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No quick offer of EU entry to Ukraine despite regime change

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No quick offer of EU entry to Ukraine despite regime change

Ukraine Flag Maidan - Photo Halibutt

(BRUSSELS) - While saying it "hears" Ukraine's dream of joining the EU, the Western bloc failed Monday to hold out the prospect of entry in spite of regime change that began with pro-EU protests.

As the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton flew into Kiev after a weekend that saw the capital fall to protesters and the regime flee into hiding, the European Union sung a note of caution, with diplomats warning of the threat of partition and of Russian ire.

"We hear Ukraine's European aspiration, we see it and are ready to support it," said a spokesman for the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission.

But asked whether Brussels was ready to sign the ground-breaking political and trade pact years in the making that was at the root of Ukraine's three-month turmoil, spokesman Olivier Bailly said:

"No. I think our idea is that we must let a transition process go to its final point" of elections set for May 25 "and once we have a government we will be ready to discuss again."

EU officials speaking on condition of anonymity said member states and Brussels officials were involved in a flurry of contacts with Russia, which takes a dim view of events across its long border with Ukraine.

The bloc, famed for its "soft power", wants to avoid provoking Moscow and has pleaded with it not to intervene, officials said. "In compensation the EU pledged to stay out of the game," one source told AFP.

That seemed to be the message being conveyed by Germany, which said that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed in a phone call Sunday that Ukraine's "territorial integrity must be preserved."

Germany, France and the Netherlands oppose further enlargement of the bloc. But the EU's former communist members such as Poland and the Baltic states have pushed to open the bloc to ex Soviet satellites on its eastern fringe.

It was November's sudden and surprise refusal by ousted president Viktor Yanukovych to sign an Association Agreement and free trade deal that triggered the unrest leading to the dramatic events of the last days.

The EU subsequently came under sharp attack for having failed to persuade Kiev to turn away from its former masters in Moscow. Critics said there should have been an offer of short-term financial assistance, with an offer of entry into the 28-nation bloc further down the road.

It took last week's bloodshed on the streets of Kiev for EU foreign ministers to finally step into the fray, threatening sanctions against Ukrainians held responsible for the violence. They timidly slid open the door to membership by agreeing that "the Association Agreement, including a DCFTA (free trade deal), does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine cooperation."

Olli Rehn, the bloc's economic commissioner, this weekend openly dangled the EU membership carrot. He told the Financial Times in an interview in Sydney that the bloc needed "to provide Ukraine with a very clear, concrete European perspective."

"We are at a historical juncture and Europe needs to live up to its historical moment and be able to provide Ukraine with an accession perspective in the medium-to-long term," he said.

The European Council on Foreign Relations think tank also urged the EU to "offer Ukraine a clear, if distant, prospect of EU membership" in a report this weekend.

It called on the bloc to reassure Moldova and Georgia -- which are candidates to its Eastern Partnership deals -- that it would be ready to defend their choice of Europe rather than Russia "should the need arise."

But an EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the diplomatic and economic stakes are high.

"The Europeans need to convince Moscow to accept the idea that it no longer controls Kiev, while convincing the Ukrainians that Moscow be allowed to maintain its naval base in the Crimea while retaining influence in the Russian-speaking east."

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