Can a rock be lifted from the floor of the sea? It depends on how deep it is, but it will take some effort. It is easier to simply pick up a rock on the beach and claim it came from the deep. This is pretty much what talk about Ukraine’s European integration resembles. Can Ukraine in its present condition really expect to sign and later ratify the Association Agreement with the EU? Are its membership prospects realistic? Pulling this off would require either reaching down to the sea floor or jumping higher than a man's head. Of course, one could just claim that the formula “European identity” contained in the joint summit statement and which is to be included in the preamble to the Association Agreement is a “hidden membership prospect.” And this is exactly what Ukraine's Foreign Ministry did as it reported on its success.
President Viktor Yanukovych and representatives of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry tried hard to exude optimism on the sunny day of December 19, but the negotiation process with the EU delegation and statements made by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso suggested the polar opposite. As had been expected, the Association Agreement was not initialed at the summit. The sides merely announced that the negotiations had now been completed. The Ukraine-EU summit joint statement speaks of mutual understanding: “The leaders noted with satisfaction that chief negotiators had reached a common understanding on the full text of the Association Agreement which will establish the future contractual basis of EU-Ukraine relations. The way is now open for technical completion of the final consolidated version of the Agreement, including its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, with a view to initialling it as soon as possible.”
“I believe that today we can set common long-term goals for ourselves and draw Ukraine closer to Europe along specific lines from the standpoint of citizens, the economies, businesses and intergovernmental relations,” Barroso said addressing journalists. But this was the end of exchanging pleasantries.
“We have completed the political part of the negotiations on the Association Agreement. When all technical details are ready, it can be initialed. The next step is signing and ratifying the agreement,” Van Rompuy said. However, “realization of the agreement depends on Ukraine honoring the rule of law and all other fundamental values,” he stressed. The European leaders again brought up the Yulia Tymoshenko case, which was called politically motivated. They did not forget to mention the 2012 parliamentary election which, according to Van Rompuy, will also be viewed in the context of honoring the principles of democracy.
Officials met for two hours longer than scheduled. When the EU representatives and Yanukovych finally appeared before journalists to speak about the results achieved, the Ukrainian president looked nervous and was unable to hold back his emotions until the end of the press conference.
Yanukovych let his European counterparts understand that he was not going to change his position on issues of domestic policies that are of concern to the EU. “Statements and comments from Europeans about certain problems with democracy are being given due attention,” the president emphasized. “But everything has to be decided in keeping with the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary branch of the government.”
And so Ukraine has received, for the umpteenth time, signals that EU representatives must be tired of sending by now: Europe will not make any concessions regarding Ukraine’s justice system, in particular with regard to criminal cases against Tymoshenko and other members of the opposition. Instead of a long-expected agreement on visa-free travel to EU member states, which Yanukovych promised to secure by the end of 2011, Ukraine was granted a simplified visa regime, which the EU called an intermediate stage to the ultimate goal. This simplified procedure will apply to students, NGO representatives and holders of official passports. Yanukovych expects the negotiations on visa-free travel to be completed by the end of 2014.
The head of the Presidential Administration, Serhiy Lovochkin, was the only one who truly succeeded in radiating optimism and confidence. He decided to talk to journalists informally to convince them that the negotiations were a success. Lovochkin hurried to hail the summit as a success for the Ukrainian side and assured that the former prime minister’s case would not be an impediment to closer cooperation with the EU. He argued that Ukraine’s European integration was irreversible and the Association Agreement could be signed within the next several months: “It can happen in December, January or February. It all depends on the bureaucratic machine and how quickly it can prepare the text. … They say that we are working successfully. You can ask them yourselves,” he told journalists.
However, Europe does not seem to share Lovochkin’s optimism, even though it says closer relations with Ukraine are one of its priorities. “We in the EU hope to be able to greatly improve our relations with Ukraine. In 2011, Ukraine marked the 20th anniversary of its independence. And we all have a hope that the next 20 years will show that Ukraine can fully accept the values which our agreement is based on. This is also a key to progress in our relations,” Barroso said.
It was more of a challenge to talk to Yanukovych. It appeared that, anticipating the outcome of the negotiations, the president’s aides took steps in advance to shield the distraught president from too many questions. A member of his press service immediately told journalists that only four questions would be asked – two from Ukrainian and two from foreign media. She added that the two Ukrainian questions had already been agreed upon before the meeting started and asked the foreign media to quickly submit their own.
