The European Union has signed “historic” association accords with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as the three former Soviet republics pledged themselves to a future in Europe in the face of bitter Russian opposition.
“This is a great day for Europe… the European Union stands by your side today more than ever before,” European Council head Herman Van Rompuy said on Friday at the ceremony with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and prime ministers Irakli Garibashvili of Georgia and Iurie Leanca of Moldova.
Van Rompuy said the deals contained “nothing that might harm Russia in any way” and offered all sides the chance “to chart together a safer future.”
EU officials insist Russia has no reason to fear the accords, which offer closer political and economic ties, but Moscow condemns them as harmful to its interests and an intrusion into what has traditionally been its sphere of influence.
It did so again Friday immediately after the signing ceremony in Brussels, warning of “serious consequences” to follow.
“We will take all the necessary measures to protect our economy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the ITAR-TASS state news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Ukrainian society is split after being forced to choose between Europe and Russia.
Friday’s signing is a bitter pill to swallow for Putin who wanted Ukraine to join his own Eurasian Customs Union, aimed at bringing the former Soviet states back into the Russian fold.
Even if Ukraine has eluded him, Putin can, however, claim partial success.
The EU originally offered the same deals to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus but they changed tack once Moscow warned of serious consequences.
Poroshenko said the deal would open up a whole new future for Ukraine, including Crimea which Moscow annexed in March, adding it set the country firmly on course for membership of the European Union.
Ukraine had paid a high price in recent months for its ambitions to become part of Europe, he said, but it was worth it because the country’s future as a European state, sharing European values, was at stake.
“Long Live Ukraine, Long Live Europe,” he said in closing his address at the ceremony, attended by all 28 EU leaders.
Garibashvili said Georgia shared the European values of democracy and freedom, switching into his native language so he could “share his emotion with the Georgian people.”
Significantly, he said Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway regions recognised by Russia as independent since a 2008 war with Tbilisi, would also see the advantages of closer ties with the EU.
“You are sharers in this project,” he said.
Leanca pledged Moldova would make the most of its association agreement, promising that after “many ups and downs … we will do everything to modernise” the country.
The accords open up the huge EU market of 500 million consumers to its new partners and offers them aid and help in modernising their economies.
In return, they have to match EU norms on protection of human rights, civil society, good governance and an independent judicial system.
The signatures Friday are hugely symbolic given the crisis in Ukraine where a Poroshenko peace plan and ceasefire due to expire late Friday hang in the balance.
The last-minute ditching of the association accord by Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in November sparked demonstrations that eventually led to his ouster in February.
That, in turn, led to an angry Russia annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, plunging the West’s relations with the Kremlin to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.