Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov attended a lunch with his EU counterparts in Brussels yesterday (16 December). Although the whole range of the EU-Russia agenda was discussed, the situation in Ukraine dominated.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is due to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow today after making a surprise U-turn in November by deciding to stop the country's preparations for a far-reaching Association Agreement (AA) and deep trade pact with the EU.
EU confirms 'readiness' to talk
Following the lunch, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that foreign ministers “confirmed the EU’s readiness” to sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine, adding that the signing should have no negative effects on Russia.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was highly suspicious of Russia's intentions and tweeted during the meeting that it was “obvious that Russia has launched a massive disinformation campaign against EU and the agreement with Ukraine”.
But the Russian minister accused in return the EU of meddling in Ukraine politics, and of trying to impose a bad deal on the country, which would also harm Russia’s interests.
Meeting with a small group of journalists, Lavrov said it was not Russia who interfered, but rather the EU and Western politicians who visited the Maidan, the central square of Kyiv, where protests have taken place since 21 November with demands that Yanukovich should resign.
“Too often we hear in recent days that only if Russia didn’t meddle in Ukraine, everything will be OK,” Lavrov said, speaking in Russian. He continued: “We gave concrete examples of what we do and what our European partners do. They go to Kyiv and to Maidan, distribute cookies and say that the Ukrainian people must make a free choice in favour of Europe. If the choice is free, let the Ukrainian people decide,” Lavrov said.
The Russian minister also rejected the view that Russia was “against Europe” and was pulling Ukraine “somewhere else”.
EurActiv asked Lavrov to comment Carl Bildt’s tweet that Russia was conducting a disinformation campaign against the EU and the AA, and a statement by the Swedish minister that the EU should draw a list of all the cases when Russia used trade issues for pressure against countries in its neighbourhood.
Lavrov said Bildt was his “old friend” and a politician “who likes to express himself brightly”, but added that this time his remarks had been “unprofessional” and close to “stereoptypes of the Cold War”.
Ukraine ‘asked to remove its goal keeper’
The Russian minister slammed the AA as tantamount to asking a country not only to open its doors, but “to remove its goal keeper”. He said that any government who feels responsible about the country’s economy wouldn’t agree to such “irresponsible” move.
Lavrov argued that if Ukraine would “open at 85% to EU goods immediately”, as in his words the AA foresees, the higher quality EU goods would flow the Ukrainian market, and the lower quality Ukrainian goods would end up in Russia in Belarus.
He added that an article of the Community of Independent States (CIS) agreement, of which former Soviet republics including Ukraine are members, allows any other member country to take protective measures in such circumstances.
Lavrov said that Russia’s Customs Union was aimed precisely at raising the competitiveness of countries such as Ukraine to a level which would allow liberalising trade with the EU “on a fair basis, not unilaterally, but on a more profitable, more equitable basis”.
He added that it was Russia’s ambition to create a unified economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, suggesting that it was in Ukraine’s interest to join this space as member of the Eurasian Union, Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical project which bears similarities to the EU and is to be built on the basis of the Customs Union (see background).
“When we will achieve all our plans regarding the Customs Union and the future Eurasian Union, I’m convinced that we will move toward putting in place the common economic space between Eurasia and the EU on conditions which are mutually beneficial. Any policy can be successful if it takes into account the interest of the partner,” Lavrov said.
The Russian minister also made ironic remarks regarding the modest success of the EU to sign free trade agreements with partners outside its neighbourhood.
I asked today my European colleagues – do you have many free trade agreements signed? Apparently, there are very few, after the Lisbon Treaty there is only one”, he said, apparently referring to the FTA with Singapore.
Lavrov said he asked his EU colleagues why they had only one agreement in the recent four years, they appeared “a little confused”. He added that from their reaction and from other sources Russia knew that “the EU wants to obtain unlimited access to the respective markets”.
“There were such attempts in Latin America, in other countries, but they were not successful. The reason is that these countries think about the interests of their economies. And they know they should become more competitive before they start thinking about free trade zones. But the EU wants everything at once,” Lavrov said.
The Russian minister also said that “it is not by chance” that AA with the Eastern Partnership countries Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia had been “drafted in secret”.
“When I asked, I was told that as soon as the AA were initialed, they were published as well. But after initialing, the Commission says the AA cannot be amended,” he quipped.
Lavrov also made a comment which was disputed by EU sources contacted by EurActiv. He said that there was a in the EU a large number of countries who considered that regarding Ukraine, issues should be discussed in a trilateral format, involving Russia.
The Russian minister conveyed the message that EU countries were not united on the Ukraine issue. In fact, a hiccup at the meeting was that several EU countries disagreed with a tweet by EU enlargement chief Štefan Füle from Sunday, which read that further discussions on the AA were on hold due to a lack of commitment on the Ukrainian side. Now countries agree that work is still ongoing and the door remains open to Ukraine, “as relevant conditions are met”.
Reportedly, by meeting with Putin repeatedly in recent times, Yanukovich has become receptive to Russia’s messages and now repeats that the AA would inflict giant economic losses to his country which he wants compensated. On the EU side the message is that the AA is basically a blueprint for the country’s modernisation, and that Poland which was in the same situation as Ukraine twenty years ago is today a flourishing economy.
Protestors at Maidan anxiously wait for the news from Moscow, fearing that Yanukovich would “sell his country” to Russia.