Ukraine’s Unrequited Passion for Europe

A couple kisses during Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Photo: Reuters

A couple kisses during Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Photo: Reuters 

2016/08/12 • Analysis & Opinion

Euromaidan Press is publishing an article by a famous Polish political researcher, Executive Director of the Polish-Ukrainian Foundation PAUCI Jan Piekło. The article is interesting as an example of a full analysis of relations between Ukraine and Europe. But no less important is the fact that Mr. Piekło has been appointed as the new ambassador of Poland to Ukraine and is expected to start his work in autumn 2016. 

Mr. Piekło is one of the initiators of the report on Russian war crimes in Donbas that has been handed to the International Criminal Court in Hague. As a journalist, Jan Piekło reported on the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the war in former Yugoslavia. He is an author of two books about the Balkans.

This article is an abridged version of a piece that had originally been published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

The history of EU-Ukraine relations tells of missed opportunities and of unfilled expectations and risks to put the EU’s credibility at stake.

The history of EU-Ukraine relations tells of missed opportunities, paradoxes, various sets of misunderstanding and of expectations. We can start our story like a classic fairytale: ‘Once upon a time, just after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians had a great chance to reform their country and join the community of European democracies, but the EU and the Western political leadership successfully missed an opportunity to include Ukraine in the European integration process.’ This also happened thanks to significant Russian interference and conflicting interests of the corrupt Ukrainian oligarchic elites.

It was a time when a wave of enthusiasm swept through the world and expectations were extremely high.

Although the potential of the Orange Revolution wasn’t fully exploited, its legacy remained.

Andrew Wilson, a well-known British expert and author of numerous books on Ukraine and the region (‘The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation’) impressed the international public and presented Ukrainians as an important and proud people, which deserved to be treated by the democratic West as a valuable partner.

However, soon frustrated and tired of the constant political in-fights within the ruling Orange camp, Ukrainians decided to change sides and gave the political mandate to Viktor Yanukovych’s Blue camp. Although the potential of the Orange Revolution wasn’t fully exploited, its legacy remained.

The old EU Member States’ objection against Ukraine’s membership eliminated the use of the ‘carrot’ which had worked so well and speeded up transformation in the central European countries. The various internal reasons in Ukraine: the lack of consensus between the main political factions, corruption, stagnation and suspension of the necessary reforms resulted in the emergence of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in the West.

A symmetrical syndrome of ‘EU fatigue’ developed in Ukraine, deepening the frustration and giving munition to the supporters of the so-called ‘pragmatic’ approach of the Party of Regions.

The EU pretended to keep the dialogue with Kyiv and its elite pretended to listen to Brussels when finalizing the procedure of negotiating the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (AA + DCFTA) with the EU. In the meantime, Russia secretly began making plans for annexing Crimea and subordinating Ukraine to the Kremlin’s rule.

Yanukovych’s refusal to sign this Agreement in Vilnius in November 2013 came as a surprise. Suddenly, the Ukrainian president put a new condition on the table: the EU should invite Russia as a participant in the negotiations. This was the end of the illusions for Brussels, but not the end of the pro-European saga in Ukraine. The Ukrainian civil society, social activists, students and opposition leaders took to the streets of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, demanding the government to resign and sign the AA with the EU. This ended in bloody clashes with security forces and provocateurs, the death of hundreds of young activists and finally the escape of the ousted Yanukovych to Russia.

The real full-scale crisis came soon with the Russian annexation of Crimea, the hybrid war and the military invasion of eastern Ukraine. This situation created a deadlock in which it was impossible to solve the most serious crisis on the European continent since the Balkan War.

At the same time, the EU became a target of numerous terrorist attacks. The massive and uncontrolled migrants flow plus the economic and political crisis the EU faces today made the European response to these security threats weak and inadequate. The spirit of solidarity faded away, replaced by growing insecurity, uncertainty and isolationism.   

Disappointments in blue and orange

Scenes from the Orange Revolution, December 2004

Everybody will remember the scenes from the time of the Orange Revolution in December 2004 when the crowd of supporters on the Maidan applauded Viktor Yushchenko as a victorious challenger in the (due to fraud) repeated presidential election.

Six years later, everything was different.

In the first round of the last race on 17 January 2010, Yushchenko gained only 5.45% (compared to the 52% in 2004), which eliminated him from the contest. The winner of the 2010 presidential race in Ukraine was Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the ‘blue’ Party of Regions, who lost the election to the ‘Orange Revolution’ coalition five years ago. Yanukovych voters believed he would finally bring ‘order and stability’. Also a substantial part of the political elite in the EU believed that he was a ‘pragmatic politician’ who would be a ‘credible partner’ for business talks.

