Ukraine under pressure at EU-Russia tug-of-war summit
Ukraine was under pressure to choose sides Thursday as an EU summit designed to draw six ex-Soviet states into the Western fold opened Thursday amid a tough East-West tussle.
The summit was originally due to have crowned an ambitious five-year bid by the European Union to reach out to states on its eastern flank, but days before the talks, Ukraine, the biggest prize, caved in to Moscow turning its back on the West.
Kiev's surprise decision to scrap a landmark political and trade accord with the EU triggered a war of words between East and West reminiscent of the Cold War era, and sparked some of the biggest protests seen in Ukraine in a decade.
Brussels insists the deal is "still on the table" despite the rebuff and Kiev says it could even still sign it.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was due to meet EU leaders in the overcast frosty Lithuanian capital ahead of a formal summit dinner at 1800 GMT and the country's President Dalia Grybauskaite said efforts would continue tirelessly to pull him West.
"Until the last minute negotiations continue over the Ukraine situation," she told national radio. "Over 60 percent of people in Ukraine want this agreement. I anticipate difficult talks."
But the prospects for compromise at the two-day talks appeared limited.
"Low expectations at the Eastern Partnership summit", the name of the EU drive to build closer ties with former Soviet nations in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, said global think-tank Stratfor.
As pro-EU Ukrainians took to the streets, the president's arch-foe, jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko urged EU states to refrain from fighting for her release -- long a sticking point in the bid to seal the EU-Ukrainian deal.
"I passionately ask you to sign the agreement on Friday without any hesitation and conditions including those that are related to my release," Tymoshenko said in a message late Wednesday.
"It's necessary to free Ukraine," she said.
Her daughter Euguenia told AFP that if Yanukovych "fails to sign the agreement tomorrow, we cannot predict how people will react."
Keen to show Moscow's former communist satellites in Eastern Europe that the summit matters, almost all EU leaders will attend, including the "Big Three" of Britain, France and Germany.
The accent is on the future, they argue, rather than the past.
"We should overcome the mentality 'either us or them.' The Cold War is over," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, admonishing Russian President Vladimir Putin to look at the wider picture.
---- Only Moldova, Georgia ready to sign ----
The Eastern Partnership summit also includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus, aiming to strike trade and aid deals with the EU but vast Ukraine, with its 45 million people, industry and farms, is the major prize.
To make matters worse, Brussels has also seen Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus turn back towards a Moscow which has reminded all of how much they stand to lose if they make the wrong choice.
Only Moldova and Georgia -- which fought a 2008 war with Russia -- are now ready to initial agreements with the EU but Moscow could well apply pressure on them too before the deals are formally signed in around a year.
"Russia has already begun to increase pressure on these states as well," Stratfor said.
A final statement is expected to offer a veiled warning to President Vladimir Putin to avoid meddling.
Yanukovych insists the EU offered insufficient compensation to offset what Ukraine might lose in economic ties with Russia.
Brussels says that after months of arm-twisting by Moscow, Ukraine's exports to Russia dropped 25 percent. Ukraine is also heavily dependent on Russia's natural gas.
The EU has come under stiff criticism for its handling of negotiations with Yanukovych, seen as having played both sides in his own interest of winning elections in 2015.
"We were so intent on coming to a common policy that we forgot to look at what was happening in Ukraine," said an Eastern European diplomat close to the negotiations who asked not to be identified.
The six ex-Soviet states too were disappointed not to be clearly offered EU membership at the end of the line, a politically sensitive issue in many European states where far-right xenophobic parties are on the rise.
But others say the East-West row over Ukraine has shown the real face of Russian diplomacy.
"The Ukraine case will make many governments in the region and elsewhere think twice about their dealings with Moscow," said Carnegie Europe director Jan Techau.
© 2013 AFP