As the Ukrainian government decided to suspend association talks with the European Union last week, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets and the mass protests continued this week. On Monday, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko declared a hunger strike and in a message delivered through her lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko, Tymoshenko said “As a sign of unity with you I declare an unlimited hunger strike with the demand to Yanukovych to sign the association agreement.” It is evident that the Ukrainian government seems to be shifting gears and President Viktor Yanukovych values reelection and short-term trade benefits with Russia over the long-term benefits of a deeper European integration.
The Eastern Partnership, launched in 2009, was designed to enhance political and economic relations between the EU and the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. The future of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership will be decided at the Vilnius Summit, November 28-29 if new Association Agreements and Free Trade Agreements with the EU are signed. More importantly, the future of Ukraine and its Euro-integration will be determined. As the days leading up to the Summit are numbered, the focus is now on the Ukrainian government and especially on the renewing of dialogue between Ukraine and Russia. Last week, the Ukrainian Parliament rejected several legislation aimed at meeting the EU’s requirements, and one of them concerned a draft law on how to proceed with incarcerated former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko traveling to Germany to receive treatment.
Volodymyr Rybak, the parliamentary speaker, said that the release of Tymoshenko and additional laws concerning elections and the public prosecutor’s office continued on November 21, but failed to agree on a draft law. As a response from the deadlock from last week, the EU extended the deadline to November 19, but the Ukrainian parliament missed that deadline. The Summit is now just a few days away and Ukraine is, yet again, looking at a closer partnership with Russia where Ukraine’s energy concerns would be averted.
Lithuania is currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and has stated that the EU is ready for Ukraine to join the European family. Reuters reported, November 18, that Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite said without a resolution, the signing of the agreements will not be possible. Furthermore, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said, “If we wait we may lose everything.” Indicating that postponing the signing of agreements will jeopardize the Eastern Partnership.
But, the recent developments in the geostrategic corridor have brought Ukraine into sharp focus because of the battle between the EU and Russia.
For some years, Ukraine has been moving towards a deeper “Euro-integration”: first under now-jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and subsequently under the man who overthrew and jailed her, President Viktor Yanukovych. On September 18, Ukraine strengthened its commitment to its integration into the European Union when its parliament approved the text of trade agreement with the EU, which could be signed by the EU at the upcoming EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius at the end of November. Now, that commitment is worth nothing.
Russia, perhaps emboldened by the recent decision of Armenia rejecting a free trade association with the EU and joining the Russian Customs Union, has turned up the heat on Ukraine and others, whom Russia regards as within its traditional sphere of influence – looking east rather than west – for trade alliances. Ukraine is particularly important, to both Russia and the EU, because it is the largest of the former eastern bloc countries with 46 million people and a $330 billion USD economy.
Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said that “special trading partnership with Ukraine, which has operated up until now, will end,” if Ukraine signs a deal with the EU.
During the Yalta European Strategy conference in September, Sergei Glazyev, a Russian politician and economist, argued that a deal with the EU hurts local Ukrainian producers and increases the already wide Ukrainian trade deficit. Mr. Glazyev went further to threaten that “new trade barriers [between Ukraine and Russia in the form of a deal with the EU] would provide “no hope for an easing of gas prices.” Ukraine is heavily dependent on gas imports from Russia and a deeper Ukrainian Euro-integration could jeopardize Ukraine’s energy supplies from Russia.
“What we [the European Union] have seen during the past few weeks is brutal Russian pressure against the partnership countries of a sort that we haven’t seen in Europe for a very long time,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt last month.
Despite the rising pressure from Russia, Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, speaking at the General Debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly stressed the importance of Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements with the EU for Ukraine. He reiterated the importance of maintaining ties with Russia, stating “Our relations with the EU will benefit the Customs Union.”
But Ukraine will not likely be able to have its cake and eat it too.
Instead Ukraine finds itself caught in a reprise of a “great game” between the East and the West in a rivalry for the countries between East Europe and the Caucasus.
The situation is complicated by the EU’s insistence that Ukraine has accomplished sufficient reforms before the November meeting. The continued controversial incarceration of former PM Tymoshenko is a critical factor. The Ukrainians contend that peremptory release of Tymoshenko would violate Ukrainian law.
Observers, including Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, have asked whether the EU can relax its position on Tymoshenko in response to the Russian offensive and compromise on “selective justice,” the code words for politically-motivated justice.
The pressure from Russia has already forced the EU to alter its strategy. Rather than having all 28 member states ratify the Association Agreement, Brussels will allow the free-trade benefits to be available immediately upon signing the agreement. But approvals will eventually need to be secured. In addition, the EU even made a decision to water down the draft of the Vilnius Summit text, especially regarding the status of the six partners implying that the countries have aspirations rather than perspectives to become members in the future. Roadmap to EU membership in the future remain absent.
The importance of the geostrategic region is recognized by both the European Union and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, scheduled to be launched in 2015. But Russia has made it clear that Ukraine must choose. While all eyes are on the Ukrainian parliament, it is imperative to focus on the mass protests in Ukraine and how these demonstrations could lead to a return of the Orange Revolution, albeit an updated 2.0 version. These next few days will be crucial for Ukraine and its citizens as their future will be decided by external pressure rather than internal decision-making.