The actions of Ukrainian enforcement authorities look like efforts to disrupt the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, but they could eventually prove futile
At the briefing held on 18 January, Prosecutor General, Viktor Pshonka, announced the completion of an investigation under yet another case against Yulia Tymoshenko. In this one, she is accused of being involved in the assassination of businessman and MP, Yevhen Shcherban, who together with his wife and three more people, was shot at the Donetsk airport on 3 November 1996. Even though the investigation was begun a while ago, the decision to file charges came as a surprise. Ever since the announcement was made, Tymoshenko’s health and prison conditions issues have slowly faded in the media. So has the incident with three female MPs who refused to leave her hospital ward and were literally kicked out based on a court verdict, as well as the mounting pressure on opposition MPs from enforcement authorities.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT
“Such a surprise move could further complicate relations with the European Union and the US as Ukraine enters a year that analysts believe could be decisive in determining whether one of Europe’s biggest nations moves closer to the EU or returns to Russia’s fold. <…> The legal escalation against Tymoshenko comes just as EU diplomats were debating whether to soften their stance on the case against the ex-premier and allow the signing of the trade agreement” wrote FT in an article published on 18 January.
Two evenings later, information surfaced that Pshonka, along with Health Minister, Raisa Bohatyriova and the Head of the State Penitentiary Agency, Oleksandr Lisitskov, met with accredited diplomats in Ukraine. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the officials briefed the delegates of 23 diplomatic missions, including those from Russia, the USA and the EU, that Tymoshenko had been notified that she was a suspect in the case and insisted that the procedure had been conducted in accordance with the law. Minister Bohatyriova provided medical reports which determine that Tymoshenko can take part in the investigation. On 22 January, however, the US and EU ambassadors to Ukraine filed official requests at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking for a meeting with Tymoshenko to clarify the situation.
Whatever happens, the new Tymoshenko case is likely to further damage Ukraine’s relations with the West – the only question is, how much? What pushed the Prosecutor General to start it now, right before the Ukraine-EU summit, scheduled to take place in Brussels on 25 February? Was it the lack of coordination between different representatives of the government, as some Ukrainian analysts claim; an external provocation the President was unaware of, or a deliberate move by Yanukovych to disrupt the Association Agreement and hold on to the opportunity to continue walking the tightrope between the EU and Russia while reinforcing his authoritarian Family rule in the centre of Europe?
WHO IS THE DECISION-MAKER?
Some Ukrainian experts, including political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, who favour the first scenario, note that the charges against Tymoshenko were aimed at distracting the public from the scandal of the three MPs being kicked out of her hospital ward by the guard, and hushing up Tymoshenko’s protest against the conditions under which she is being kept, including constant video surveillance. According to this logic, the ex-premier’s protests and the stirring-up of her supporters could signal her attempts to once again draw attention to herself before the upcoming Ukraine-EU summit and the expected decisions regarding visa facilitation and the Association Agreement. If so, Tymoshenko’s advocates may fear that the signing of the Association Agreement with the Yanukovych regime will deprive them of the opportunity to push for the ex-premier’s release. In turn, Party of Regions representatives have already accused the opposition of the intent to disrupt the Ukraine-EU summit and the signing of the Association Agreement. Still, this scenario does not explain why MPs were brutally evicted from her hospital ward or why pressure from enforcers against members of Batkivshchyna, including Serhiy Vlasenko and Hryhoriy Nemyria, and other opposition parties has mounted – it only underscores the repressive nature of the Yanukovych regime.
Thus, the scenario of a targeted campaign orchestrated by Russian special services to provoke yet another wave of confrontation with the West looks more plausible. Under current circumstances, such a scenario is only of benefit to the Kremlin because the Association Agreement and FTA Agreement with Ukraine will hamper the implementation of its plan to draw Ukraine into its neo-imperialistic projects. Moreover, there is a curious coincidence: after the failure of Putin’s first attempt to get Ukraine to join the Customs Union in spring 2011, there was a high probability that Ukraine would sign the Association Agreement with the EU at the preliminary bilateral summit in autumn 2011. But this was disrupted by Tymoshenko’s arrest in August, just a few months before the summit. Moscow’s second attempt to force Yanukovych into the Customs Union was in December 2012. However, after the cancellation of his scheduled visit to Russia, allegedly because the parties had disagreed on some integration aspects, chances increased that the final decision on the signing of the Association Agreement in 2013 would be taken at the February summit. Moreover, European structures had somewhat relaxed their stance in December, demanding only “progress” on relevant issues, not the resolution of those on political prisoners. Given these demands, all the Ukrainian authorities had to do to disrupt the signing was to achieve setbacks on these issues. The developments of the past few weeks appear to be the development of this scenario.
