Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych sharply criticised the EU's policies towards Ukraine days before a September 14 EU-Ukraine summit. Yanukovych voiced disappointment with EU visa and trade restrictions, following Ukraine's ambassador to the EU condemnation of its current handling of Ukraine as a "neighbour" rather than candidate for membership.
The summit, hosted by Ukraine's president and prime minister, is due to be attended by the presidents of the EU and the European Commission. The discussions are expected to focus on the progress the country has made.
Yanukovych, criticising the EU's relations with Ukraine on trade and visa issues, said they were "not, to some extent, to our liking".
"There is the visa regime which we feel is too tough. And as for trade, we see that a system is being introduced which worsens the position of our producers on the European market," said Yanukovych, who faces an election later this month.
"We see that new anti-dumping cases are being opened, Customs duties are rising. We would not like the preparation of a ten-year agreement with the EU to take place against the background of a co-operation that, in some cases, is worsening," he added.
Attacking the EU's visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens, Yanukovych said, "In our opinion, it is rather tough, and forces our people to stand in queues in front of embassies. We should probe this issue and express our point of view about the current drawbacks in the relations with the EU."
Yanukovych became prime minister last year in an impressive political comeback from his defeat in the 2004 presidential election to Viktor Yushchenko.
He is widely seen as closer to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, than the EU, while Yushchenko is perceived as having better relations with Brussels. However, in the 2006 elections, Yanukovych moved to draw up a "road map" to EU membership, and his government has reiterated its commitment to accession. Indeed, the government's criticisms of the 27-member bloc have concerned its failure to accept Ukraine as an official accession candidate and the EU's policies towards the former Soviet country, which it views as negative and inadequate.
Despite their differences, Yushchenko agrees with the prime minister. "This direction of Ukrainian politics has no alternatives," said the president. "It is not just a matter of fashion that we move towards the West."
A bitter power struggle between the country's leaders led to an early election being called for late September.
Many have viewed Yanukovych's comments as an attempt to shore up his core vote before the election. His Party of the Regions garners the bulk of its support largely in the eurosceptic south and east of the country; the opposition Yushchenko-affiliated Our Ukraine is better supported in the broadly pro-EU west.
Officials from the European Commission (EC), which oversees negotiations with prospective member states, did not comment directly on Yanukovych's remarks. They asserted that the process of the EU establishing a free trade agreement with Ukraine had not been waylaid by recent political squabbling within the country, but that Ukraine's ongoing process of joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had to be finalised before a the agreement could be opened. Ukrainian officials have said they hope this will happen by the end of the year, or in early 2008 at the latest.
"We have done four rounds [of negotiations] so far," EC spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told the press. "They haven't been influenced by the political crisis in the country at all, so we hope that the calming down of the situation in the political field will also continue our negotiations."
"In the end this will lead on to a new enhanced partnership agreement with Ukraine," she added. "WTO is one of the problems. In order to be able to have a free trade agreement with Ukraine, they have to join the WTO."
Yanukovych's broadside followed Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Roman Shpek, criticism of the EU's inclusion of Ukraine in its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Speaking at a high-level conference on the ENP in Brussels in early September, Shpek reiterated Ukraine's stance, laid out by Yanukovych. "The ENP cannot be accepted as an adequate basis for EU-Ukraine relations," the ambassador said. "We can only work on the premise that Ukraine remains an integral part of [a] united Europe."
The ENP "aims to forge closer ties with EU neighbours without offering them a membership perspective" and encompasses such diverse countries and territories as Belarus, Libya and the Gaza Strip. The Ukrainian government has asserted that bilateral negotiations are the best method for developing relations and moving the country towards full EU membership.
Despite the spat - which should be seen in the context of a hotly contested election - Shpek stated that the delay in the EC's acceptance of Ukraine's application for membership was temporary. Many analysts in Ukraine and the EU believe that the Commission is holding up the commencement of membership negotiations due to current scepticism towards enlargement among the Union's citizens.
They point out that EC President Jose Manuel Barroso has said that Ukraine's future is in the EU, and that the country's membership is supported by several of its western neighbours, as well as Western governments that see it as a potential bulwark against Russia.