EU ministers on mission to crisis-stricken Ukraine

18th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Germany and Poland’s visits come as the EU and Russia compete for influence in Ukraine, which saw its old pro-Moscow elite swept from power in the Orange Revolution of 2004.

Kiev -- The foreign ministers of Germany and Poland on Wednesday visited Ukraine to help a strategically-vital state wracked by economic turmoil and doubts over its ability to pay Russian gas bills.

The visit by Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany and Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski comes as the EU and Russia compete for influence in Ukraine, which saw its old pro-Moscow elite swept from power in the Orange Revolution of 2004.

Steinmeier said Berlin and Warsaw were "particularly concerned" about Ukraine -- which has borders with four EU states as well as Russia -- as it faces a double-barrelled political and economic crisis.

"A political crisis clearly because the blockade in parliament and between the president and the government has dragged on so long and of course an economic crisis that has hit Ukraine particularly hard," he told reporters.

The ministers, who earlier arrived onboard a German Luftwaffe plane, were to hold one day of talks with figures including President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich.

Steinmeier and Sikorski hope to persuade Ukraine's leading political actors to try to break their impasse so that further international economic assistance could have an impact.

The global economic crisis has delivered a body blow to Ukraine, with the World Bank forecasting a nine-percent contraction this year and production of its export-orientated industry in freefall.

Steinmeier and Sikorski, as representatives of the two EU member states with the closest ties to Ukraine, sent a joint letter to the Czech EU presidency in April calling for closer ties between the bloc and Kiev.

The letter underlined the potentially serious consequences of a further destabilisation of the country due to political gridlock and a deteriorating economy and called on Ukraine to press on with crucial reforms.

Sikorski said Poland and Germany aimed to build on the "Eastern Partnership" extended to Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics by the EU in May, which offers financial incentives for economic and political reforms.

Sikorski also announced a new Ukrainian-Polish agreement on opening border traffic that will come into force July 1.

"The free movement of people is important to the Eastern Partnership and we want to be helpful to the Ukrainians in that way as well," he said.

The EU -- which receives a quarter one-quarter of its gas from Russia, most of it piped across Ukraine -- is also deeply concerned about repeated disruptions of its supply.

Ukraine was forced to tap into its reserves this month to pay a Russian gas bill, with a summer of supply interruptions to Europe from a new Kiev-Moscow gas crisis still a real threat.

Tymoshenko said Tuesday that Ukraine wanted to borrow four billion dollars (2.9 billion euros) from European banks to pay for Russian gas to refill its storage facilities.

Russia, meanwhile, has condemned EU moves to bolster ties with countries it sees in its sphere of influence, but has urged the EU to come up with a loan for Kiev to pay for its gas.

But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday showed Moscow was prepared to use its capacities, saying that Russia has already paid Ukraine 2.2 billion dollars (1.6 billion euros) for its 2009 gas transit fees to Europe.

"I hope very much that discipline within the framework of existing contracts will be maintained by both sides and in the future," he added, saying the pre-payment of the sum essentially amounted to a loan.

Deborah Cole/AFP/Expatica

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