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A delayed success: The result of the Kwaśniewski-Cox mission in Ukraine

Viktor Yanukovych has been accused of treason. The former Ukrainian president is in hiding in Russia and did not appear at his hearing in Kyiv’s district court. It was therefore decided that he would be tried in absentia. Could he have avoided such a fate?

October 30, 2017 - Maciej Olchawa - Stories and ideas

Image by European Union 2013 – EP

The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013 was meant to be a historic event for Ukraine. In the Lithuanian capital, Ukraine was to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union and thereby consolidate its political and economic Western course.

This, however, did not happen. One week before the summit, Mykola Azarov’s government announced that work on the Association Agreement was put on hold. The following day, around two thousand people gathered at Maidan Nezalezhnosti. It was the beginning of the EuroMaidan. The results of this uprising included sniper fire on the streets of Kyiv, the martyrdom of the Heavenly Hundred, Yanukovych’s escape, Anschluss of Crimea by Russia, and the war in Eastern Ukraine. Events have spiralled out of control and the most dangerous conflict in Europe has erupted since the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

A European sphere of influence?

For Russia, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU was unacceptable. The Kremlin had a similarly critical view of the Eastern Partnership. Moscow saw the initiative as an intervention in Russia’s near abroad and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said in Brussels in 2009: “We are accused of having spheres of influence. But what is the Eastern Partnership, if not an attempt to extend the EU’s sphere of influence.” That same month, the EU insisted that the initiative is not directed against anyone and stressed that the purpose of the EaP is supporting the EU’s Eastern neighbours in “their reform efforts for consolidation of democracy and towards a market-orientated economy, to contribute to their stability and to promote convergence with EU standards.”

The Eastern Partnership was initiated during the Prague summit on May 7th 2009 in order to help create the necessary conditions for speeding up the political association and further economic integration between the European Union and its eastern partners. It gave the European Neighbourhood Policy an Eastern dimension and curtailed the criticism of many who suggested that the EU fails to differentiate between Europe’s neighbours and its European neighbours. It is worth noting that in comparison with the 470.01 million euros allocated to Ukraine between 2011 and 2013 as part of European Neighbourhood Policy funds, Morocco was meant to receive 580.5 million euros and Egypt 449.3 million.

Ukraine was a country which sought to become the leader in European integration among non-EU states. However, once Ukrainian-EU relations were stalled because of Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, the EU used a mechanism outside of the EaP to address obstacles standing in the way of the Association Agreement. The mechanism turned out to be a special mission of the European Parliament created in June 2012, headed by the former President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, and the former Polish president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

If you don’t support Europe, you should leave

In his 2010 article for the Wall Street Journal, president Viktor Yanukovych wrote that his government wants to “prepare a free and open Ukraine, economically and politically, to join the European Union when the time comes.” Meanwhile, Kyiv’s political declarations contradicted the actions of the president and the ruling party. In October 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison following charges of abuse of power during her tenure as prime minister.

Viktor Yanukovych thought that he would be able to get rid of a political opponent, and at the same time continue benefitting from close relations with the European Union. But it was obvious that the cases against Tymoshenko were politically motivated, which is why the European Union could not accept that the former prime minister, former presidential candidate, and the leader of the largest opposition party was thrown behind bars.

Formally, the aim of the Kwaśniewski-Cox mission was to help Ukraine in the implementation of legal and electoral reforms and combating selective justice. With time, however, the mission became the EU’s main instrument in its showdown with Yanukovych. It was an unprecedented hard-fought political and diplomatic game, whose stake was Ukraine’s European future.

In the interview for my book “Mission Ukraine”, Aleksander Kwaśniewski stated that during that time, the Party of the Regions was in a schizophrenic state. Already before the summer, Yanukovych made a big effort (at least on the declarative level) to convince the party to support Ukraine’s association with the EU: “His address at the party congress, when he spoke about two priorities, was a significant development. Then there was the meeting of the party’s leaders, where he supposedly made an appearance and said that the door was open and anyone who was against the EU should just leave the room. No one – of course – left. Whether he was being sincere is a subject for another discussion, but the party got the message about the direction they were heading.” The attitude of the presidential camp began to change in the summer of 2013, when the Russians began their blockade of Ukrainian exports.

