Ažubalis said pressure was growing on the European Commission to grant Russia a visa-free regime by the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But he warned that such an opening to Moscow would put regional coherence in the Black Sea region in danger, saying Russia was less advanced than Ukraine in its negotiations for a deal on visa-free travel.
"Lithuania counted in our future presidency in [the first half of 2013] to a get visa-free regime for Ukraine as one of our priorities," Ažubalis said. "But now I see a lot of challenges are rising in Ukraine, and the last report which was published recently shows Ukrainian shortcomings about biometric passports and so on. So that's a big challenge for Ukraine."
Ažubalis made the statements yesterday (27 February) at a Brussels event organised by the European Policy Centre and the Poroshenko Foundation. Petro Poroshenko, one of the speakers, is a former Ukraine foreign minister and the owner of a business empire, including several confectionery enterprises, cars and bus plants, a shipyard and a TV channel.
Ukraine recently suffered setbacks in its visa negotiations with the European Union. As a precondition to visa-free travel, the EU has insisted that Ukraine establishes a state anti-corruption agency. However the initiative faces resistance in Parliament, as the Communist Party, an ally to the government, has strong positions in the country's customs agency and is reportedly resisting the initiative.
A bill to introduce biometric passports in Ukraine, another precondition for visa-free travel, is stuck in parliament.
Ažubalis made a plea for the pro-European aspirations of the Ukrainian people, which in his words were so strong, that no government could ignore them.
The Lithuanian minister acknowledged the setback at the December EU-Ukraine summit, which failed to move forward Ukraine's Association Agreement with the Union, largely due to concerns over the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The initialling procedure provided a "creative solution" to keep relations on track "until some changes in Ukraine would appear," he said. But he warned that this "pre-step to signing" could not serve as a long-term solution.
The Brussels conference took place on the same day that Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister and close ally of Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzlement and abuse of office.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle called the verdict "further evidence that this is a systemic problem encompassing all aspects of [Ukraine's] judicial process". (see EU official statement)
Besides the Lithuanian minister, speakers at the conference also included Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, a Ukrainian media mogul who was appointed vice prime minister last week, and Andriy Klyuyev, an oligarch and former prime minister who now serves as secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine.
On visa-free travel negotiations with Europe, Khoroshkovsky said Ukraine had accepted all of the EU's conditions. If Kyiv were denied visa-free travel, the Ukrainians would take this as a "punishment" from the EU, he said.
"I don't see why we don't have this visa-free regime even today," he said.
EurActiv asked Khoroshkovsky and Klyuyev to comment on the alleged foiled assassination attempt against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which took place on the same day.
Klyuyev said that he was not in a position to provide additional information on the arrest of two men in Odessa, Ukraine. The pair stand accused of belonging to a group seeking an Islamist state in Russia's North Caucasus.
"It's the investigation authorities who are now in charge and they may come up with additional details when they decide," Khoroshkovsky said.