Vilnius: An EU summit designed to draw six ex-Soviet states to the West opens with its ambitions dented on Thursday after Ukraine, the biggest of the six, caved into Moscow to hand Europe a mighty "Nyet".
Kiev`s surprise decision days before the summit to scrap a landmark political and trade deal with the European Union that was years in the making, set off a war of words between East and West, and sparked the biggest protests seen in Ukraine in a decade.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has pledged nonetheless to join leaders of the 28-nation bloc at the two-day Eastern Partnership summit in the capital of Lithuania, one of several ex-Soviet EU states campaigning to extend the bloc`s sphere of influence.
Ukraine said yesterday it still wanted to reach a historic deal on closer ties with the European Union, as the mass protests over the move to scrap the pact went into a fourth day.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov`s announcement failed to appease protesters who blockaded the government building during yesterday`s cabinet session demanding Kiev sign the political and free trade deal at the two-day summit in Vilnius.
Keen to show eastern Europe that the summit matters, almost all EU leaders will attend despite the snub -- including the EU "Big Three", Britain, France and Germany.
As the EU-Russia tussle flared, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russia not to view Europe`s ties with Moscow`s neighbours as a threat.
"We should overcome the mentality `either us or them.` The Cold War is over," she said. "We should now overcome the last remnants of the Cold War and I`ll participate in this with pleasure."
At stake are ties also with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus -- keen to strike trade and aid deals or win visa-free travel arrangements with the EU.
But vast Ukraine, with its 45 million people, industry and farms, was the jewel in the crown of the EU`s five-year-old Eastern Partnership policy. "If Ukraine drops out it will be a glass half empty," said Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies."