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article imageKiev's disputes with Western neighbours threaten EU support

By Ania TSOUKANOVA (AFP)     Nov 29, 2017 in World

Three years after the outbreak of an unprecedented crisis with Moscow and a war with pro-Kremlin rebels, Ukraine is experiencing a deep diplomatic chill with its Western neighbours that risks dampening EU support for Kiev.

Tensions flared in September when Ukraine adopted a controversial education law that seeks to oblige schools to teach in the Ukrainian language.

The move rattled not only Moscow but nearly all of Kiev's neighbours to the west who saw the legislation as a threat to their national minorities in the ex-Soviet country.

In addition to ethnic Russians, Ukraine has sizeable communities of Romanians, Hungarians, Poles and other groups with roots in neighbouring countries.

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis in September cancelled a visit to Ukraine in protest against the law, while nationalist Hungary went as far as threatening to block Kiev's rapprochement with the European Union.

Kiev and Warsaw have also been involved in a dispute over historical memory after the Polish parliament reopened a dispute over the World War II massacre of tens of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists, officially recognising it as a genocide last year.

The Polish rightwing government has accused Kiev of insufficiently condemning the massacres.

Warsaw also created a blacklist for what Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski called "people with an anti-Polish stance" under which two Kiev officials were banned from travelling to the country earlier this month.

In response, Ukraine summoned Poland's ambassador.

Ties have also soured with the fellow ex-Soviet nation of Belarus and Kremlin-friendly Serbia.

Last week, Belarus accused a Minsk-based Ukrainian journalist of spying for Kiev and declared a senior Ukrainian diplomat a persona non grata. Ukraine expelled a Belarusian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move.

On top of that, Serbia this month recalled its ambassador to Ukraine for consultations after Kiev expressed concern over Serbian nationals fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country in a conflict that has killed over 10,000 people since 2014.

- 'Fight for identity' -

Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014 and war erupted in the east of the country between Kiev ...
Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014 and war erupted in the east of the country between Kiev and Moscow-backed separatist rebels

Ukrainian experts chalked up the disputes to a change of tone in Kiev, which is searching for a new post-Soviet identity and trying to impose its vision of the country's domestic politics on the outside world.

"Ukraine is trying to understand what it is and what its national politics should look like," said Daria Gaidai, an analyst at the Kiev-based New Europe Centre.

"This naturally provokes tensions as Ukraine was until now an amorphous state."

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled to find its own political path, caught in a tug of war between Russia and Europe over its future direction.

A popular uprising in Kiev in 2014 led to a collapse of a Kremlin-backed regime and brought pro-Western forces to power.

A month later, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and war erupted in the east of the country between Kiev and Moscow-backed separatist rebels.

These events have galvanised Ukrainians and led to a surge of patriotism and nationalism.

The conflict with Moscow gave rise to "an increased desire to fight for national identity and the right to self-determination", said Oleksander Sushko of Ukraine's International Renaissance Foundation.

- 'Kremlin plan' -

Some say Moscow has had a hand in the worsening relations between Ukraine and its neighbours.

EU President Donald Tusk tweeted that Poland was carrying out a 'Kremin plan' by fuelling ...
EU President Donald Tusk tweeted that Poland was carrying out a 'Kremin plan' by fuelling tensions with Kiev

Writing on his personal Twitter account, President of the European Council Donald Tusk accused the government in his native Poland of carrying out a "Kremlin plan" by aggravating relations with Kiev.

The single tweet provoked fury among the Polish ruling party, for whom Tusk is a political enemy.

Senior Ukrainian diplomats, speaking to AFP, sounded a similar note.

"If they are not directly involved, the Russians are playing on these tensions," said one official.

The tensions could not have come at a worse time for Kiev which has already been weakened by the conflict in the east of the Ukraine.

Brussels is unlikely to side with Kiev's European opponents but decisions that require EU unanimity - such as voting to extend sanctions against Russia - may now become more difficult.

Sushko said the chill between Ukraine and its Western neighbours, some of which are seeing a revival of nationalism, could last for a long time.

"This is not some kind of one-off scandal," he said.

"It is a historical phase that has replaced the post-Cold War era when attempts were made to erase differences between neighbours. Now things have turned the other way."

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