Pressure grows on EU to hit Ukraine regime with sanctions
The EU's 28 foreign ministers will gather in Brussels for an emergency meeting on Thursday (20 February) to discuss possible sanctions against the Ukrainian leadership after at least 26 people were killed in the crackdown against pro-EU protesters in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland were expected in Kyiv on Thursday to assess the situation before the EU meeting and decide whether to impose sanctions, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
"With my Polish and German colleagues we have decided to go to Kyiv tomorrow morning ... to gather the latest information before the meeting in Brussels," Fabius said alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, cited by Reuters.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the 28-nation bloc was set to impose sanctions against those blamed for the bloodshed. Senior political figures even called for extending sanctions to Russian officials who are suspected of supporting the crackdown on protestors.
“It was with shock and utter dismay that we have been watching developments over the last 24 hours in Ukraine. There are no circumstances that can legitimise or justify such scenes … We therefore expect that targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force can be agreed by our member states as a matter of urgency," Barroso said.
EU ambassadors were meeting in Brussels to consider steps including travel bans to asset freezes on key figures of the Ukrainian regime. Poland and Latvia called for emergency EU action against the Ukrainian authorities.
Pop star begins hunger strike
The centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) took a particularly tough line, calling on the EU to impose sanctions to all those instigating violence, including Russian officials who had called for a crackdown on protestors. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament.
At a press conference hastily organised by the EPP in the European Parliament, Ruslana Lyzhychko, a Ukrainian singer and Euromaidan activist, announced she was starting a hunger strike, saying she would only end it after the EU imposes sanctions on the regime. She directly flew to Kyiv after the presser.
“This is not a civil war, not a revolution, this is a war of Yanukovich against his own people,” Lyzhychko said, calling on the EU to send observers to Ukraine to attest the extent of violence used against the protestors.
German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and is seen as a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the EPP had decided unanimously that “personalised sanctions against certain responsible people must be set up now”. The EPP calls on member states to prepare such a list, he added.
The sanctions, he said, should consist of a travel ban and freezing assets held on European bank accounts.
“We saw mister [Mykola] Azarov, after he was no longer prime minister going to Vienna to look for his assets”, adding that oligarchs with bank accounts in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands would be in a “quite interesting” situation. He added that the EU should make full use of its money laundering directive to check if Ukrainian accounts were holding “clear money or not”.
Immediate action needed: Brok
“Our clear opinion is that this is no longer the time of press releases”, Brok said, referring to the series of rather toothless statements made by EU officials until now.
“Putin is partly responsible for the violence in Ukraine”, Brok said, pointing the finger at the Russian President for supporting the repression in Ukraine.
The president of the EPP group in the European Parliament, Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, said sanctions were overdue and that Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich had been given plenty of time to prepare for them. He argued that sanctions would anyway only bring “moral satisfaction” to European leaders as the real master pulling the strings was Moscow.
Saryusz-Wolski even argued in favour of extending EU sanctions to Russia, saying such measure could soon become necessary if Moscow decided to retaliate by blocking trade with Ukraine or Moldova. He said the sanctions should also apply if Moscow exerts pressure on Ukraine and Moldova in the field of energy, or if Moscow blocks their workers from the Russian market.
The EU should respond “symmetrically” to Russian threats, Saryusz-Wolski stressed.
The Polish MEP added that personal sanctions should be targeted against a Russian official, Sergei Glazyev, because he had openly called for a crackdown on Ukrainian demonstrators. Glazyev is a close advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked to comment on tomorrow’s ministerial meeting, the European Commission only confirmed that unanimity was needed for agreeing sanctions, and that all those responsible for the violence would be held accountable.
For the rest, the Commission said it was not going to prejudge the decision of member states, which were free to decide the extent and exact form of sanctions.
It is far from certain however that the EU will succeed in obtaining the necessary unanimity to impose sanctions.
The prime ministers of Bulgaria and Romania, Plamen Oresharski and Victor Ponta, as well as the president of Hungary, János Áder, were among the few EU leaders who attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in the Russian resort of Sochi. Their presence in Sochi could be an indicator of a pro-Russian inclination among those countries that could make a consensus more difficult to reach, diplomats said.
Greece and Cyprus are also seen as more “pro-Russian” as they have attracted substantial Russian capital and investments
Bulgaria for instance is under Russian pressure regarding several energy projects, including the planned South Stream gas pipeline and a planned nuclear central at Belene. And Hungary has inked a deal with Russia to build two additional nuclear reactors in the country's only nuclear power station, a project financed by Russia.
Asked whether Sofia was ready to back sanction, Sergei Stanishev, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is the leading force in the governing coalition, remained ambiguous.
“For me politically what is most important is that violence should stop and political dialogue should be engaged," he said today. "Each decision should be considered under this prism – whether it contributes to the political dialogue or not. Each EU country will adopt its position,” he said, speaking to Bulgarian journalists in Brussels on Wednesday (19 February).
Stanishev, who is also the President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), said the biggest threat was the division of Ukraine and that forces on both sides were working towards that end.
In the meantime, Bulgaria's foreign minister Kristaina Vigenin said that preparation for introducing sanctions should start immedialy, Bulgarian media reported.
The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU. Instead, Yanukovich accepted a $15-billion (€11 billion) Russian bailout.
Following the news that the country’s president Viktor Yanukovich failed to sign the AA at the Vilnius summit on 28-29 November, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in what is called the EuroMaidan protest, demanding his resignation [read more]. In the meantime, Yanukovich accepted a $15-billion (€11 billion) Russian bailout.
On 18 February at least 26 people died in the worst violence since the EuroMaidan protests started. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accused pro-European opposition leaders of trying to seize power.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke today on the phone with President Yanukovich. A Commission statement said: “[Barroso] conveyed his shock and dismay with the recent clashes in Ukraine which led to the death and injury of a number of people. He called for an immediate end to the violence and firmly condemned the use of force to solve the political crisis. He recalled the special responsibility of the Ukrainian government to avoid violence and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
"He stressed the importance of all actors committing to a political process without pre-conditions in a spirit of shared responsibility. He referred to the fact that while the EU remains ready to assist and facilitate this process it will react firmly to the deterioration of the situation. The Foreign Affairs Council will meet tomorrow to discuss targeted measures against those responsible for the violence.”
- 20 Feb.: EU ministers hold extraordinary meeting to discuss Ukraine sanctions