The Yanukovych regime is sticking to its utilitarian approach to European integration, while presenting it as the pragmatic protection of Ukraine’s interests.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leonid Kozhara, recently boasted that the wisdom of Ukraine’s current leader may make the nation “the only country that will have a trade agreement with both the West and the East” by the end of this year. Even if these declarations are pure manipulation, the government is taking every effort to persuade society that its multi-vector policy is a success. However, a closer look at the declarations and actions of the government shows different priorities: it is working to remain in a position to divide markets and national wealth to its benefit for as long as possible, with no competitors from the East, or the West for that matter.
All this is happening under the guise of pro-European rhetoric and an ongoing demonstration of the “accomplishments” in Ukraine’s European integration. After the last week, the Presidential Administration has two more things to add to this portfolio. On May 13, the Council of the European Union approved the ratification of an amended visa facilitation agreement. It will come into effect on July 1. On May 15, the European Commission approved the draft decision of the EU Council on the signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine this fall. The government-controlled media have barely mentioned the fact that this is just a preparatory step on the part of the EU, in order to be technically ready for the theoretic signing of the Association Agreement. Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, Ukraine's commissioner for foreign policy and integration processes said that the European Commission’s decision signals recognition of the progress Ukraine has achieved due to the relevant decisions of the President to meet its commitments. Meanwhile, Peter Stano, the spokesman of the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, said in a comment for The Ukrainian Week in Brussels that the document should not be qualified as evaluation of the progress that has been accomplished.
Meanwhile, the Yanukovych regime is not in a hurry to accomplish it. On April 30, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the arrest and detention of Yulia Tymoshenko was unlawful. Before Orthodox Easter, a special commission under the President turned down a number of requests to grant her pardon from Ukraine’s major religious communities and NGOs. Shortly after the holiday, a scandal followed that confirmed the government’s reluctance to solve the issue of political repression anytime soon. On May 7, Tymoshenko’s lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko announced that the Prosecutor General had suspended the pre-trial investigation in the Shcherban murder case against her. On May 13, however, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that the proceedings were resumed. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leonid Kozhara, said in an interview for The Daily Telegraph that the government has no intention of freeing Tymoshenko by the end of May, as expected in the EU.
On May 14, right before the European Commission passed its decision on the Association Agreement, Jan Tombinski, Head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine, said that the Ukrainian government should not shelve issues of selective justice because they are a stumbling block to the Association Agreement signing process, and that it’s wrong to wait until the last moment.
Still, the EU’s position seems to be largely based on the expectation that Yanukovych will shift the blame for the possible failure of the signing on it. The latest publications in the EUobserver confirm this, citing diplomatic sources. Therefore, Germany, which has been highly skeptical about the Yanukovych regime until recently – now seems to admit that it would be helpful to promise Kyiv the prospect of future EU enlargement as an incentive for him to switch to the West’s side.
It looks like the EU expects to use every stage of Ukraine’s integration, from initialing to ratification of the Association Agreement by all member-states, as a tool of pressure for Yanukovych to fulfill its requirements. However, Europe should also remember that this may be futile as protraction is a goal rather than a problem for the President. The domestic component of this game is to show the voters and the pro-European part of the conglomerate in power that he is prepared to lead Ukraine to Europe. This is also a way for the regime to undermine the “pro-European” opposition as it thus steals an important factor that distinguishes the opposition from him. Ever since the April rallies in Kyiv, the government has been blaming Ukraine’s sluggish European integration on the opposition, its interference with the government’s efforts, destructive activities and lately adding fascism and neo-Nazism to the lot. At the same time, progress in the signing process is an instrument of psychological pressure in negotiations with Moscow. Thus, those in power are using Ukraine’s European integration potential to promote their own interests, while their real strategy is to continue the concentration of power and the monopolization of markets by the Family and loyal oligarchs. At some point, this risks making Ukraine’s ultimate progress towards Europe impossible for valid reasons.
Although Europe says that Yanukovych is wrong in talking about Ukraine’s significance in the confrontation between the EU and Russia, Brussels seems to cede to the scenario that Yanukovych is counting on. Paradoxically, dragging Yanukovych into Association and the free trade area and hoping that the government in Ukraine will change for a more democratic one may be the best option for now.