THE THIRD SECTOR
While the Presidential Administration forced journalists to go through three lines of security, there was no security whatsoever at 22 Hrushevsky Str., where Barroso and Van Rompuy were to meet with representatives of civil society. That is, if you discount the Ukrainian policemen by the entrance to the building who were driving all passers-by away from the sidewalk even when there was no one inside except for Ukrainian experts and organizers. “Cross the street to the other side,” they said as they gestured authoritatively to direct pedestrians.
The event, which involved public activists, was called “2011 Ukraine-EU Summit: Civic Dimension.” It was initiated by the Ukrainian National Platform for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. Incidentally, all skeptics who said that the partnership was turning into a “political corpse” should know that a dead program could not bring Ukrainian public lobbyists for European integration and two leading EU figures – President of the European Council and President of the European Commission together under one roof to sit around one table.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Hryshchenko promised to attend the meeting on behalf of the Ukrainian government but never showed up. No one offered any explanation about what urgent matters kept him away. “Is he not coming today or is he never coming?” someone asked rhetorically from the audience. Other invited guests, Van Rompuy and Barroso, came, even at the cost of delaying their departure from Kyiv. They were prepared to move their flight to a later time.
The dominant mood in the audience could be best expressed by the words of a well-known Ukrainian folk song – “I am sad, so sad.” As people waited for Van Rompuy and Barroso, the Ukrainian expert community tried to rationalize everything that was taking place in Ukraine and search for constructive points of view. “If we wanted it really badly, the text of the Association Agreement would have been initialed at the summit. There could have been a symbolic initialing. As of September 2011, Ukraine was approaching this point. But today it is already a lost chance. Who found it more important to keep someone in prison instead of having this agreement on the table? Everyone must answer this question himself,” Oleksandr Sushko, Research Director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, argued. “The prevalent position in the EU is that an agreement on political association can only be signed with a country that is on the right track,” he added. “Today some forces are playing to defeat the EU, to prevent European rules from coming to Ukraine,” energy expert Mykhailo Honchar continued.
The only government representative at this meeting was First Deputy Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. His was the statement of the day: “In the joint summit statement, we speak about Ukraine’s European identity. Personally, I have had long discussions with the member countries in Brussels about the possibility of applying this formula to Ukraine. Believe me, it is not a banal formula. It is a very sophisticated formula which means a hidden prospect to our European colleagues.” “And to some, it means an open European prospect,” Klimkin added as he gained courage. In his opinion, the Association Agreement will be completely ready to be initialed in a matter of weeks. “A hidden membership prospect” is an expression unknown not only to Ukrainian experts but, it appeared, to Van Rompuy and Barroso themselves as well, who did not say anything of the kind in their addresses.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders finally arrived at 22 Hrushevsky Str. where they heard the exact opposite of what they had listened to in the Presidential Administration. “The low level of social dialog on upgrading and Europeanization, a lack of proper political competition, selective application of criminal law, persecution of civil society activists, concentration of power around one political center, nontransparent public administration (particularly in government procurement), the curtailment of education reform, the rejection of university autonomy, and obscure rules of the game on the energy market,” Ihor Kohut of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives said punctuating his words as he read from a document entitled “The Position of the Civil Society Forum: Common Values and a Common Future.” Barroso listened and leafed through the English-language version of the documents with a smile of approval. Van Rompuy wore a serious face. Later, he noted among other things that civil society was a “key partner for the EU” in Ukraine. Barroso emphasized that the EU will be developing “inclusive” partnerships with its neighbor countries, and will maintain dialog not only with official authorities but also with civil society – and will listen hard to what the latter has to say.
At least two scenarios are likely after the summit. Under the optimistic one, the Association Agreement will be signed after the 2012 parliamentary election provided it meets the standard for free elections. Under the pessimistic one, Ukraine will be given 20 years to figure out its identity and see where its European membership aspirations lie. All other options fall between these two extremes. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities have congratulated themselves on initialing the agreement, which has not happened yet, and on an allegedly “hidden” membership prospect.
Meanwhile, the EU will place its bets on supporting the civic sector in Ukraine and thus reserve an alternative platform for dialog with our country should official Kyiv experience total political degradation and democracy risk being snuffed out. If Ukraine loses its European prospects and turns into a dictatorship increasingly entangled in the Kremlin’s embrace, this would be a defeat for Europe and, above all, for Ukraine itself.