KYIV — A trade deal with the European Union that triggered the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after he declined to sign it in favor of closer ties with Russia may be delayed until after May elections.
Ukraine’s new economy minister, Pavlo Sheremeta, acknowledged at a new conference in Kyiv that a free-trade pact with the European Union might be delayed for several months.
The so-called "association agreement" with the European Union was at the heart of the protests against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych - the protests erupted after he refused to sign the deal in November, apparently caving in to Russian demands.
“One of the most obvious issues is the date of the signing of this agreement," Sheremeta said. "We have to understand that it is a two-way street. We understand that there is some position expressed by some people in Europe that it might be more appropriate for the newly elected Ukrainian president to sign the association.”
Three days ago EU officials said they were ready to sign the association agreement with Ukraine whenever the country’s new leaders wanted to do so. The delay is causing dismay among Ukrainian parliament members who were at the forefront of the protests against Yanukovych in Independence Square.
They fear any hold-up may have more to do with the diplomatic efforts under way to try to find a resolution to the standoff in Crimea, where Russian forces continue to consolidate their military forces, according to independent observers.
Ukrainian lawmaker and rights activist Lesya Orobets believes any delay risks undermining popular support for the association agreement and will prompt rumors of a lack of resolve on the part of the European Union to stand firm against Russia in the confrontation over Crimea.
“It would be definitely harmful first of all for social support for European integration. This would be hard to explain to people," Orobets said." Moreover there would be rumors which we will not be able to contradict that ‘Europe betrayed you.”
According to Sheremeta, who says his priority has been to ensure liquidity in the country’s banks and to negotiate loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, delaying the signing of the pact will cause no harm.
“It is a delay of three months. I do not see such an urgency," he said. "Everybody understands that we have expressed our desire to sign it, our readiness to sign it, and I think that is probably enough at the moment.”
Pro-European activists who remain camped out in Kyiv’s Independence Square were already unhappy when they heard British Prime Minister David Cameron would not exclude Russia from London’s financial markets and they now question the need for a trade deal delay.