Ill-tempered summit leaves Ukraine and EU deadlocked on human rights

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The Independent Online

A confrontation over Ukraine's dismal human rights record dominated a summit between its President and European Union leaders yesterday. They failed to reach any new deals on economic and political ties.

Jan Peter Balkenende,Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency, said he had called in "frank" terms for "a free and independent media in the run-up to the elections" scheduled for October.

Challenged over investigations into the murder of an anti-government journalist, whose headless body was found in Ukraine four years ago, the President, Leonid Kuchma, compared the case to unsolved murders in EU nations. The response from Mr Kuchma, who has been linked to the killing, was described by one official as "robust" and provoked sharp criticism from diplomats. "We have gone as far as we can," one EU official said.

Last month The Independent reported on leaked confidential documents showing that senior Ukrainian government officials tried to wreck investigations into the murder of the journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze, who was allegedly killed on the orders of Mr Kuchma. The cover-up involved the killing of a witness while in custody.

A committee investigating the murder in September 2000 recommended criminal proceedings against Mr Kuchma. Opposition MPs want to impeach him.

When the issue was raised yesterday by Mr Balkenende and the European commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, Mr Kuchma took an aggressive stance. "It was the usual reaction," said one source, "that this issue is subject to an investigation and that Ukraine should not be faulted because of the lack of a prosecution. He argued that there are many examples in EU countries of unsolved murder."

The Gongadze case is only the best-known abuse of power attributed to Mr Kuchma. During his 10 years in office the President has been accused often of violating human rights and presiding over a corrupt regime.

Although the Ukrainians have agreed to accept election monitors in October, possibly including a delegation from the EU, European officials are sceptical that the elections will be free and fair.

Although Mr Kuchma won approval from a constitutional court to seek a third term as President, he has said he will not run. In June, the parliament adopted constitutional changes that would allow him to be appointed by MPs rather than chosen by the electorate.

Even aside from human rights there was little meeting of minds at yesterday's meeting. Ukraine, which prizes the idea of eventual membership of the EU, is unenthusiastic about the alternative on offer: a European neighbourhood policy to extend economic and other assistance. "They are dragging their feet and failing to accelerate negotiations," one diplomat said.

Mr Kuchma said such a policy would pigeonhole Ukraine as a neighbour of the EU, which "may lead to a freezing of relations". While he acknowledged that his country was not ready for EU membership now, he predicted that "the EU will not stop at its current borders".

Mr Balkenende said the EU was still waiting for Mr Kuchma's government to amend its bankruptcy laws and draw up a "transparent pricing policy" for exports. Until that happened, the EU could not consider Ukraine a market economy, he added.