I have just spent three depressing days in Kyiv. Even the atmosphere on the streets is a little too neo-Soviet. New procedures for money changing mean you have to produce documents for laborious copying and then double sign official forms. Inevitably, the result is long queues: but only for ordinary folk, while the elite carries on laundering fortunes as usual. Many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) rely on money-changing – it is a particularly depressing fact that SME growth has first stalled and then actually reversed in recent years, with small business’ share of total sales dropping from 18.8% to 14.2%.
Nor did the prospects for rescuing a deal with the EU after the Tymoshenko verdict seem good. Official spokesmen stonewalled and engaged in wild conspiracy theories. The atmosphere in much of the media seemed to be preparing the ground for derailment: full as they were with arguments like “Europe failed to respects us”, “we don’t need them anyway”, “we can survive on our own…”
However, many sensible Ukrainians still argue that the deal should go ahead at the EU-Ukraine summit scheduled for 19 December. Tymoshenko herself said so in an open letter from prison. Others argue that things will be even worse without it: Yanukovych will become even more authoritarian, and Russia will be even freer to build up its influence within Ukraine.
Note that nobody makes the argument that one often hears in the EU or out of the corner of Ukrainian leaders’ mouths – that Ukraine will be forced to turn to Russia. The truth is almost the opposite: Yanukovych may build a harder state to protect himself from Russia without the agreements.
A final argument is that although the agreements (the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) may not have the power of the membership perspective that helped the accession states to transform themselves in the 1990s, they are nevertheless the closest equivalent Ukraine has ever had or is likely to get. Ukraine is showing every sign that it is not serious about implementation even if the agreements are signed, but the agreements can be leveraged by other policies and actors once they are in place.
But the trouble is that Ukraine has become a test of both the EU’s soft power and its credibility. A red line has rightly been drawn in the clearest possible fashion on the Tymoshenko verdict (despite some unhelpful muddying of the waters by the European Parliament in their resolution on 25 October). EU leaders have used strong language, accusing the Ukrainians of bad faith, audacity, arrogance, and even sabotage. Official Ukrainians complain they were surprised by the EU suddenly playing Russia’s “bad cop” role, while Russia treated them with kid gloves; but this only shows up the double standard on the Ukrainian side and the misguided cynicism of assuming EU leaders were as obsessed by realpolitik as themselves, rather than simply believing what they said.
The relationship cannot get anywhere without the restoration of some credibility and trust. Maintaining the red line and credibility is important. So is providing the kind of transformative power that might actually change Ukraine in the longer run. But the EU could combine the two approaches. A “sign and sanction” policy would allow it to initial the agreements on 19 December with a minimum of fuss, at the same time as imposing targeted sanctions on the judge and prosecutor who put Tymoshenko behind bars, as well as signalling more general measures against regime malpractice. As several EU states are contemplating following the US lead with respect to Russia over the “Magnitskii list”, it is high time anyway to introduce closer monitoring of financial transactions for all East European states, not least in EU states like Austria and Cyprus. Especially when the Ukrainian authorities have been quietly celebrating the fact that even their most odious members are still allowed freedom of travel, even after the Tymoshenko verdict on 11 October.
But we have to get to a summit first. Despite complaints in Kyiv that the EU “misread” Yanukovych’s signals on compromise, the mess over the trial and verdict is entirely of the Ukrainians’ own making. Yanukovych seems unlikely to make his “delayed” trip to Brussels, as he would have to travel with concessions up front; but he will go to Wrocław to meet Komorowski again on 15 November, along with the German President Christian Wulff (followed by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė visiting Kyiv). But even the Poles’ patience with Ukraine has long been exhausted. Kyiv has no credit in the bank to draw on if it does not move first, and it is difficult to imagine even a formal “initialling” ceremony in Kyiv on 19 December if the Ukrainians do not show some willingness to compromise beforehand. If the Tymoshenko appeal is held as late as 13 December, this will be difficult. If anything, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction, with a string of new charges being laid.
This week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.