Auteur: Andrew Rettman
BRUSSELS - EU leaders ended the year with a show of support for Ukrainian "people," but indicated that they will wait for President Viktor Yanukovych to leave power before trying to revive an EU pact.
EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy led the tributes to the pro-EU protesters, who have camped out in Kiev for the past month.
He said after a summit in Brussels on Friday (20 December) that: "A lot has happened ... for instance with Iran, in the Middle East, in central Africa. But the most significant development for Europeans currently is the peaceful popular protest in Ukraine."
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso added: "When we see those European flags in the streets of Ukraine in this very cold temperature, we cannot resist to say that they are indeed part of the European family."
A summit communique noted the EU is still "ready to sign" an association and free trade pact with Ukraine for the sake of "Ukrainian people."
Merkel said the demonstrators deserve "respect." Cameron backed "the aspirations of the Ukrainian people."
The Lithuanian President and the outgoing EU chairman, Dalia Grybauskaite, spelled out what it means.
"The European Union is open to Ukrainian people, but not necessarily the current Ukrainian government - that's the message," she told press.
Barroso also noted that his recent phone calls and other contact with Yanukovych convinced him that he has no intention to sign, but wants to keep EU talks going for the sake of appearances.
The rupture comes after Yanukovych in November said No to the EU pact shortly before meeting EU leaders in Vilnius. He later agreed a bailout with Russian leader Vladimir Putin instead, but is keeping details of the deal under wraps.
A senior EU source told press on Thursday that EU leaders gave up on Yanukovych already in Vilnius.
The source recalled that after meeting him at the Lithuanian event, Cameron said the Ukrainian leader is "from a different civilisation. He is not a partner for Europe at all."
The contact described Yanukovych as being "deeply criminalised."
The source noted that according to "intelligence" circulated by "a Nato country" the Putin-Yanukovych deal contains "a personal guarantee of security for Yanukovych's family and his family fortune" no matter what happens in Ukrainian elections in 2015.
The contact added that if Yanukovych uses force to disperse the protests, EU sanctions are likely to follow.
EU leaders also criticised Russia's interference in EU-Ukraine relations.
The summit communique spoke of "undue external pressure" after Russia threatened to bankrupt Ukraine if it signed the EU accord.
Merkel and Van Rompuy said the EU will sign similar pacts with Georgia and Moldova by August in an accelerated procedure, which is designed to limit opportunities for Russian tricks.
They both added that Russia remains Europe's "strategic partner."
But Van Rompuy said he will tackle the Ukrainian issue in an "open and frank manner" with Putin at an EU-Russia summit in January. Merkel noted: "We have to get out of this either/or logic with Russia. The EU-Russia summit will discuss this."
Putin is used to batting away EU complaints.
But the bad will generated on Ukraine and by Russia's recent crackdown on civil liberties threatens to spoil his plans for the winter Olympics in Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, in 2014.
The German and French Presidents, Grybauskaite and one EU commissioner recently said they will boycott the event.
Putin on Friday suddenly freed oligarch-turned-reformer Mikhail Khodorkovksy from prison after almost 11 years, with Khodorkovsky fleeing to Germany the same day. The Russian leader also promised to free the Pussy Riot pop group and Greenpeace activists.
His decree said he freed Khodorkovsky because he was "guided by the principles of humanity," but it is widely seen as a PR stunt to improve the pre-Olympic atmosphere.
For her part, Merkel said it shows "it was important not to forget him [Khodorkovksy] and to bring it up all the time." She added that Sochi has created a "window of opportunity" to press for other reforms.
Van Rompuy declined to give Putin any credit for his amnesties.
"I will not comment on the releases in Russia," he said on Friday when asked by press.