VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — European Union leaders lashed out at Russia Friday after missing a major opportunity to spread its influence deep into eastern Europe and bluntly accused Moscow of pressuring Ukraine from signing a landmark deal on closer association.
Even if the EU extended its geopolitical reach eastward by initialing association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, the belated refusal of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych to sign up to a similar deal largely spoiled the two-day summit with the EU's eastern partners.
Most EU leaders accused Russia of using threats and bullying to keep Ukraine in step with Moscow.
"We may not give in to external pressure, not the least from Russia," said EU President Herman Van Rompuy in unusual blunt terms.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added that "the times for limited sovereignty are over in Europe," alleging Russia still seemed to consider Ukraine as a subservient neighbor.
"There was pressure for sure," French President Francois Hollande said, adding that Ukraine was heavily leaned on, "notably through gas."
With 46 million people, Ukraine looms larger in Moscow's eyes than Georgia or Moldova. President Vladimir Putin has spoken of Ukraine as the cradle of the Russian state, and of the two countries as "one nation."
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.
Then last week, Yanukovych shocked the 28-country bloc by suddenly freezing the long-negotiated deal days before it was due to be signed, insisting he would seek closer relations with Moscow instead.
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."
Yanukovych said he was now seeking a trilateral deal which would also include Russia as a player, a notion immediately dismissed. "When we make a bilateral deal, we don't need a trilateral agreement," said Barroso.
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.
And summit host Dalia Grybauskaite, looking back at Lithuania's history breaking free from Soviet rule, said it was up to the people to stand up and be counted. "If you have political will to resist and not to give in, pressures are not working," the Lithuanian president said.
Last-minute talks on the sidelines of the summit late Thursday failed to sway Yanukovych. "The Ukrainian leadership came with very clear decision not to sign," said Grybauskaite.
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, ... pay Ukraine to get into an association agreement," Hollande said. "No, we won't pay."
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, whose release was the EU's condition for a deal.
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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