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Ukraine and the EU: Will the pause become the end?

Despite the predictions of sceptics, thousands of people came to the main squares of the largest cities in Ukraine to demonstrate in favour of European integration and to protest against the government’s decision to suspend the preparations for the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU.

November 27, 2013 - Maksym Khylko - Articles and Commentary

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These demonstrations have become the largest mass actions since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004.

The fact that, despite the known “maidan phobias” of the current Ukrainian authorities, the protesters have not been broken up by special police units, indicates that President Viktor Yanukovych has not yet made ​​the final decision to change Ukraine’s foreign policy vector. The same is indicated by the lack of his clear comment on the government’s decision to suspend the preparations for the Association Agreement.

One should give proper respect to the leaders of the opposition, who also understand the situation, leaving Yanukovych room to manoeuvre: the People’s Assembly Resolution, adopted on European Square in Kyiv on November 24, put the primary responsibility for the collapse of European integration on Azarov’s government and requested the president to dismiss the government. And only in the case of failure to sign the Association Agreement, the opposition will seek Yanukovych’s impeachment.

Thus, President Yanukovych has the opportunity to keep the intrigue on his final decision until the Vilnius summit. Depending upon what happens, he very well might confirm the decision of the government and turn the country’s course to the East (in this case the pro-European demonstrations could very well be broken up by the police right after the Vilnius summit). On the other hand, Yanukovych could still go to Vilnius to “meet the people’s will” and sign the Association Agreement (of course, without implementing some unfulfilled demands from the “Füle list”). And there is a third option: leave the issue up in the air, expecting who would be the first to allocate necessary loans – either the EU (or the IMF) or Russia.

On the contrary, the room for manoeuvre for the EU leaders has been narrowed. Massive demonstrations clearly showed that the Ukrainian people support European integration (the same is also confirmed by the results of many polls). So it would hardly be moral to deprive 46 million people of the hope for a better life, explaining that the failure of the Association Agreement is due to a non-fulfilment of several criteria that the current authorities considered unacceptable (and these authorities will rule until at least until the presidential elections of 2015).

The EU should rely more on its “new” members in Eastern policy

The collapse could have been avoided if the “old” EU member states rely more on the opinion of their “new” counterparts in matters relating to Eastern policy. Poland and the Baltic states know from their own experiences how difficult it is to carry out reforms in countries which were under the Soviet control for many years; and how difficult it is to follow the path of the European integration for the countries, being considered by Moscow as its own sphere of influence.

It is easier for East-Central European politicians, who often communicate with their Ukrainian counterparts, to understand how to direct personal interests of the latter in the same direction with the national interests. Unfortunately, the EU leadership turned out to be impervious to the sensible arguments of Polish MEPs like Paweł Zalewski who called to consider the motivations of current Ukrainian authorities and use this knowledge for the common victory, offering Ukraine an adequate financial assistance in exchange for the reforms. Aleksander Kwaśniewski did more than he could within his joint mission with Pat Cox. However, the mission was doomed from the beginning, being a symbol of the artificial separation of the political values ​​of European integration from the economic issues.

The EU’s strategy was to initially demand democratisation and to propose integration only after the job has been completed. It worked in case of the Eastern European states, which had previously received guarantees of their independence due to their membership in NATO. Under the Alliance’s security umbrella they had the opportunities to prepare for EU membership without fear to lose their sovereignty.

The situation differs in Ukraine. In 2008, the leading EU countries (for the sake of Russia’s interests) blocked Kyiv’s request to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan. At that time the geopolitical considerations of Germany and France won over the European values. Today, the geopolitical reasons and the sense of responsibility should lead the same countries to the decision that European values ​​should be promoted via integration, and not vice versa. The Ukrainian people have proved that they do share basic European values, and this nation of 46 million people should not become prisoner of its government’s economic bargaining; as in 2008 it became prisoner of Berlin’s and Paris’ geopolitical bargaining.

Brussels demands from President Yanukovych unpopular (among his pro-Russian electorate) political decisions, without reinforcing him with compelling economic arguments, while Kyiv needs the economic help right now, not in a year or two. It is clear that neither the EU, nor the IMF want their loans to be spent on social programmes which might increase the chances of Viktor Yanukovych to win the presidential elections of 2015 (even though the Ukrainian people have repeatedly proved that they vote by their hearts and heads, not by the stomachs). On the other hand, if Ukraine joins Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical project, in 2015 there would be no democratic elections as understood by European standards. Would such a scenario strengthen European values ​​in the region? That question is rhetorical.

Hope is still there. But the winners are not judged

The failure of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU would be Putin’s triumph, although he would not deserve it. Primitive pressure and hysterical statements by Kremlin officials have considerably worsened Ukrainian public attitudes towards Russia, while at the same time increased the number of supporters for European integration. Kyiv and Brussels have beaten themselves. But Putin will be confident that his strategy of pressure, blackmail and intimidation has won, and therefore the same strategy will be applied in the future on an even larger scale. And it will be applied not only towards the CIS countries. The Kremlin’s ideologists plan to return to Moscow’s orbit the Balkan states, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. Think it’s impossible? Just a month ago most politicians believed that the Armenian scenario in Ukraine was impossible!

Two months ago, President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov publicly criticised Russia for not fulfilling the promises to review the gas contracts of 2009. They should keep this in mind while listening to the new promises of Putin about the “help” for not signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Even in better times, Vladimir Putin during his visits to Ukraine openly preferred meeting with bikers and with Viktor Medvedchuk before talks with Viktor Yanukovych. The latter can guess about the format of his negotiations with the Russian colleague under the conditions of Western political isolation.

Some representatives of the EU and of the Ukrainian opposition have already stated that after 2015 a new President of Ukraine would sign the Association with the EU. However, such a scenario is doubtful. Even while expecting the signing of the Association Agreement and the EU financial support, the current Ukrainian authorities have adopted a law which can deprive one of the most prospective candidates Vitali Klitschko of the opportunity to participate in the presidential election of 2015. It is not difficult to imagine the standards of the elections under the absence of hope to sign an Association with the EU.

Neither Kyiv nor Brussels should hope for what comes “afterwards” – after the pause or after the presidential elections of 2015 – for there might be nothing “afterwards”. Ukraine’s and EU leaders should return to the negotiating table and work out a compromise formula under which they shouldn’t have to choose between values and the economic interests. And if it’s not enough time till the Vilnius summit, it might even be better to postpone the summit for a month or even two. Admitting temporary defeat is better than trying to convince everybody that it is worth gathering all European leaders to initial the agreements with Georgia and Moldova, the signing of which Russia will block in the nearest future.

But if the Association Agreement is doomed to fail, then the best the EU can do is to implement a loyal visa policy for ordinary citizens of Ukraine. The more they visit the EU countries, the more they understand that they need just laws and honest officials to make life in their native land better. It really is a good way to spread European values.

Maksym Khylko is a research fellow at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. He holds PhD in Philosophy and an MA in International Relations. Between 2001-2010 he worked as a political and media analyst and consultant.

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