Written by Ramy Srour
There has been a lot of talk during this past week over the future of Ukraine, the largest country completely within Europe and home to over 45 million people. Stuck between East and West, between an overbearing Russia and an alluring, yet insufficiently-convincing EU, the country finds itself in limbo. Having to choose between the long-term economic benefits of getting closer to the EU on one hand, and Russia’s political threats and pressure on the other, Kiev seems to have opted for the latter.
The EU’s third Eastern Partnership Summit, where a group of former Soviet states — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine — discussed with EU members the potential for future economic and trade cooperation, ended Nov. 29 in Vilnius (Lithuania) with a slap in the face for the Europeans.
The past few days have seen an outpour of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the streets of Kiev calling for their leader to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, a deal that would have offered the former Soviet republic lower tariffs and direct financial assistance from the European bloc. In spite of that, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych simply said “thanks, but no thanks,” and rejected the EU’s $800 million deal, calling it “humiliating” and likening it to “candy wrapped in pretty wrapper.” The Telegraph newspaper reports.
Thousands of pro-EU protesters gathered in Kiev this week to urge President Yanukovych to sign onto the EU agreement [Photo credit: Sergei Khusavkov/AP]
On Saturday, protests in Kiev gained additional momentum after Ukrainian police used batons and stun grenades to break up the crowds, prompting the protesters to call for a nation-wide strike. The country seems to be heading toward a new revolution, reminiscent of the 2004 Orange Revolution. The only difference this time is that while the revolution of ten years ago was a peaceful one, this one seems to be taking a rather violent turn.
Western media have unequivocally blamed Ukraine’s refusal on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “blackmailing.” The AP reported Ukrainian President Yanukovych as saying, “I have been one-on-one with Russia for three and a half years under very unequal conditions,” implying strong pressure coming from Moscow.
Most other mainstream western media outlets have focused on the EU’s frustration with Russian interference in the Union’s bilateral dealings with third parties, which European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso declared as unacceptable.
On Nov. 29, the Washington Post interestingly reported that Viktor Kremanyuk, a senior analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for the USA and Canada said that, if he could, he would tell Putin: “You’re not in a hostile world where you always have to be tough. You’re in a friendly world. Someone should explain this to him.”
But while it may be true that Russia has over the past year exerted a great deal of pressure to pull Ukraine further within its orbit, Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the deal on Friday is also the unmistakable consequence of something else entirely. Simply put: poor European diplomacy.
When EU policymakers launched the Eastern Partnership program back in 2009, there was a general — albeit hidden — understanding that the program would lead to eventual EU accession. That outcome, however, never materialized.
This led to a common sense of frustration among the Ukrainian leadership. “Who the hell do I have to see around here [in Brussels] to get Ukraine into the EU?” Oleh Rybachuk, a senior Ukrainian diplomat, said after tirelessly wandering from one official building to the other during his stay in Brussels as a special envoy.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych (L), EU Council of Ministers President Herman Van Rompuy (C), and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania Nov. 28-29 [Photo credit: AFP]
After launching the Partnership program, the EU moved from one bad diplomatic move to another. First, it refused to label Ukraine a “European state” for symbolic reasons.
Then, when Kiev sought to increase travel between Ukraine and the EU by dropping visa requirements for EU citizens, the EU did not respond in turn. It upheld visa requirements instead, and European consulates even increased the number of visa refusals.
More importantly, the EU has so far failed to offer a viable alternative to Russian influence. At this stage, Ukraine simply cannot afford to sacrifice its trade ties with Russia for an EU agreement that is not guaranteed to compensate for such losses.
The problem with the EU is that, when it finds itself in a position in which it seeks to create a mutually beneficial relationship with a neighbor, it cannot offer those types of “carrots” other powers — see Russia — are able to put on the table.
Indeed, in his effort to pull Ukraine away from the EU-28, Vladimir Putin offered to lower gas prices, a very welcome move in Kiev as Ukraine is still trying to get rid of a $1.3 billion debt with Russia in gas purchases.
Did the Europeans step up to the task? It seems not. When Yanukovych asked for a more substantial deal this week, French President Francois Hollande simply responded: “No, we won’t pay.”
Ukraine finds itself at the crossroads of EU and Russian influence. For now, the latter seems to be gaining the upper hand [Image: Cagle Cartoons/Shooty]
It is hard to imagine how the European bloc will manage to pull Ukraine under its sway if it is not able to propose a serious alternative to Russian bargains. The EU would need to offer the Ukrainians a deal they truly cannot refuse.
After all, this is just standard business procedure in international affairs.
True enough, at this week’s summit the EU did manage to get Georgia and Moldova to sign the agreement. But the two countries combined make up less than a sixth of Ukraine’s population, and only 13 percent of its GDP.
It is obvious where the real deal would have been, and the EU-28 will have to restructure their external policies if they still aim to play a leading role in the international arena.
- Ukraine U-turn on Europe pact was agreed with Vladimir Putin (theguardian.com)
- EU to gather under Ukraine cloud (bbc.co.uk)
- Ukraine aligns with Moscow as EU summit fails (theguardian.com)