Another possible assumption is that the mounting political repressions result from external pressure on Ukrainian enforcement authorities, of which the President has been unaware. If this is the case, the public may soon see some serious reshuffling in government involving people who set Yanukovych up so badly right before the Ukraine-EU summit and his visit to Davos on 23-24 January. Otherwise, developments will point to a third scenario – that the President has personally authorized the attack against the opposition. However absurd this may seem in terms of his own interests, this signals Yanukovych’s efforts to disrupt the summit or at least the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
THE SECURITY (DIS)SERVICE
The question is whether Yanukovych is taking these steps voluntarily or under external influence. On the one hand, he is obviously forced to feign “European-oriented intentions” given their popularity with the electorate and politicians. On the other, he should view membership in the Customs Union as a much greater risk to his prospects of staying in power, than the potential signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, even though it’s doubtful that it will be ratified anytime soon,. Actually, for the most part, the latter does not require much of a commitment from Yanukovych, who would be able to continue to develop his Family business. He can traditionally explain to “friendly” Europe, that “everything is in line with Ukrainian legislation, which is gradually adapting to European standards, even if the process is difficult”, should he have to sweep his competitors out of the way. However, since Yanukovych chose (or was forced to choose) a different scenario, questions emerge as to how capable he is of taking decisions on his own and whether any external influences affect his decisions.
Obviously, the team in power, particularly enforcement authorities and the President’s personal circle, is full of people who could be linked to Russian special services. It appears that these people have once again succeeded in persuading Yanukovych by fueling his fears and insecurities, or, perhaps, by using different “leverages”. Meanwhile, Ukrainian special services are still made up of the remains of the KGB, and the common belief is that there is no such thing as an ex-KGB agent. Lustrations have not taken place, and quite a few people, including the administration of the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, still view the leaders in Moscow as “our leaders”. This makes it impossible to expect any effective resistance to special foreign operations.
So far, this influence on Yanukovych has prevented any moves that could eliminate or hamper the prospect of Ukraine’s reintegration with Russia, but it has not been persuasive enough to ultimately drag Ukraine into the Customs Union. If unchanged, it would allow the Yanukovych regime to continue reinforcing itself while balancing between Russia and the EU without publicly dropping the idea of European integration and blaming the lack of progress in this direction on the EU or the opposition. However, the past month has seen an abrupt shift of Ukrainian politics regarding the Kremlin.
The escalated persecution of Tymoshenko and the opposition as a whole may not stop the EU from holding the February summit and signing the Association Agreement and FTA Agreement in 2013, but it could delay ratification until the Yanukovych regime fulfills all of its requirements or, more likely, is replaced. This would allow the EU to leave the Ukrainian government with no room to blame Ukraine’s turn to Moscow on the EU’s “double standards” and prove that European states and structures will not ratify the Association Agreement without significant transformations in Ukraine. The EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, is planning to visit Kyiv on February 6-7 as part of preparations for the summit.
THE PERSONIFICATION OFISOLATION?
Despite the aggravation of the situation with the ex-premier, on 22 January, the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously supported amendments to the Ukraine-EU visa facilitation agreement, signed in Brussels on 23 July 2012. However, the document still has a long way to go, including being voted on by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee at the European Parliament’s plenary session, before the European Council passes its final decision. The time it’s taking to implement the agreement signed last July signals how long the ratification of the Association Agreement could take after the formal signing.
Widespread opinion in the West is that putting pressure on the Yanukovych regime is the task of Ukrainian society and the opposition, while the role of the outside world is to merely support them, not do it for them. The EU's strategic choice can be in favour of integration with Ukraine, accompanied by tactical personal isolation for Yanukovych and odious members of his regime, such as Renat Kuzmin who is already having difficulties entering the USA. This theory was illustrated by Yanukovych’s visit to Davos, where meetings were only scheduled with Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament (a representative of the Party of Regions’ European partners), Georgia’s Prime-Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili (who has recently been following Yanukovych’s example in persecuting the opposition) and the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, which is planning to extract shale gas in Ukraine.
If this is the case, the Association Agreement and a slight thaw in negotiations between the EU and Ukraine will be a step that benefits Ukraine as a state, while the visible isolation of Viktor Yanukovych and part of his team, which is likely to increase further, will serve as a warning of possible personal sanctions in the future. Moreover, the signing of the agreement and communication with Ukrainian diplomats and businesses will not prevent European structures from implementing such personal sanctions. These can be two different processes.