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22nd Jan 2022

Ukraine president pledges alliegance to both EU and Russia

Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday (24 August) gave assurances of his commitment to EU integration, while claiming that his rapprochement with Moscow is not hindering, but contributing to the process.

"European integration remains a priority for our foreign policy," Mr Yanukovych said in an address marking the 19th anniversary of the country's independence from the Soviet Union.

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  • The rapprochement with Russia is helping Ukraine on its pro-EU track, President Yanukovych (r) says (Photo: kremlin.ru)

In the same breath, he added that: "normalising our relations with Russia does not only not hinder our EU integration but on the contrary contributes to it."

Mr Yanukovych was speaking to some 2,000 people gathered in the central square of Kiev, known as the Maidan, where his pro-Western opponents in 2004 staged the "Orange Revolution" which ousted him from power amid allegations of electoral fraud.

Since coming to power in February this year, Mr Yanukovych has received positive signals from EU officials, who applauded the fact that his first visit abroad was to Brussels. But besides the pro-EU rhetoric, the new president has also sought to restore ties with Moscow and signed a controversial deal allowing the Russian fleet to stay for another 20 years in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in return for cheaper gas.

Opposition parties, notably that of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, have accused him of selling out Ukraine's interests and of clamping down on media freedom - one of the few outstanding achievements stemming from the Orange revolt.

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Yanukovych also called for a constitutional reform which would re-establish a stronger presidential system, after his predecessor allowed for some of his powers to be diluted.

"This is one of the examples showing to what extent the pro-European rhetoric is mere lipservice," Oleksandr Sushko from the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a Kiev-based think-tank, told this website.

"In fact, his personal sympathy is with the Russian way of doing politics, with presidential super-powers," he added.

Although Mr Yanukovych's Party of the Regions does not have the needed majority in the parliament to pass constitutional reforms, he may opt for other ways to achieve the goal – either by reversing the previous reform on the basis of "procedural violations" or by calling a referendum.

The danger in a superficial reading of Mr Yanukovych's pledge of alliegance to both the EU and Russia, Mr Sushko warns, is that it overlooks the way Russia's non-democratic models are being exported to Ukraine.

"It's unlikely to be helpful for its EU aspirations if Ukraine imports the Russian style of doing business, where companies are totally subordinated to the government, particularly in the oil and gas sector. Or the authoritarian political system, the lack of transparency and human rights."

Not all is gloomy, the Ukrainian expert said, however.

Compared to 19 or even 10 years ago, Ukraine has come a long way, Mr Sushko said: "The biggest achievement is that we have a new generation, which is not Soviet anymore and has other ways of thinking, has seen other parts of the world. Twenty years ago, the society was totally closed."

But the pro-EU reforms, pledged by Mr Yanukovych remain distant goals. Weak rule of law, dysfunctional democratic institutions and the ever-present Russian sphere of influence remain a barrier to progress, he said.

"There is some progress, but never sufficient enough to talk about a breakthrough. We still have a long way to go."

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