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EU Delay on Visa-free Travel for Ukrainians Fuels Sense of Betrayal

As activists gathered on an icy Kiev square this weekend to commemorate the authorities’ bloody response to the wave of protests three years ago that eventually swept the then president from power, the mood was sombre.

he country’s 2013-14 Maidan revolution was sparked by Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal, under pressure from Moscow, to sign a groundbreaking integration agreement with the EU. When dozens of demonstrators were mown down by snipers in February 2014, some held EU flags.

But many Ukrainians feel increasingly let down by the 28-nation bloc they saw as a model and mentor.

“I wish that Europeans would hold true to values which they talk about, [and] open the doors for Ukrainians,” said Ihor Luchuk, serving food and drink to the activists as the bells of Kiev’s gold-domed St Michael’s cathedral rang in the background. “If you promise to open the border, then do it. We held up to our side of the bargain. We adopted the laws expected of us.”

Mr Luchuk was referring to a long-promised agreement to grant Ukrainians visa-free travel to the EU. Kiev had hoped it would be in place by the year-end but it looks set to be delayed for weeks, or even months.

More worryingly, the very EU integration deal that sparked the revolution is looking shaky. Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, warned last week he would scupper the agreement after Dutch voters rejected it in a non-binding April referendum, unless the Netherlands received binding guarantees that it was not a step towards Ukraine’s eventual EU membership.

Many Ukrainians saw the agreement as precisely that. Even with Brussels officials hopeful they can find a solution before an EU summit on Thursday, the risk is that Ukrainians still see the bloc as trying to close its doors to them.

The stakes for the EU are significant in this large eastern European country, where the west and Russia have long sparred for influence. Further disillusion with the EU among Ukrainians could leave the pro-western government vulnerable.

“This is testing the credibility of the European Union . . . I am not being very diplomatic now,” Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister in charge of European integration, told the FT. “It feels like some kind of betrayal . . . especially taking into account the price we paid for our European aspirations. None of the European Union member countries paid such a price.”

The administration of President Petro Poroshenko, brought to power by the 2014 revolution, has invested considerable political capital in securing the visa-free deal. A recent poll showed 40 per cent of Ukrainians rated it an important issue.

Officials hope it will reverse plunging support for the government after the economic and political shocks caused by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian-fomented war in eastern Ukraine, and hardship caused by reforms demanded by Kiev’s western financial backers.

But visa-free travel from non-member countries has become a politically sensitive issue in the EU amid the refugee crisis. In an effort to assuage concerns, officials last week crafted a mechanism allowing such travel regimes to be temporarily suspended if necessary.

They said that once agreement on the “emergency brake” was reached, the way could be cleared for EU borders to be swiftly opened for 4.5m citizens of Georgia, another ex-Soviet republic that has embraced democracy and signed an association and trade agreement with Brussels.

It feels like some kind of betrayal . . . especially taking into account the price we paid for our European aspirations. None of the European Union member countries paid such a price

Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister

ButUkraine’s 43m people would have to wait until the adoption in law of the brake, prolonging the process for weeks — even though, Ms Zerkal notes, Brussels has confirmed that Kiev has fulfilled all its requirements. A senior European official said the condition had been laid down by France.

Some Ukrainians smell a conspiracy. “We now hardly believe in any promises,” Ms Zerkal said.

In an interview with the FT, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Nato chief who has been advising Mr Poroshenko, warned Ukraine could spiral into a “very dangerous situation” if the west did not show more support in return for Kiev’s reform efforts.

Ukrainians were already unhappy with rising energy prices resulting from reforms tied to a $17.5bn IMF bailout, he said. “The EU should take that into account and do what they can to stabilise the president and the government, and to that end they need to deliver on their promises,” he added. “The government has actually carried out more reforms during the last two-and-a-half years than in the previous 25 years, and not all of those reforms are popular.”

Handing out buckwheat porridge and tea at the weekend commemoration, Mr Luchuk said he understood western European concerns that Ukrainians might flood into the EU, where they are already a big migrant labour force in some countries — although under the deal they would be limited to 90 days’ EU travel in any 180-day period. Less clear to him and many fellow citizens is why so many Europeans seem to have turned against the EU project itself.

“We want into the European Union but we see that Britain has left,” he said. “It’s very unpleasant that the main idea from which our revolution started is dying.”

Source: Financial Times