Stalemate at Uzhhorod: on the faux rapprochement between the EU and Ukraine

March 5, 2013


The Eastern Partnership programme is stalling, even though on February 25 officials from the EU and Ukraine reaffirmed their joint commitment to sign an Association Agreement in November. President Yanukovych, despite his repeated promises, is reluctant to carry out substantial reforms to Ukraine’s judicial and political systems. The EU, on the other hand, will not give in. The stalemate in Brussels-Kyiv relations could set the latter Moscow-bound – but maintenance of the status quo seems more likely.


Of course, the EU has had immense success integrating the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe by supporting the development of Western-style liberal-democratic systems. But there, the transition was enabled by a social consensus and the accompanying political will. These are precisely what Ukraine seems to be lacking, which leaves doubts about where, if anywhere, the Union’s unbent policies will lead the Eastern Partnership.


What the Ukrainian and European leadership have now countless times affirmed their joint commitment to sign is a so-called Association Agreement. This treaty would establish a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), lift visa restrictions, let the country participate in many of the EU’s programmes and agencies – bringing Ukraine a lot closer to the Union. All this on condition that the country ‘Europeanises’ its legal and political frameworks first, that is, makes the adjustments that the Union deems necessary to make them comply with its core values.


But Ukraine seems to be a rather troublesome partner for the European Union. As an editor of the paper Zerkolo Nedeli told the Economist, '[the country’s] favourite sport has long been promising everything and doing nothing'.


True, it seems that what European officials labelled as Mr Yanukovych's 'unequivocal commitment' after last Monday's meeting is indeed an equivocal thing. At the talks, the President normally seems ready to implement the EU’s suggestions and to alleviate their concerns, even putting the fate of now-imprisoned ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko on the negotiating table (although what rule of law is there to talk about in a country where that is for the President to decide?). In the run-up to the February 25 talks, just as it seemed as if a considerable step forward would be taken, the opposite happened: Tymoshenko is now facing trial for murder, which could easily result in her being locked up for life. No less counter-effective was the (alleged) rigging of last year’s parliamentary elections.


As Martin Lukac rightly points out in his insightful article on the Russian attitude to the EU-Ukrainian rapprochement, there are signs of a lack of political will both to release the leading figures of the Orange Revolution and to address the issues of the bloc’s concerns. According to what was agreed last Monday, Mr Yanukovych now has until the Eastern Partnership summit due to take place in Vilnius in November to take action – and he seems unlikely to do so.


What Europe has to offer is clear enough: access to its 500 million-strong market, free movement of capital, education and labour mobility, budget aid and subsidies - the Union now promises €610 million on condition that Ukraine gets its IMF programme back on track. Nevertheless, as Prime Minister Mykola Azarov asserted last week, the government will only resume its negotiations with the IMF after an agreement has been reached with Gazprom on the decrease of gas prices. Ukraine would like to revise its disadvantageous 2009 gas deal, that bears responsibility for the $7 billion bill for unused gas allegedly received in Kyiv last month.


This gas, that Ukraine is largely dependent on, is clearly Russia's greatest lever in its efforts to get it involved in its regional integration project, the Customs (potentially Eurasian) Union – which, we can expect, will hardly work without Ukraine. The EU’s limited response is support with the modernization of the Ukrainian gas transit system, and the diversification of sources, resulting in turning the formerly one-way Ukraine-EU gas traffic bidirectional – but there is no way a relatively energy-poor EU (itself relying on Russian gas to a degree), can outperform Russia at home.


The European Union is also clearly asking a lot in return for the trade boost that the DCFTA would mean for Ukraine, and the recognition of Europeanness that visa liberalization would mean for its citizens. It wants Ukraine to adapt its laws to European norms and to bring an end to what EU officials call 'selective justice': possibly re-trying Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Lutsenko whilst definitely making Mr Yanukovych and 'the family' (the prospering group of relatives, friends and oligarchs around him) accountable to the wider public. At this point, it seems little conceivable that the President will retreat on virtually every step he has taken to consolidate his power since he assumed office in 2010.


On the other hand, were he to opt for joining the CU, Mr Yanukovych would not have to compromise any of his authoritarian ambitions, since Moscow has not stipulated any conditions to membership that concern Ukraine’s internal affairs. However, he would presumably pay a hefty political price for giving in to Mr Putin as well. It would surely see the generally Ukrainian-speaking and pro-Western west and north of the country - that is largely set against him anyway – infuriated. But unconditional support is hardly to be expected from the Russian-speaking and often pro-Russian east and south, that constitute Mr Yanukovych's primary electoral base, either. The figures of public support of the EU by and large equal those of the CU, but - for obvious historical reasons - antagonistic sentiments may be expected to be less ferocious.


The EU's rhetoric and conditions, however, might come across as mildly patronising in Ukraine - and Ukrainians may prove hard to patronise. As an EU diplomat told the Economist before last year' elections, Ukrainian officials seem to think their country is ‘important enough to get it the way they want'. They could be right, for, as we see, Ukraine is the tipping point in the crucial integration contest between Russia and the EU.


But the EU will certainly not give in on its position. Its insistence on anyone starting an 'association' (strong term) with it meeting its political, legal, and human rights standards - valid not only in Europe but across the Western world - is absolutely essential to both its internal and its external image. If – hypothetically –, in a pursuit of regional influence and leverage on Russia, it sacrificed its core values to partner up with Ukraine, it would beyond doubt lose its essence, its raison d'être.


In the end, despite the numerous declarations of commitment from both sides, any advancement in the EU-Ukraine relations is unlikely as no side bows to the other. Whether an agreement to join the Customs Union will be reached is not for this article to reveal - but, amidst fears of 'becoming just another governor of Putin's', Mr Yanukovych will be pleased to hold on to his independence as long as he can while setting his country’s two rich courters against each other in order to enjoy financial benefits from both. Following the impending disappointment, the issue of Ukraine might temporarily be taken off the EU's agenda, but the bloc will hardly lose interest for good. That unless Ukraine opts for joining the CU, in which case a whole new Eastern policy will have to be drawn up in Brussels.

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