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22 February, 2013  ▪  Milan Lielich,  Oles Oleksiyenko

Taking a Break as a Strategy

Yanukovych is trying to provoke the EU into not signing the Association Agreement

The 25 February Ukraine-EU Summit in Brussels is highly anticipated as the event which will indicate, among other things, the likelihood of the signing of the Association and FTA Agreement this year.  However, hopes of it bringing about a thaw in relations between Kyiv and EU member-states could be misplaced.

Yanukovych has not done anything in terms of the earlier politically motivated trials against Tymoshenko, Lutsenko and other opposition members. On the contrary, he has authorized wider political persecution of the opposition: in addition to the new case against Yulia Tymoshenko that could end with a life sentence, her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko, Batkivshchyna’s key international mouthpiece Hryhoriy Nemyria, and a number of current and former opposition MPs and their families have faced criminal charges. Deputy Prosecutor General, Renat Kuzmin, as the main executor in the opposition persecution campaign accused Europe and the USA of the obstruction of justice and pressure on Ukrainian judges who “merely want to find the truth” and “do justice”. Meanwhile, no one has yet fully investigated violations by those in power during the parliamentary campaign and election, and re-elections in five constituencies where the original election was ruled invalid have not yet been announced, and the prospect of holding them ultimately remains dim. Ukrainian law enforcers blatantly and systemically violate citizens’ rights, while Interior Minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, is now publicly justifying Berkut and Gryphon, special-purpose police units, for beating up protesters, including opposition MPs who are guaranteed immunity by the Constitution.  

A FRIENDLY GESTURE

Despite the aggravating situation with democracy and human rights in Ukraine, in early December 2012, the EU relaxed its stance somewhat on Ukraine and the Yanukovych regime as it agreed to hold the Ukraine-EU Summit in February. Widespread opinion is that this move was spurred by the Russian factor that intensified at the end of 2012, threatening to drag Ukraine into the Customs Union. Despite new charges against Tymoshenko, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously supported the 23 July 2012 amendments to the agreement on Ukraine-EU visa facilitation for some categories of citizens on 22 January. Finally, the recent visit of the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, to Ukraine proved that the EU is ready to be flexible in negotiating the most acute issues.

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During the visit, the public learned about the 19 criteria the EU will use to evaluate Ukraine’s progress on its requirements as a precondition for signing the Association Agreement. The list leaked to the media shows that they are the extended version of what were previously three criteria. This may be an attempt to downplay the link between the prospect of signing the Association Agreement and progress on the “immediate solution of politically motivated verdicts” requirement as one of the 19, not three criteria as it used to be earlier. This boosts the chances of seeing “further progress” similar to what Füle saw: “Certain, but quite limited progress has been achieved in important areas compared to my previous visit to Ukraine five months ago.”

EU advocates of Ukraine’s European integration have been trying to make sure that the Ukrainian government understands the crucial role of the steps the EU expects from it and warn it of the risk of the “window of opportunities” that involves signing the Association Agreement, shutting down for a long time in November 2013 unless Ukraine takes these steps. This was Štefan Füle’s message during his latest visit, as well as that of Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski during Yanukovych’s visit to Poland before the Brussels summit.

WHO WILL PULL UKRAINE’S CHESTNUTS OUT OF THE FIRE?

The public will soon find out how persuasive this was. Still, chances are high that the Yanukovych regime is not ready to duly react to the EU’s stance. The government has already passed a decision to fulfill only 10 of the 19 criteria. They do not include a number of crucial criteria, including the drafting of the Election Code; the provision of clear rules for the media to give election participants equal access to the media; and the requirement to take measures in the cases against Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko and Valeriy Ivashchenko.

“Don’t think that one country was teaching the other. We expressed our views about the European Commission in turn,” Premier Mykola Azarov wrote on his Facebook page after the meeting with Füle. Shortly before the summit, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, lamented that the EU’s requirements for Ukraine were as if for a potential member-state. Ever since Leonid Kozhara, the newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Davos at the end of January, he has been making efforts to promote the somewhat forgotten concept of “the progress towards Europe together with Russia” based on Vladimir Putin’s “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” concept, that excludes US influence and allows Moscow to take the lead. The Yanukovych regime is interested in this structure and not for economic reasons alone: it would offer looser requirements regarding compliance with democratic and human rights standards, in contrast to current talks with the EU.

READ ALSO: A War for the Neighbours’ Ears

As they turn away from European integration, Ukrainian authorities are trying to blame the possible failure of the bilateral summit and Ukraine’s fading chances to sign the Association Agreement on the opposition that is blocking parliament and demanding that all MPs stick to the constitutional procedure of personal voting, and on Europeans who “do not get Ukraine’s unique situation”. The opposition’s reluctance to unblock parliament was declared as the key obstacle to voting for the declaration to support Ukraine’s European integration and sign the Association Agreement in the near future. However, the opposition suggested passing it with MPs’ signatures on the document rather than voting, which would be a perfectly legitimate signal of parliament’s support for the declaration.  

GETTING OUT OF THE SWAMP

Staying in the grey zone between the EU and Russia, with no strong pressure on the personal interests of Yanukovych and his circle, is a completely favourable status quo for the expansion of the Family in an authoritarian state. European integration has never been a real priority for Yanukovych, but he could not afford to say that in public in the 2009-2010 presidential campaign. The Yanukovych regime is not likely to fulfill most requirements, yet this does not mean that the EU should stop integration projects with Ukraine.

Continued negotiations and the signed and ratified Association Agreement will give the EU much more leverage in influencing the situation in Ukraine than the refusal to sign it and half-frozen relations with it. The latter will make Ukraine much more vulnerable to Russia’s authoritarian influence. In contrast to widespread opinion, Yanukovych will not resist Ukraine’s excessive dependence on Russia. He sees Ukraine merely as a territory to squeeze for profits for his family. If offered an attractive scheme to keep and increase his assets, he would allow Russia to swallow Ukraine politically or economically. Thus, Russia remains a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the risks of Russian neo-imperialism for Europe aggravate.

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Therefore, it is critical to separate the Yanukovych regime and instruments used to influence it from the Ukrainian people and the strategic objective of reinforcing Ukraine’s European focus and integration. Firstly, the signed Association Agreement may put an end to debates about Ukraine’s integration into the Customs Union. Secondly, the Association and FTA Agreements are a symbolic, yet crucial signal of Ukraine being part of the European economic and geopolitical area that can become a fully-fledged EU member when it meets the necessary criteria. Therefore, it is important to encourage European-oriented forces in Ukraine and stop the “nobody wants us there” talk. Finally, the Ukraine-EU FTA Agreement is an instrument to reinforce the links between Ukrainian and European economies and boost the crucial process of Ukraine’s economic integration with the EU.


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