Many politicians in Ukraine wish to see their country enter the EU through the main entrance. The reality, however, is that the process will likely result in entry via a side door after hanging around in several waiting rooms in the meantime, experts in Brussels and Kyiv told EurActiv.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Commission officials said they had to rein in attempts to develop a more visionary approach for Ukraine due to opposition from key member states, including Germany.
As for the timing of accession, Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine's vice-prime minister for European integration, told EurActiv that 2020 had been mentioned as a possible accession date in one enlargement scenario.
Nemyria nevertheless said "realism" prevails in Kiev regarding possible enlargement dates, adding that the country attaches more importance to the quality of its integration than the pace.
The economic and financial crisis has severely hit Ukraine's unreformed economy, with a huge metallurgy sector inherited from the Soviet Union. Any changes are therefore likely to be painful and take time. This is why Ukraine needs incentives for change in the medium term, according to sources familiar with the matter.
One important such step is the lifting of the visa requirement for Ukrainian citizens to travel to the EU's Schengen area, a move which was recently been envisaged for several Western Balkan countries (EurActiv 16/07/09).
Visa-free travel does not imply work permits, although some EU countries fear an increase in illegal work. On the other hand, some Ukrainians fear that lifting visa barriers with the EU would create a similar barrier with Russia, which does not exist at present.
One important target for Ukraine to achieve is visa-free travel ahead of the 2012 European Football Championships, which the country is jointly hosting along with Poland. However, the economic crisis has brought with it delays in preparing for this landmark sports event, prompting other countries to mull stepping in to host the event.
The clearer leadership the country needs could come after presidential elections scheduled for 17 January 2010. Leading experts believe Ukraine most urgently requires constitutional reform to ensure convergence between its political bodies (EurActiv 29/05/09).
Europe, NATO and Russia could be among the topics distinguishing candidates in the January presidential elections. Commentators believe that the cross-cutting issue might underpin the campaign of Viktor Yanukovitch, a former prime minister supported by many Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and current leader of the Party of the Regions.
His former opponent and current president Viktor Yushenko is strongly pro-Western, and counts on old independence bodies like the prestigious Roukh, but is languishing low in opinion polls.
The other hero of the orange revolution, Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, has a pro-Western image but is deemed essentially pragmatic regarding relations with Russia.
Outside this 'group of three grandees', Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, is seen as a liberal moderniser (EurActiv 27/07/09), but others describe him as pragmatic as well. Interestingly, most other candidates confess that Yatsenyuk could become prime minister. He is currently running a massive poster campaign of his own.
Security aspects, relations with Russia
Security and institutional aspects raise a number of other important issues. In the case of the EU's recent enlargement, East European countries tended first to join NATO as a clear geopolitical demarcation.
In the case of Ukraine, the situation is likely to be different, as the country's relations with Russia are likely to remain strong. Russia sees Kyiv as the cradle of its civilisation. Many families there are bi-national and a lot of Ukrainians still prefer the Russian language to Ukrainian.
Overall, Ukrainian public opinion does not seem to be particularly aware of the country's approaching fundamental choices and seems strongly in favour of joining the EU. However, they are worried about raising new barriers with Russia, and a majority are opposed to NATO membership.
Many Ukrainians fear that Moscow covets Ukraine's strategic Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea, which is home to an ethnic Russian majority and is the site of a Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol (EurActiv 19/09/08).
The 'frozen conflict' of Transnistria, on Moldovan territory bordering Ukraine, is another hotbed of tension. Although internationally, Transnistria is part of Moldova, the region is de facto controlled by Russia. With such problems still unresolved, it is unrealistic to discuss deeper EU integration, said officials in both Kyiv and Brussels.
On a more optimistic note, policy analysts said that Ukraine’s relations with Russia should not necessarily collide because of the country’s EU rapprochement. They pointed out that Russia also has an agenda for stronger, closer and better structured relations with the Union (EurActiv 14/05/09), although of a different kind, since Moscow does not seek accession.
"The trick is to find the right mix for both approaches," a Commission official said.
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