty economic aid package to offset punitive financial measures levelled against it by Russia, President Viktor Yanukovich has said.
Yanukovich had been due to sign the deal at Friday’s EU summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. But he backed out last week, following pressure from Russia.
The former Soviet republic has been at the centre of a tug-of-war between Russia and the EU.
At the Vilnius summit, Yanukovich detailed Ukraine’s economic woes, citing high prices for the Russian gas on which it is dependent.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe would provide Ukraine with natural gas in future, – although the bloc’s current ability to do so for long periods is limited, should Moscow decide to turn off the taps.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine in the last while has turned out to be alone in dealing with serious financial and economic problems,” he told European leaders.
“So today we need from our European partners decisive steps to be taken towards Ukraine to work out, and realise, a programme of financial-economic aid.”
Yanukovych’s government says Ukraine cannot afford to sacrifice trade with Russia for closer ties to the EU.
As Kiev intensified talks with Brussels in recent months, Russia imposed punishing trade sanctions.
Yanukovich’s decision to walk away from the EU deal has led to days of protests by thousands in Vilnius.
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Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader whose release had been sought by European politicians as a prerequisite for Ukraine talks, had earlier called on EU leaders to drop all preconditions to strike a deal with the country.
“I thank you for steadfastly defending democracy in Ukraine,” read a statement from the 53-year-old.
“But today it’s necessary to release not just separate political prisoners – it’s necessary to free Ukraine.”
Yanukovich proposed starting three-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU and urged Brussels to help Ukraine soften the terms of a possible loan from the IMF.
But the EU rejected trilateral talks and said Yanukovich must give a commitment to sign the agreement that he refused to give. Merkel said she had no hope that the EU and Ukraine would reach agreement at the Vilnius summit, which ends on Friday, but she said the door remained open to Ukraine.
Diplomats at the summit did manage to agree political association deals with two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, putting them on track to sign formally in around a year. A visa agreement with Azerbaijan was also signed.
The goal of the project, the Eastern Partnership, was to reel in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, but that will most probably not happen for more than a year, diplomats said.