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The Wider Picture of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement

All bets are on for the results of the 28-29th November Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. “Now or never”, “Last chance”, “Just let’s sign it”; EU-players divided into camps thrust forward their arguments in Brussels.

August 6, 2013 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and Commentary



The Ukrainian authorities are under intense pressure to release Yulia Tymoshenko and remove the major barrier precluding the signing of the Association and Free Trade Area Agreement (AA-DCFTA) with the European Union.

It is widely believed that the real reason for her imprisonment is fear. That is, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, is pathologically afraid of Tymoshenko as a political rival who poses a threat to his presidency. However, this fear may be way overstated. Her leadership of the field of the opposition is not at all clear and her chances of winning the 2015 presidential elections, even if she were allowed to stand, are rather disputable. Tymoshenko is a “former”, and a member of the bankrupt Orange team – a killing factor for the career of a modern Ukrainian politician. She has no team of her own (the weakness of the team being one of the reasons for her loss in 2010), no ideological concept, no funds and overall nothing new to offer supporters of the opposition. Her usual furious populism will hardly be sufficient to match the public demand in 2015.

What she does have in the new reality of Ukrainian politics is strong competitors from within the opposition. Polls indicate that Tymoshenko is already behind Vitali Klitschko, and once the campaign kicks off, her ability to garner new supporters seems rather limited. In sociological terms, the electorates of Yanukovych and the opposition do not overlap. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a non-charismatic and non-ideological “former”, hardly stands a chance, and the opposition’s voters increasingly consolidate behind two options: Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok. The two are seen simply as a “better choice” than Tymoshenko in the two opposition niches: liberal “pro-European” and Ukraine-centric nationalistic.

How to walk the talk?

Progress in other staple components such as the very rapid introduction of rule of law into the country is quite doubtful and will remain just a façade. Ukraine is in a unique situation. It has no transition pattern to follow. Unable to join the CEE transition train under its post-Soviet rulers and inert Sovietised population in the 1990s, it can only partially benefit from the lessons of the CEE transition.

The CEE’s “big bang” and the reforms which followed have never happened in post-Soviet Ukraine. Unlike the CEE countries, it is not transition from socialism, overwhelmingly supported by the country’s citizens as a breakaway from ineffective and alien model, which it has to undergo. Unlike Poland, Hungary and other CEE post-socialist states, by 1991 it had no nation-state, no modern history of independence, but deeply enrooted Soviet political and social standards.

This has all provided a real double-bottom under masquerade of democratisation. Private monopolies, a judicial system as an appendix to informal syndicates, dysfunctional and distrusted authorities, imitation of political competition – is what Ukraine has been about for the whole period of its post-Soviet history. The Orange Revolution which propelled another set of post-Soviet informal networks to power was less of a missed chance than a failure waiting to happen. It had neither the professional capacity nor the political will to implement reforms.

The shackles of the Orange Revolution generation of politicians and their satellites, having thrived in the oligarchic tussles of 2005-2010, are by now dispersed through the ranks of the opposition, Yanukovych’s system and the country’s NGOs sector, which is no less dysfunctional than their “Orange” governance.

All this leaves Ukraine’s still-to-happen post-Soviet transition and its unique challenges with no receipt or roadmap to follow. So, can the Association Agreement with the EU provide one?

The people’s prospective

Whatever the results of the Vilnius summit, Russia, Ukraine and the EU will geographically remain where they are. If the Agreement is signed, Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation won’t cease to perceive Ukraine as its “dear sister” whose identity is crucial to its own constructed identity and international ambitions. All 28 EU member states will neither unilaterally discard nor embrace it. Out of the sight from the United States with respect to its Eastern Europe’s shift to a trans-pacific vision, the EU and Russia are doomed to compete for relevance in Ukraine.

Thus, as the experts stress, the AA-DCFTA – even if signed and ratified – is only the beginning of the path. To win in Ukraine, the EU must proceed from an ephemeral, virtual presence to a factual and concrete influence and ties. It is time to go beyond vague aims such as mere promotion of the rule of law. Most Ukrainians essentially share European values and would strive to live up to them, so another contest of drawings on the topic or a flash-mob in a district centre will contribute nothing to the country’s European integration.

What really matters is Ukrainians’ perception of how genuine the EU is in its will to integrate Ukraine, the economic and social benefits of this integration and the ability of the country’s post-Soviet elite to implement anything at all. The de facto failure of the Eastern Partnership’s Comprehensive Institutions Building approach is a recent example of how the country’s double-bottom may effectively let down any policy which sounds perfect on paper.

Ukraine’s Self-Relevance

Despite all the setbacks and pitfalls, the whole process evokes almost hysterical reactions from the Russian Federation’s leader. Snubbing Yanukovych during his July visit to Kyiv, renewal of the trade wars, scheduling the next visit for the anniversary of Ukraine’s liberation from the German troops in 1944 and a weird campaign on reviving Soviet time-nostalgia only highlight Russia’s irrelevance in perception of what Ukraine currently is. Thus, paradoxically, both the EU and Russia face the same challenge in Ukraine – the challenge of being relevant.

The EU is potentially much closer to this aim as the AA-DCFTA contains a concrete plan for reforms and the public appeal leans into its direction. Adequately addressing this issue through an information campaign, the EU might significantly contribute to this. However, this choice will not be overwhelming, and whether it becomes stronger or weaker will depend on its relevance to the country’s everyday life.

The issue of national identity and the agenda of social and economic change will be in the centre of political debates and processes in Ukraine for the coming years. The post-Orange political inertia of Ukrainians has already given place to an increase in political activity, and it is clear that the 2015 presidential elections will be a no less hot, “no-rules” scuffle than those of 2004. A trustworthy offer based on the capacity to deliver – and being “new” as its crucial part – is likely to matter for the opposition’s electorate during the upcoming elections more than any outright technology.

Whatever the difficulties, removal of the main obstacle to signing the AA and DCFTA with the EU is still an easier task than unblocking the road to its effective implementation. This will require dismantling the corrupt informal networks currently in place of the democratic institutions and murky post-Soviet patterns which supplement functions of the state. Moving from a virtual to real ambit, the EU can significantly contribute to these aims, although it is only up to Ukrainians themselves to take decisive actions.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.

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