On November 21st, a week before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, the Ukrainian government announced its decision to halt preparations for the signing of the association agreement and the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. Announced “in the interests of the national security”, it also set forth a proposal for a trilateral commission of Ukraine, Russia and the EU to work on “a set of issues”.
The next day the head of the ruling Party of Regions’ parliamentary faction, Oleksandr Yefremov stated that the decision was taken as there was “too quick of a pace” in the European integration, and appealed to EU’s unwillingness to compensate for the damages the integration incurs on Ukraine. The decision came as a shock to many both in Ukraine and around the world. It certainly is directly connected to the results of a series of discussions between Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, and Vladimir Putin which are traditionally kept away from almost anyone’s knowledge. The most recent round of talks held on Saturday November 9th in Russia triggered a tide of speculation about the financial and political offers allegedly made by Putin and accepted by Yanukovych.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, the head of Batkivshchyna opposition party, claimed that Yanukovych is to receive 20 billion USD from Russia, “for himself and his closest ones”. Upon closer examination, however, there is nothing really new or unexpected in this twist in the Ukrainian government’s approach to the issue. Those well aware of Ukraine’s governmental patterns have no illusions about the Council of Ministers’ decision-making capacity – many even allege that the Cabinet in fact does not take decisions, but rather gives a formal shape to those of the President and his administration.
The dramatic twists are typical for Yanukovych. The examples include a last minute abrupt resignation from a coalition-building with Yuliya Tymoshenko in 2009 or cancelling a meeting with Putin, scheduled to launch Ukraine’s Customs Union path, in December 2012. In the infamous post-Soviet games of politics and European integration, the Ukrainian president is a professional, confident of his skills and proud of being results-oriented.
It is easy to overstate the value of this decision, but, in a way, it also seems inevitable. As there is no place for ideas and beliefs in the interests-based governance of post-Soviet rulers, there is also no place for real strategic choices and devoted action on their implementation. The latest decision of the Ukrainian government will, of course, gain all sorts of encouragement from the Russian authorities, but will hardly lead to jubilation in Moscow. One man who is no less a professional in the risky competitions of post-Soviet power-games is Vladimir Putin, and he is well aware of volatile nature of Yanukovych’s decisions.
Nor shall it entail despair in Brussels, as it is practically impossible to change the bad faith of the Ukrainian authorities. Paradoxically, there were no big mistakes made by the EU, as to win in this game it should have followed the path of brutal pressure and informal offers, which, supposedly, contradict its values. It is also difficult to call this a missed opportunity: even a perspective of membership could boost the support for the EU among the Ukrainian people, but would hardly add anything to a lack of action from the Ukrainian authorities.
Indeed, the Ukrainian public has not stayed indifferent. The decision was met with spontaneous protests on Maidan Square in Kyiv, where the Orange revolution took place this exact day nine years ago. There is no exaggeration in saying that the city, not only Facebook “activists”, is buzzing with the news of European integration being put on hold. The opposition plans a major rally in support of Ukraine’s European choice on Sunday and it is set to attract an impressive turnout.
It is certain for now that the country’s supporters of the European choice, who prevail in its Western and Central part, are frustrated with the extreme rally-driving instead of state governance, exercised by its current rulers. Yanukovych is deeply unpopular in the capital, as well as all over Western and Central Ukraine. According to the opinion polls and sociological picture of the country, the re-election, which he is determined to pursue, will be impossible in anything close to a fair election.
What is certain is that this game is far from over. Both Russia and the EU are facing very serious internal challenges, and Ukraine’s own economic and social situation is all but catastrophic. If the Ukrainian authorities might think they are winning in this dangerous game, the Ukrainian nation is certainly losing. There is a lot of place for discussion on the future of Russia and the EU, but in the widening crack between the East and West, the game of politics and “integrations” exercised by Ukraine’s corrupt post-Soviet elite has no future. Whether the country they currently run will have it, depends on the Ukrainian people.
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.