Kyiv has decided to put its move for closer integration with the EU on hold in favour of talks to revive economic relations with Russia, one week before the country was expected to sign a landmark association agreement with the 28-country bloc in Vilnius.

Lithuanian Presidency thunderstuck by Ukraine’s decision to put its EU association on ice

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EU diplomats made no secret of the fact that they were flabbergasted by developments in Kyiv today (21 November).

First, the Ukrainian parliament failed to pass laws that would allow jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to go to Germany for medical treatment. Her release was seen as a sine qua non condition for the signature of the association agreement (AA) in Vilnius.

Neither the Party of the Regions President Viktor Yanukovich, also the country's president, and the Communist Party did not cast votes, the six draft laws failed to gather the required 226 votes to pass.

"President Yanukovich is personally stopping Ukraine's road to Europe," said former Economy Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivschchyna party of Tymoshenko.

A photo circulating over social media depicted EU Ambassador to Kyiv Jan Tombiński, present during the vote, holding his head in despair.

Two hours later, the Ukrainian government announced it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an association agreement with the EU. The statement underlined that the decision was taken with a view to elaborating measures towards “Russia and other countries from the Community of Independent States”.

Ukraine said it would propose to the EU and Russia the formation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues”. Also, Kyiv will “resume an active dialogue with the Russian Federation and other countries of the Customs Union and the member states of the CIS on the revival of trade and economic relations in order to preserve and strengthen joint efforts of economic potential”.

The statement does not say whether Ukraine intends to join the Customs Union led by its former Soviet master Russia (see background), which the EU says is incompatible the statute for countries associated with the Western bloc.

The statement has thunderstruck EU officials. Appearing at a press event minutes after the Ukrainian government’s decision became known, Linas Linkevičius, foreign minister of Lithuania, the country holding the rotating EU presidency, said there was not enough clarity following the announcement, and the best option was “to wait” for more information.

“Very difficult to comment immediately, very difficult to say something more. We always said it was in the hands of Ukrainians how to behave, that it was in the hands of Ukrainian leadership, especially of President Yanukovich,” he said.

Linkevičius said the hosts of the Vilnius summit were searching for answers to many questions ahead of the meeting.

He appeared to try to make light of the situation by saying that the developments were “interesting, not boring”.

“We don’t have clarity from Ukraine. Let’s wait. Political life is intensive and very dynamic,” Linkevičius said.

Asked by EurActiv if it was a mistake to present the closer EU association of Eastern partnership countries - namely Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia - as a kind of zero-sum game in which either the EU or Russia would win, he said that there was no precedent for another country, Russia, becoming involved in such negotiations with a third country.

In the same way, he said the EU was not involved in the Customs Union accession negotiations between Russia with Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, and that this was normal.

It is “very difficult” to discuss issues when a zero-sum approach is applied, he insisted, but this was not the way the EU was seeing the process, he added.

Asked if an extraordinary meeting of foreign affairs ministers would be called, he said it was not excluded, but it was up to EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton to take the decision.

He also said that EU diplomats had information that former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, who is serving a jail sentence, would make a statement.

Speaking at the same event, Steven Blockmans, head of EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, said that it appeared that “the whole idea of the Eastern partnership was going down the drain”.

On Sunday, the Ukrainian opposition is expected to organise a march in support of closer ties with the EU.