The political crisis caused by the refusal to sign the Association Agreement showed what kind of person Yanukovych was, although the fact that he decided to break the negotiations with the EU was in large part the result of Russian pressure. For this reason, Kwaśniewski dismisses the notion that everything was staged from the start. Contrary to the expectations of a large part of Ukrainian society, Yanukovych and the Party of the Regions at some point decided to reverse the course of European integration. According to the former Polish president, “undoubtedly, the unusual pressure from the Russian Federation had an effect”.

In the centre of the whirlwind

The Kwaśniewski-Cox mission was meant to facilitate a historic event equal to Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991. Within the framework of the mission, Kwaśniewski met Viktor Yanukovych 18 times and spoke to him for at least 50 hours. He tried to convince Ukraine’s president that he should allow Yulia Tymoshenko to go for treatment abroad. With time, these conversations became increasingly difficult and Russia exerted growing political and economic pressure on Ukraine through its trade embargo.

At the beginning of November, anything was still possible and the Association Agreement could have been signed. On November 14, 2013 Kwaśniewski said in Brussels: “I do not want to make any assumptions, but if the draft law on [Tymoshenko’s] hospitalization abroad is ready, chances are fifty-fifty. But nothing can be done without hard work. We will keep on working.” Nonetheless, from Ukraine’s perspective, the Vilnius summit ended up as a fiasco. The Association Agreement was eventually won on the streets of Kyiv.

The Kwaśniewski-Cox mission upheld the hope of Ukrainians that their country could change for the better and become closer to the EU through reforms. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for those who aspired to follow Europe. When in the summer of 2012 the situation seemed hopeless, the European Union, which is not famous for flexibility and swift decision-making, found a way to keep the door open for Ukraine. In our interview, Kwaśniewski said that Yanukovych was convinced that the case of Yulia Tymoshenko was so well known to Europe that it would retreat from its desire to sign the Association Agreement: “From his point of view, it would be a perfect scenario. He would be able to say: ‘I want to sign it, they don’t’. Why are they willing to tie the fate of Ukraine, a nation of almost 50 million, with the fate of a common thief and criminal?”

But the European Union did not fall into his trap. When Yulia Tymoshenko said: “Sign the Association Agreement regardless of what is happening to me,” Yanukovych realised he had been outplayed. In November 2013, it was not the EU that decided to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement until Ukraine met the conditions – that is, release the former prime minister from prison – but the Party of the Regions government, which froze all actions aimed at reaching the agreement before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.

From June 2012 until November 2013, Aleksander Kwaśniewski attended 21 meetings with opposition leaders, 16 proceedings with EU ambassadors in Kyiv, six meetings with 18 different non-governmental organisations, held four consultations with former Ukrainian presidents and 68 telephone conversations with both the opposition and representatives of the government.

The mission was tiresome, but Kwaśniewski sums it up with one word: “fascinating”. In Vilnius he had a feeling of powerlessness, but everything he had fought for soon materialised: Yulia Tymoshenko was freed, and Ukraine signed the Association Agreement with the EU. Recalling those events, he says that at the time he was in the centre of the whirlwind. In hindsight, it is clear that this was just the beginning of the grave storms over Ukraine, and it does not appear that there will be smooth sailing in the near future.

Maciej Olchawa is the author of Mission Ukraine (Misja Ukraina).

The publication of this text was co-financed with a grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the framework of Public Diplomacy 2017 – II component Eastern dimension of Polish foreign policy 2017 and in partnership with Eastbook.eu. The publication expresses the views of the author only and should not be identified with the official position of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A version of this article first appeared in Polish at: http://www.eastbook.eu/2017/08/07/sukces-ktory-nadszedl-po-latach-czyli-rezultat-misji-kwasniewski-cox-na-ukrainie/

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