Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ukraine Makes Pitch for Stronger Ties With E.U.

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Visiting Brussels before Moscow on his first foreign trip, the new president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovich, on Monday promised closer relations with the European Union and reform of his country’s strategically important gas sector.
During a day of high-level meetings, Mr. Yanukovich sought to reassure the Union that Ukraine would press for strong ties with the 27-country bloc, rather than turning its focus away from the west and toward integration with Russia.

Mr. Yanukovich is seen in European capitals as being closer to Russia than his predecessor, Viktor A. Yushchenko, and his choice of Brussels for his first foreign visit was seen as an important symbol.

“For Ukraine, European integration is a key priority of our foreign policy,” said Mr. Yanukovich, who added that his aim was “friendly and constructive relations with the Russian Federation and developing friendly relations with strategic partners such as the United States.” He is to visit Moscow for talks on Friday.

Mr. Yanukovich won from the European Union a target date in 12 months for completing negotiations on a free-trade deal but no promise that Ukraine — a country of around 46 million people which borders the E.U. — would be able to join the bloc.

Mr. Yanukovich, who campaigned against Ukraine’s membership in NATO, said Kiev would continue partnership programs with the alliance. “As to the future, it’s an issue to negotiate, to discuss,” he added, “but the status of Ukraine is not going to change.”

While the E.U. has been cautious about offering Ukraine any path to membership in the bloc, it is eager to foster political stability on its borders, and anxious that the Ukraine should become a reliable energy partner. Faith in Ukraine as a dependable transit country has been shaken by several disruptions to energy supplies brought about by price disputes between Kiev and Moscow.

“We need urgent progress on modernization and restructuring of the gas sector,” said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, who wants more transparency and market mechanisms in the Ukrainian gas sector.

Changes sought by the European Union include tariff increases for gas supplies for domestic consumers and businesses and the restructuring of Naftogaz, the country’s leading energy company, to ensure its sustainability.

If Ukraine adopts a new gas law in line with E.U. regulations, Kiev could sign the Energy Community Treaty and therefore encourage foreign direct investment.

Mr. Yanukovich said he was “ready to adopt a law on the internal gas market.”

“Yanukovich is somebody we can work with,” said one E.U. official not authorized to speak publicly about Monday’s meetings. “It was a very strong political signal to come to Brussels before going to Moscow, and it was a very positive first meeting.”

The E.U. is pressing Ukraine to restart discussions with the International Monetary Fund, which last year suspended a loan program to Kiev. Officials see this as a precursor to an improved climate for investment.

Mr. Yanukovich said the two sides had also discussed visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union. In other meetings, he pressed for cooperation on transport links for the Euro 2012 soccer championship that will be held in Ukraine and Poland, officials said.

The Ukrainian Parliament will hold a vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko on Wednesday as Mr. Yanukovich seeks to consolidate power, Reuters reported from Kiev.

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