-- Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --
By Paul Taylor
PARIS (Reuters) - Feted just a couple of years ago as heroes of democratic revolutions, the leaders of Ukraine and Georgia have fallen from grace among European policymakers.
While there is scant sympathy in Europe for Russia’s rough treatment of the two former Soviet republics, European Union officials have been exasperated by the behavior of the governments in Kiev and Tbilisi.
In private, many EU policymakers blame Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for igniting last August’s disastrous war with Russia by launching an attack on rebels in breakaway South Ossetia that gave Moscow a pretext to send in the tanks.
And they accuse Ukraine’s feuding leaders of exacerbating the current gas crisis with Moscow by undermining each other’s negotiations, breaking undertakings to the EU on the smooth transit of gas and dealing with murky intermediaries.
Some charge neo-conservatives in the United States, who have campaigned actively to get both countries into the NATO military alliance, with goading them into conflict with the Kremlin.
“The neo-con agenda in that region has been a disaster for Europe,” said an EU foreign policy official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
EU officials have been loath to fault either government in public, partly because they enjoy support among ex-communist east European member states, but also because Brussels remains sympathetic to the goals of their democratic revolutions.
However, the crisis over the cut-off of Russian gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine in a dispute over pricing and debt has crystallized European disenchantment with the leaders of Kiev’s “Orange Revolution.”
European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering told Reuters on Tuesday: “If the gas is blocked in Ukraine, then this will seriously damage relations between Ukraine and the EU. It is not in Ukraine’s interests to do this.”
An EU energy official close to the negotiations said of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko: “They are their own worst enemies.”
The crisis could have been averted, he said, if Yushchenko had not vetoed a New Year’s Eve deal negotiated by Tymoshenko with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on gas prices for 2009 and getting rid of a Swiss-based intermediary company, RosUkrEnergo, which sells all Russian gas to Ukraine.
Yushchenko denied that version of events on Tuesday and insisted he had no links to any gas supply intermediaries.
The rival Ukrainian leaders often seem unaware of how their feuding looks to investors, international financial institutions and the rest of Europe.
They conducted some of their most vicious public exchanges just as an International Monetary Fund delegation was in Kiev last October to negotiate a $16.4 billion emergency loan to Ukraine in the financial crisis as the hryvnia currency tumbled.
The European Commission would like to draw Ukraine and Georgia closer to the EU through European Neighborhood Policy agreements on trade, economic aid, energy cooperation, institution building and the rule of law, while leaving aside the long-term question of possible membership of the bloc.
But EU officials are dismayed that Ukraine has done so little in economic reform, tackling corruption and improving transparency and the rule of law to qualify for more assistance.
“Instead of fighting corruption, they spend their time fighting each other,” the energy official said.
It was politically inconvenient that both states voiced enthusiasm for joining the EU just as the bloc was suffering enlargement fatigue after taking in 10 new members in 2004.
European states led by Germany and France blocked a drive by U.S. President George W. Bush at a NATO summit last year to grant Ukraine and Georgia a roadmap to membership. That prompted some supporters of Bush’s “democracy agenda” to accuse the Europeans of appeasing Russia, which vehemently opposes NATO expansion up to its southern border.
The allies declared instead that both countries would eventually join the Western military alliance, but set no date.
NATO foreign ministers shelved the issue in December after Washington recognized its campaign was splitting the alliance.
Now the Europeans are hoping incoming President Barack Obama will not resurrect the issue at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in April. Neither country’s behavior since the last NATO summit has made it a more attractive candidate for membership.
editing by Janet McBride