Former President Viktor Yushchenko warned that the European Union's reluctance to offer a clear path to membership puts Ukraine at risk of falling into Russia's orbit and style of governance.
His comment in an interview last Thursday highlights the pivotal decision facing Mr. Yushchenko's successor, Viktor Yanukovych, who travels to Moscow on Saturday for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that could set this former Soviet republic's course.
EU and Ukrainian officials say they are moving closer to an association agreement that would bring free trade and closer political ties but not the right to apply for EU membership. European politicians have warned that prospects for closer relations could be undermined by what they consider a politically motivated trial of Ukraine's top opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Russian leaders, meanwhile, are dangling a large price discount on the natural gas it sells Ukraine in an effort to draw Mr. Yanukovych into a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
"Concrete offers are 10 times more valuable than concrete ambitions," said Mr. Yushchenko, who as Ukraine's president from 2005 to 2010 championed integration with Europe.
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Qualifying for EU membership requires a country to bring its laws into line with European standards, an overhaul that could take Ukraine years.
In Russia, Mr. Yushchenko said, "there is a different kind of politics. If you want to be in the customs union, you will be in the customs union in a couple of weeks."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said on Tuesday that an assured path to EU membership is "fundamental" to any association agreement.
The EU has said it would give no such assurance. A European diplomat in Kiev said, however, that Ukraine could gain the right to apply for membership if it implements all legislative commitments in an association agreement.
During his 19 months in office, Mr. Yanukovych has moved to repair relations with Russia, which had become strained under his predecessor, by dropping the goal of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and agreeing to extend the basing of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in a Ukrainian port until 2042.
But he has so far rebuffed the Moscow-led customs union, saying integration with Europe is a higher priority.
The EU is pressing Mr. Yanukovych to end the trial of Ms. Tymoshenko, who faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted for exceeding her authority as prime minister in agreeing an unfavorable gas deal with Russia. The EU has warned that if she isn't freed and allowed to take part in parliamentary elections next year, the ratification of an association agreement by member states' parliaments would be unlikely.
"I'm afraid that if we lose this chance, it will be very hard to get it back," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told business daily Kommersant-Ukraine in an interview published Tuesday.
The EU's tough stance has raised concerns that Mr. Yanukovych may be swayed by Russia's offer of cheaper gas.
The Ukrainian leader "is interested in one thing, a reduction in the cost of gas at any price," said Serhiy Sobolev, a lawmaker in Ms. Tymoshenko's parliamentary bloc.
Mr. Azarov said he hopes the president's talks in Russia this weekend can achieve a breakthrough on gas prices in return for unspecified concessions.
Mr. Yushchenko warned that agreeing to Russia's demands for closer relations would consign Ukraine to the authoritarian style of governance favored by Moscow.
"If you see yourself in a single economic space with Russia and Belarus and the customs union," he said, "you build an iron curtain and choose different freedoms, or rather nonfreedoms, different values."