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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 11:54 GMT
Ukrainians dream of EU future

Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is beginning a visit to Brussels, on a mission to boost ties with the European Union. The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Kiev looks at how Ukrainians feel about the bloc - in a country often portrayed as split between east and west.

Ukrainian PM Yulia Tymoshenko (left) and President Viktor Yushchenko (file photo)
Ukraine's leaders realise the path to the EU will be long and difficult

Last week, Ukrainians celebrated their Day of National Unity. President Viktor Yushchenko laid a wreath at the foot of a statue to Taras Shevchenko.

The location was significant: Shevchenko is regarded as one of the founders of Ukrainian as a literary language. And language is often cited as one of the fault lines running through Ukraine, dividing the mainly Russian-speaking east from the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west.

Indeed, the very existence of a Day of National Unity would appear to suggest the need for one. But, when it comes to the EU, it seems that Ukrainians are pretty united already.

Hopes for prosperity

In a recent poll, more than 63% of Ukrainians said they were in favour of joining the bloc.

People carry a huge Ukrainian flag in Kiev. File photo
Many Ukrainians think joining the EU would raise living standards

Yes, there were regional variations: westerners were generally more enthusiastic than easterners.

But in most regions, a majority thought their lives would improve faster if their country were inside the EU.

"It is another step to our future, to a better life," one bystander said, as she watched the president lay his wreath.

"Everyone wants to get into the European Union," she said.

'Lack of consensus'

In many ways, ties between Ukraine and the EU are by necessity already strong.

Many people's reluctance to view Ukraine as a candidate for membership has very little to do with a judgement on Ukraine
Ian Boag, head of European Commission team in Kiev

In 2004, with the accession of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, Ukraine became the EU's eastern frontier.

The EU is Ukraine's largest trading partner - the latest figures show 26.6bn euros (20bn) worth of bilateral trade in 2006. And it is a figure that is growing every year.

But the government in Kiev wants full membership and has made no secret of this ambition.

Meanwhile, the EU itself is not quite so enthusiastic. The feeling in many EU countries is that, at 27 members, the Union is big enough for now.

"It may take time," said Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for European integration.

"We're fully aware there is still a lack of consensus within the EU about the so-called European prospects of Ukraine, meaning membership in the future.

"But we are also aware of the history of the European Union itself: it started from six countries, and now it is a union of 27," Mr Nemyria said.

Russian power

But not everyone shares the minister's optimism.

Worker at gas station in Ukraine. File photo
Gas is at the heart of Ukraine's multi-faceted relations with Russia

Dmitry Pasternak is a haulage broker from Donetsk, in the east of the country. He sends cargo by road from Ukraine to destinations across Europe.

His business would benefit if Ukraine were to join the EU. But he says that many in his home town do not believe the EU will ever let them in. And, meanwhile, they fear alienating Russia.

"Russia can easily raise the price of gas, which means additional expenses for ordinary people. People in the Donetsk region have little hope for support from the European Union. I don't think Russia will easily put up with the loss of Ukraine as a loyal partner," Mr Pasternak says.

The EU says it is not trying to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its giant neighbour to the east.

"Relations between Ukraine and the European Union, on the one hand, and Ukraine and Russia, on the other, are not a zero-sum game", says Ian Boag, the head of the European Commission's delegation to Kiev.

"To get on better with one, you don't have to get on worse with the other. We believe it is in Ukraine's interest, and in the European Union's interest, that Ukraine has good relations with Russia," Mr Boag says.

'Not Ukraine's fault'

And with good reason: Russia supplies Europe with a quarter of its natural gas. Some 80% of that is transported via pipelines that run through Ukraine.

map

Russia briefly turned off the taps to Ukraine in a dispute over energy prices in 2006, causing shortages there and in several EU countries.

The prospect of Ukraine actually joining the EU remains a long way off. And, according to Mr Boag, that is mostly not Ukraine's fault.

"Many people's reluctance to view Ukraine as a candidate for membership has very little to do with a judgement on Ukraine. A lot of it has to do with a judgement on how deep and how far geographically the European Union should go," Mr Boag says.

Nevertheless, Yulia Tymoshenko will want to persuade leaders in Brussels that her country is serious about implementing the reforms the EU has identified as necessary for Ukraine to continue down the road towards membership.

In exchange, there is talk of a possible free trade agreement.

In opinion polls about the advantages of EU membership, Ukrainians consistently mention two things: a higher standard of living, and the opportunity to live and work abroad.

A free trade agreement could well achieve something in terms of the former. For the latter, Ukrainians still have some time to wait.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Ukrainian traders on the benefits of joining the EU



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