Yanukovych at a Party of Regions summit in 2012

With growing concern, we soon had to watch the process of the reversal of democracy in Ukraine.

The Party of Regions manipulated the local elections in 2010. Journalists and civil society started reporting cases of intimidation and violation of freedom of the press, local NGOs found themselves under heavy administrative pressure. Then came the selective arrests of and trials against Yanukovych’s political opponents. In the Freedom House Index ‘Freedom in the World 2011’, Ukraine was downgraded from the ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ status. The country began moving into a ‘soft authoritarian’ model of governance. Yanukovych had already crossed the red line. If he had accepted the conditions of the EU, he would have lost the support of his oligarchs and the next presidential election, and, in result, he might even have landed behind bars. This urged him to follow the path of his northern neighbor – Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus. Yanukovych couldn’t care less about Ukraine’s engagement with the EU; he was minding his own business, i.e. defending his position of power with all possible means.

The country began moving into a ‘soft authoritarian’ model of governance.

Yanukovych had already crossed the red line. If he had accepted the conditions of the EU, he would have lost the support of his oligarchs and the next presidential election, and, in result, he might even have landed behind bars. This urged him to follow the path of his northern neighbor – Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus. Yanukovych couldn’t care less about Ukraine’s engagement with the EU; he was minding his own business, i.e. defending his position of power with all possible means.

Yanukovych had already crossed the red line. If he had accepted the conditions of the EU, he would have lost the support of his oligarchs and the next presidential election, and, in result, he might even have landed behind bars. This urged him to follow the path of his northern neighbor – Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus. Yanukovych couldn’t care less about Ukraine’s engagement with the EU; he was minding his own business, i.e. defending his position of power with all possible means.

Let’s return back to Yushchenko. During his term, Ukraine began its not totally successful courtship with the European Union and NATO and developed free media and a relatively strong civil society sector. A middle class was born and the free market economy matured challenging the mindsets of big oligarchs, who still influenced the country’s politics.

But Yushchenko didn’t manage to combat corruption and reform the country, so the process that started with the Orange Revolution was not completed.

Yushchenko’s efforts to strengthen the Ukrainian position in the Black Sea region and build a coalition of countries supporting democracy to balance the influence of Russia failed. His efforts to join NATO met the resistance of Berlin and Paris and failed.

At this point, the Ukrainian-Russian relations reached boiling point. Yushchenko demanded the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimean port of Sevastopol by 2017 and accused Moscow of distributing Russian passports to the inhabitants of Crimea. He already sensed the emerging thunderstorm.

Probably Yushchenko will be remembered as the founder of the modern Ukrainian identity. Not having enough courage and parliamentary support for launching the fundamental reforms Yushchenko concentrated on history and the process of constructing a national identity.

Yushchenko paid the price for being a democratic president confronted with challenges he simply couldn’t conquer.

He was not a strong, charismatic man with a strategic vision, his background was accounting and finance; he failed to pass the test on calculating in global political terms and leading his country in the very difficult time of transformation and crisis. Paradoxically, his term in office paved the way for his old rival Viktor Yanukovych whose manipulation with voting results had initiated the Orange Revolution to winning a fair and democratic election.
 
The old EU Member States’ objection plus Western fear of the Kremlin’s reaction prevented that Kyiv was offered EU membership perspective. Instead, the EU proposed Ukraine and other, including non-European, states a new instrument called the European Neighborhood Policy. Kyiv’s reaction was one of disappointment and frustration; Ukrainians considered themselves to be a European nation and not neighbors of Europe, as for example the Maghreb countries.

Eastern Partnership, the Polish factor, and Russia

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) – a new Polish-Swedish initiative was announced on 23 May 2008. The Polish diplomacy secured the support of Sweden for proposing to Brussels a kind of ‘eastern upgrade of ENP’. Ukraine welcomed this new initiative, finding it more convincing and attractive.

For Poland, Ukraine is a strategic partner in Eastern Europe. Success of democracy in neighboring Ukraine means stability and secure borders for Warsaw.

These objectives determined the Polish support for Ukraine’s revolutions and the backing of Kyiv’s EU and NATO aspirations. Also, Poles and Ukrainians share the same history and culture.

Russia’s view on Ukraine differs from the Polish: it sees Ukraine as its ‘nearest neighborhood’, an imminent part of the Russian civilization which should be returned to the motherland.

