Arseny Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's prime minister, has effectively disowned a trilateral deal between Ukraine, the European Union and Russia in which Ukraine agreed not to implement a landmark free trade agreement with the EU before 2016. Ukraine's parliament is set to ratify the agreement simultaneously with its ratification by the European Parliament on September 16, lending symbolism to the strength of EU-Ukraine ties.
Speaking on television in the evening of September 15, Yatsenyuk said that "the government will implement the agreement starting from the very first day”, as quoted by Interfax, contradicting the position of Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko. Following trilateral talks in Brussels on September 12, Ukraine's foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin - appointed by and answering directly to Poroshenko - together with the EU trade commissioner and Russia's economy minister jointly announced that Ukraine would not implement the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement until 2016.
The refusal of former president Viktor Yankovych to sign off on the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement in late November 2013 prompted mass protests in Kyiv, resulting in his ousting in February 2014. Russia has protested against the EU-Ukraine agreement, arguing that it could flood Russia's market with cheap goods, given that Russia and Ukraine also have a free trade zone together. The EU-Russia-Ukraine trilateral agreement on September 12 delaying ratification until 2016 appeared to be a compromise allowing Ukraine to ratify the agreement without Russia introducing punitive trade measures.
However, according to Ukraine's constitution, reintroduced in February 2014 following the ousting of Yanukovych, the government makes economic policy, and is accountable to parliament, not the president. The president, however, is responsible for foreign policy. Yatsenyuk may consider that the question of implementation of the free trade agreement is thus his prerogative.
Yatsenyuk's political ally, justice minister Pavlo Petrenko, speaking on a different television show, underlined Yatsenyuk's position: "I know nothing about the existence of some official document," Petrenko said, referring to the September 12 trilateral agreement. "The Ukrainian government has not decided to delay or adjust the free trade zone provision of the Association Agreement. The government's position is clear: we will begin to implement this agreement the day after it is ratified," Petrenko said, as quoted by Interfax.
The Kremlin press service meanwhile reported on a telephone conversation between Russian president Vladimir Putin and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, underscoring the Kremlin's view that the trilateral agreement on postponement of implementation is valid. "Particular attention was given to the practical execution of the agreement to postpone implementation of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU until January 1 2016, achieved through trilateral consultations in Brussels on September 12," the press release read. Putin also talked to German chancellor Angela Merkel on the issue on September 15, in which the "two leaders expressed their satisfaction with the agreements reached at the Russia-EU-Ukraine ministerial meeting […] on postponing implementation”.
The EU for its part in a press release confirmed that in the telephone call Barroso and Putin had "marked their agreement with the joint conclusions reached in the trilateral talks" on September 12. "These conclusions should be implemented, and on the EU side this will now be discussed with the member states," the EU said.
The controversy reflects widespread dislike in Ukraine of the decision to delay implementation of the free trade agreement, which is regarded as kowtowing to Russia after its annexation of the Crimea and covert invasion of east Ukraine. But it further reflects that Ukraine is entering a tight parliamentary election campaign in which Yatsenyuk is running on a different ticket to Poroshenko. Yatsenyuk launched his own political party People's Front on September 10, after talks over his joining Bloc Petro Poroshenko broke down. People's Front has taken a broadly more nationalist line than Bloc Petro Poroshenko in an effort to garner votes, and Yatsenyuk's position over implementation of the free trade agreement with the EU will lend this position credibility.
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