VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — The European Union extended its geopolitical reach eastward on Friday by sealing association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, but blamed Russia for pressuring Ukraine out of a landmark deal with the 28-nation bloc.
Even though Friday's summit of government leaders ceremoniously celebrated the closer relations with the two small eastern nations, the refusal of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych to sign up to a similar deal continued to hang heavy over the meeting.
"There was pressure for sure," French President Francois Hollande said, adding that Ukraine was heavily leaned on, "notably through gas."
The Kremlin has worked aggressively to derail the EU deal by offering Kiev loans and price discounts, imposing painful trade sanctions and threatening Ukraine with giant gas bills. Ukraine has had to suffer through several cold winter spells when Russia tightened the tap during politically sensitive times.
In a video released by the Lithuanian presidency, Yanukovych told German Chancellor Angela Merkel late Thursday that "the economic situation in Ukraine is very difficult," before adding some time later that "I have been one-on-one with Russia for three and a half years under very unequal conditions."
Yet Merkel lauded Georgia and Moldova for withstanding similar pressure and still moving westward.
"When you see how, in part, pressure is being exerted on these countries through trade restrictions, then I also simply say that it is a very brave step," Merkel said.
Though the negotiations have been painted as a diplomatic battle royal between Brussels and Moscow with a key eastern European nation of 46 million as the ultimate prize, the EU is insisting everyone would gain.
"The task for us as members of the EU also lies in speaking more strongly with Russia about how to get out of this either-or (situation) — either commitment to Russia, or commitment to the European Union," Merkel said during a break in the summit.
Even last-minute talks on the sidelines of the summit late Thursday failed to sway Yanukovych. At the same time, Ukraine complained that the EU hadn't offered enough in financial incentives to secure a deal.
Hollande said that "the partnership remains open, but it is up to the Ukrainians first to want it." And he ruled out offering more EU funds to Ukraine to help offset what it would lose if Moscow turned a cold shoulder toward Kiev.
"We cannot, like the Ukrainian president would like it, insist on such equivalence, namely to insist that we pay Ukraine to get into an association agreement," Hollande said. "No, we won't pay."
Yanukovych shocked the 28-country bloc last week by suddenly freezing the long-negotiated deal days before it was due to be signed, insisting he would seek closer relations with Moscow instead.
While facing pressure from the EU, Yanukovych is grappling with discontent at home. About 10,000 demonstrators in Ukraine's capital demanded the signing of the EU deal, the latest in daily protests since Yanukovych suspended the signature.
Popular mass protests in 2004, known as the Orange Revolution, overturned Yanukovych's fraud-marred election victory and brought his pro-Western opponent to power, and he is wary of a repeat.
The protesters have been urging him to sign the EU deal and many have called for the release of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has become a symbol of the fight over selective justice in Ukraine.
Germany has led a series of EU nations in saying that improving the fate of Tymoshenko is essential to move forward.
"We are thinking of Tymoshenko," Merkel said, adding her thoughts were also with all Ukrainians "who have to live under the most difficult political conditions. We will not forget these people either."
If Yanukovych had been hoping for last-minute commitments of financial aid from the EU, some analysts believe he may have overplayed his hand at the summit.
"Yanukovych appears to have got very little from Vilnius, and now risks going back to Kiev empty-handed," said Tim Ash, chief emerging-markets economist at Standard Bank in London. And ahead of talks with Russia next week, "his hand seems quite weak now."
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