For Russia, losing Ukraine was an overwhelming trauma

Since the moment of Ukrainian independence, Moscow tried to regain its influence over the former Soviet republic by using different means. But the Orange Revolution and then Maidan Revolution/Revolution of Dignity both ended with a spectacular failure of Russian diplomacy.

Benefiting from the economic boom and high energy prices, Russia claimed to become an equal partner of the United States very soon. The EU was not even considered to be a serious competitor for Russia. The Kremlin knew well how to play the game of splitting European unity. Pro-Kremlin experts promoted a vision of Moscow and St Petersburg quickly becoming the new financial centres of the world, and proposed a big free trade zone stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. In order to captivate Western minds, Russia used various instruments: energy/economy, frozen conflicts, propaganda, hybrid technologies, bribes and corruption.

For Russia, losing Ukraine was an overwhelming trauma – Kyivan Rus has always been a spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Moscow without Kyiv is an organism without spiritual meaning: its soul remained in the onion shaped golden copulas of churches on the hilly bank of the Dnieper, the same churches that the Soviet regime had tried to brutally destroy. This proves that history likes paradoxes. The former KGB colonel, later President, Vladimir Putin pretends to believe in the same God as the Russian tsars …

Moscow without Kyiv is an organism without spiritual meaning

Russia is a challenging subject for EU Institutions and Member States, because in fact there is no such a thing as a common European eastern policy. The key EU countries are often driven by wishful thinking or a ‘Russia first’ business policy (like for example the Nord Stream 2 lobby in Germany). Russian propaganda even succeeded in influencing the thoughts of many people in the European Union.

The Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine have shown that the EU does not have a policy which can successfully oppose the neo-imperialistic ambitions of the Kremlin.

This has caused uneasy feelings in central European and Baltic states –  after all. Russia could use similar arguments (and means?) for justifying the return of a stronger Russian influence in the region.

We can be sure that Putin will make good use of his time in office to expand his Euro-Asian Union project and for strengthening Russia’s position as a ‘global power’. The EU itself has a rather limited capacity to respond properly to this challenge, but in cooperation with NATO it should prepare a scenario for dealing with possible conflicts and growing chaos in the region. The renaissance of transatlantic relations and a rapprochement between the Old Continent and the US could be the only long-term option for reversing the backlash in the region. It will take time, the political will of both sides and a consensus among EU Member States.

Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, three Eastern Partnership countries which decided to sign Association Agreements with the EU are now left without any form of security and political guarantees. Ukraine was even deprived of the territorial integrity assurance included in the Budapest Memorandum.

With a war ongoing on the European continent (about 1000 km from the eastern EU border) and unable to respond to Putin’s aggressive policy, the European Union has found itself in a situation where its basic credibility is at stake. Russia’s destabilization efforts can invalidate the Eastern Partnership Initiative and bring the partner countries back under the Kremlin’s control. This would mean a fiasco for the EU as a successful political project. The result would be a Yalta-like new division of the world.

Recommendations for the European Union:

  1.  Assistance and support for the implementation of AA, DCFTA and reforms in Ukraine
    2.    Helping to strengthen democracy and rule of law in Ukraine (with a special focus on combating corruption)
    3.    Include a perspective of EU and NATO membership in the dialogue with Kyiv.
    4.    Providing training, intelligence and military equipment, which could help Ukraine to protect its sovereignty and limit the death toll among civilians and combat soldiers.
    5.    Working on a new format of a peaceful solution for the Ukraine-Russia conflict, which will include the issue of Crimea.
    6.    Helping to elaborate a strategic solution for dealing with the IDPs/refugee crisis in Ukraine.
    7.    Support for generating growth of the SME sector and increase of foreign investment in Ukraine.
    8.    Stimulating Ukrainian involvement in a wider regional cooperation within the framework of EaP.
    9.    Engaging Ukraine (and the EaP countries which signed AA agreements with the EU) in a deeper cooperation on various levels with the EU partners. 

Source: eu.boell.org

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  • zorbatheturk

    Ukraine’s main problem is a five-letter word starting with ” P ” and ending in ” tin.”

  • Alex George

    All good ideas. And regardless of what the EU does, its eastern members are busy co-operating with each other and with Ukraine to stymie Russian attempts at imperialism.

  • Lev Havryliv

    A very thoughtful analysis of Ukraine-EU relations.

    Jan Pieklo is an excellent choice as Poland’s ambassador to Ukraine.