Game not over: on Ukraine’s rebuff to the EU deal
It might seem that, Ukraine having decided not to sign a deal with the EU last week in Vilnius, the Union lost the integration contest to Russia. But developments seem to be on the way. In light of the happenings of the past few days, Europe may come out of this better than it would have, had things gone another way.
It has long been known that the talks between the EU and Ukraine should end at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, with the signing of a Free Trade and Association Agreement. It’s been known that such an agreement would be against Russia’s well-articulated geopolitical interests, and that it would much prefer to see its South-Western neighbour join its own regional integration project, the Customs Union. It’s been known that Moscow will deploy every tool to undermine it – and that it has a number of areas for potential blackmail. It’s been known that therefore Ukraine will decide the integration contest Russia had provoked the EU into.
And it’s been known that Ukraine can go either way, because, as an editor of the Ukrainian weekly Zerkolo Nedeli put it to the Economist back in February, the country’s ‘favourite sport has long been promising everything and doing nothing’. It has been known that Mr Yanukovych is no fan of the democratic control an association with the EU would mean, but that he likes the political and economic independence that membership of the Russian-led Customs Union would put at an even bigger risk. It has seemed likely – and I myself argued so in a post published here in March this year – that he will therefore aim to maintain the status quo, the non-aligned stance as long as financially possible, whilst milking both Moscow and Brussels. A mere couple of days before last week’s summit, when the Brussels officials had already almost believed that this is over and Ukraine is choosing Europe, Mr Yanukovych suddenly, but not surprisingly, announced the suspension of talks with the EU and thus the indefinite postponement of the agreement.
Russia, sceptical to start with, in the summer already saw the agreement as a very real danger, and started pulling the rope. It banned the products of several big Ukrainian companies citing public health reasons and it strictened border control, slowing down commerce and, in some cases, making it impossible. Gazprom made it clear again that it’s not renegotiating Ukraine’s treasury-crippling long-term gas contract, and in turn claimed some unpaid bills. Meanwhile, Mr Putin commenced a series of negotiations with Mr Yanukovych behind closed doors. The EU, faced with the blatant blackmail, started with a peculiar smooth-talk regarding its conditions, particularly the abolishing of the ‘selective justice’ (a cherished term of Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle), that is to say, re-trying ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko. So smooth, in fact that, if only Mr Yanukovych had wished so, they would have signed the agreement without a word last week, despite Ms Tymoshenko still rotting in jail and probably facing a life sentence at the end of her ongoing trial for murder. It is only too clear: a stable, democratic, European Ukraine is the EU’s geopolitical interest – conflicting with Russia’s own.
So far it’s perhaps logical to consider Mr Yanukovych’s rebuff the EU’s defeat. But there is little chance the agreement would have been stable if Ukraine’s President uses it, much like the lack of it, to achieve daily political goals, to get reelected and to get richer. The prestige the EU is risking here needs to be considered – better if Mr Yanukovych doesn’t bet it all on a pair of queens.
Upon news of the suspension of talks, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Kyiv to protest against the decision and for the EU. The middle-class youths – who dominate the protests, rapidly christened Yevromaydan – are not driven by historical offenses anymore. They want to belong to Europe because they see it as a guarantee for tearing down the corruption present everywhere, for true democracy and rule of law; a guarantee against Mr Yanukovych, if you like. The slogan 'Ukraine into the EU' – often seen on their banners – sounds, of course, somewhat unrealistic as Ukraine’s membership is impossible in the foreseeable future. But apart from this, the protesters’ expectations are largely founded. The agreement, if it’s signed, will mean EU oversight of the application of democratic norms, EU political protection vis-à-vis Russia and, in the long run, a sustainable economic upturn with access to the common market and a heavy flow of development funds and Western investment.
Yevromaydan is comparable to 2004’s Orange Revolution both in its goals and intensity. A fear of repeat of the uprising that swept away then-PM Mr Yanukovych for rigging the elections – only to return to office in 2006 and be elected president in 2010 – is already discernible in the official communication. He might well turn to repression and election-rigging again – last weekend’s police brutality is worth attention, as are PM Mykola Azarov’s apologies afterwards. President Putin cannot be expected to condemn Mr Yanukovych’s repression in principle. But the EU cannot leave its Ukrainian friends alone.
The notion of a common European defeat might lead to a strengthening of the common European foreign policy. All Member States of the EU are aware of the importance of Ukraine’s choice; the frustration may make them aware of the importance of definitive, common, action, too. Whom it is represented by doesn’t matter much. As it happens, the foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton seemed weak in Vilnius and mediocre at best in Brussels when, in response to a request by Mr Azarov to receive a delegation for further talks on the agreement, she said she was open for discussion, but would not ’re-open negotiations on the text”. Commission President Barroso, on the other hand, hit a stronger tone when talking about Russian interference in the process in Vilnius.
The common foreign policy should now strictly condemn Mr Yanukovych’s actions as well as Mr Putin’s. It should show solidarity with the protesters and, should he give repression a chance, impose sanctions without delay. A travel ban and asset freeze on Mr Yanukovych and the ’family’, the oligarchical circle of friends and relatives around him, could work – but there are other, stronger cards on the table.
Contrary to Russia, the EU cannot afford to make its geopolitical interests its only priority. As I have argued before, the essence of the EU’s influence is, apart from its economic strength, its unconditional respect for the values called ’European’ around the globe; democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the rights of minorities. Its most effective foreign policy tool has many times proved to be integration, which Yevromaydan sympathisers also hope for. By retreating on the democratic conditions of association, the EU relativises a major lure. Therefore, if the talks were to start again, the EU can not show such flexibility on its conditions. For the agreement to work, there must be legal certainty, accountability, free and fair elections in Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko must be re-tried, even despite her own appeal for the EU not to stick to this.
The Vilnius fiasco has proved that it is not Mr Yanukovych the EU has to convince by being flexible on conditions or bidding on funding. It is Ukrainians the EU has to convince. First, by adhering to the image they have of it: stern on its basic values, unbending on its conditions. Second, by strengthening this image: bringing Ukrainians closer to itself. This can be done by visa liberalisation (or at least the easing of conditions), higher education exchange programmes, or the issuing of temporary work permits.
This could be a plan for the near future – for Brussels. The agreement is now on hold; it’s Ukraine’s turn. We don’t know what has been agreed behind closed doors in Moscow; but for now it seems like Mr Yanukovych might as well give up on his 2015 re-election hopes. Another president will perhaps show the determination that’s needed to set Ukraine on a European route for good. Until then, the EU should support Yevromaydan and the Ukrainians with a resolute common voice, strong words and, if needed, actions.