Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis said he would make visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens travelling to Europe a priority when his country takes over the rotating EU presidency in the first half of 2013. But he admitted that progress was dependent on Kyiv. Ažubalis made the statements yesterday (27 February) at a Brussels event organised by the European Policy Centre and the Poroshenko Foundation, EurActive reported.

Ažubalis said pressure was growing on the European Commission to grant Russia a visa-free regime by the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But he warned that such an opening to Moscow would put regional coherence in the Black Sea region in danger, saying Russia was less advanced than Ukraine in its negotiations for a deal on visa-free travel.

"Lithuania counted in our future presidency in [the first half of 2013] to a get visa-free regime for Ukraine as one of our priorities," Ažubalis said. "But now I see a lot of challenges are rising in Ukraine, and the last report which was published recently shows Ukrainian shortcomings about biometric passports and so on. So that's a big challenge for Ukraine."

Ukraine recently suffered setbacks in its visa negotiations with the European Union. As a precondition to visa-free travel, the EU has insisted that Ukraine establishes a state anti-corruption agency. However the initiative faces resistance in Parliament, as the Communist Party, an ally to the government, has strong positions in the country's customs agency and is reportedly resisting the initiative.

A bill to introduce biometric passports in Ukraine, another precondition for visa-free travel, is stuck in parliament.

The Lithuanian minister acknowledged the setback at the December EU-Ukraine summit, which failed to move forward Ukraine's Association Agreement with the Union, largely due to concerns over the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The initialling procedure provided a "creative solution" to keep relations on track "until some changes in Ukraine would appear," he said. But he warned that this "pre-step to signing" could not serve as a long-term solution.

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