YALTA, Ukraine – Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Ukraine to resist increasing Russian pressure to back out of signing a cooperation agreement with the European Union that would move this former Soviet republic closer to the west.
At a political star-studded conference here in the historic Livadia Palace, where Franklin D. Roosevelt , Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill met in 1945 to divide up post-war Europe, the Clintons, in separate speeches, portrayed the impending decision by the Ukraine and the 28-member European Union to sign the agreement as what Mrs. Clinton called a "crossroads moment" for this nation of 46 million people, which Russia has long considered not only its bread basket, but an integral part of its former empire.
But the Clintons, directly and indirectly urged Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to disregard Russian pressure and do whatever was in his country's best political and economic interests.
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Bill Clinton said that the Ukraine "shouldn't have to choose" between Russia and the European Union. He said: "If it was me, I would want Ukraine to be a bridge to the 21st century both ways."
But referring to Russian intimidation aimed at dissuading Ukraine from signing the agreement, Clinton, without specifically naming Russia, signaled his disapproval of Russian tactics.
"I'd resent it if someone tried to force me to do something that wasn't good for my people," the former president said.
Since this past summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up economic pressure on Ukraine – blocking Ukrainian imports of everything from the most popular brand of chocolate to steel, pipes, and some agricultural products – to persuade Yanukovych to halt Ukraine's westward course. Similar Russian pressure has succeeded elsewhere.
Last week, Armenia announced that it would not sign a similar association agreement with the European Union after Russia stepped up arms shipments to Armenia's foe, Azerbaijan. Armenia announced that it would join instead Russia's custom's union, which includes only Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Hillary Clinton was even more emphatic that the United States frowned on such strong-arm tactics by Russia's Putin.
"We have no vote in the European Union," Mrs. Clinton told a dinner of some 200 participants and guests at the annual gathering. But she said speaking for herself and for the Obama administration in which she served as Secretary of State, Americans were "hoping and cheering for Ukraine's integration into the European Union."
She also praised the country's expertise and products, specifically singling out Ukraine's "excellent chocolate," a reference to Russia's first impromptu import ban in July, a remark that prompted hoots of approval and enthusiastic applause from the largely pro-European Union audience.
Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair went further, calling upon President Yanukovych not just to sign an association agreement with the European Union – which has been described as a North American free trade agreement for Europe – but to become a full member of the union like Lithuania, a former Soviet republic which also gained independence as Ukraine did after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
"We need to stick with you," Blair declared.
His message was aimed as much at his fellow Europeans as the Ukrainians and Russians.
Though the conference was being held only 43 days before Ukraine is scheduled to sign the association agreement in November at an European Union summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, European leaders have insisted that Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to seven years in jail two years ago, must be released as part of a series of reforms.
Some Ukrainian opposition leaders and western officials hope that President Yanukovych will release his arch rival and bitter political foe to enable her to seek medical treatment outside of this country. She is said to suffer from a painful back ailment.
But the Ukrainian president, who confronted his critics at the conference, did not tip his hand. The president comes from the eastern part of Ukraine, where support for a close relationship with Russia is strongest. Tymoshenko was convicted of abusing her office by singing a costly gas deal with Putin's for signing a costly gas deal with Russia in 2009.
Yanukovych said only that it wouldn't be "easy" to work out a "legal framework" that would allow him to free her. Similarly, he did not openly commit to signing the 1,000 page association agreement, which would commit the Ukraine to continue pursuing economic, judicial and political reform.
The conference this weekend, the 10th annual meeting known as "Yes," the Yalta European Strategy , this virtual Davos East tries prompting spirited debate about the future of the Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, as well as the latest scientific, social, and political trends.
Sponsored by one of Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen and philanthropists, Victor Pinchuk, the gathering is non-partisan. The Clintons and Tony Blair have attended for several years, since Pinchuk's foundation has worked closely with their counterparts on combatting AIDS and other projects.