The foreign ministers of Germany and France urged Ukraine on Monday (22 February) to quickly resolve its political crisis and recommitted themselves to efforts to resolve the separatist war in the east of the ex-Soviet state.
Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier and France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault met Ukraine’s embattled Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and were later to hold separate talks with pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko.
Berlin and Paris have been spearheading international efforts to finally end a 22-month pro-Russian revolt that has claimed more than 9,000 lives in the European Union’s backyard.
But a peace plan signed one year ago that was meant to find a solution to the conflict by the end of 2015 has expired with few of its commitments met.
And Kyiv itself has been hit by a political crisis in which Yatsenyuk survived a no-confidence vote last week, that came hours after Poroshenko urged his government leader to step down.
Opinion polls show Ukrainians increasingly unhappy with the two men’s perceived inability to fulfill the anti-corruption and reformist agenda that propelled them to power after the February 2014 ouster of Kyiv’s Moscow-backed leadership.
Both Steinmeier and Ayrault – on his first trip to Ukraine since being named France’s top diplomat on 11 February – told Yatsenyuk to stay committed to an economic streamlining agenda and to end the political bickering sweeping Kyiv.
“I am sure that you are aware that we were following – especially the last week – with great interest and some concern,” Steinmeier told Yatsenyuk.
He also warned that the International Monetary Fund would only keep alive its $17.5-billion (€15.9-billion) rescue package “if there is stability in Ukraine”.
France’s Ayrault praised Yatsenyuk for pushing through parliament a number of socially unpopular belt-tightening measures that are meant to revive sustainable Ukrainian growth.
“But we are also assessing all the work that remains to be done and it is considerable,” Ayrault added.
“I would even say that time is running out.”
Ukraine’s economy shrank by about 10% last year and is unlikely to return to growth in 2016 without the urgent release of delayed Western aid.
“We need for the economic reforms to be pushed forward Steinmeier told a joint press conference attended by Ayrault and Ukraine’s foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin.
“But it is essential that this policy is based on a principle of zero tolerance for corruption,” Steinmeier stressed.
He added that “we cannot accept that there are so many violations of the ceasefire and that the electoral law is being postponed” by Ukraine.
Such a law “would be the basis for elections to be organised in the east.”
Ayrault said the European Union “will continue to support your country”.
“However, to be clear, we need for (Ukraine’s) policies to be determined, credible and sustainable,” Ayrault said.
He further warned that “the worst scenario for Ukraine would be for it to stay in midstream, with half of the reforms adopted and a situation without prospects” in the war zone.
‘No reason to be satisfied’
The diplomats’ visit is also meant to help pave the way for a 3 March meeting with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in Paris devoted to finding a lasting solution to one of Europe’s deadliest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.
The four nations agreed the so-called Minsk II deal in February 2015 (see background) and their foreign ministers have been holding periodic talks aimed at resolving issues preventing peace from returning to Ukraine’s industrial east.
But the last round of talks in Munich on 13 February failed to deliver a breakthrough and occasionally deadly clashes along the front have continued to erupt.
Steinmeier bluntly admitted that “there is no reason to be satisfied with the progress we have made in the last months”.
“But so far, we do not see any alternative but to work on the process of (the Minsk deal’s) implementation,” the German foreign minister said.