EU battle for Ukraine ends in truncheons and tear gas
The EU this year lost a battle for Ukraine, but nobody is laughing at its soft power any more.
Ever since the Orange Revolution in 2004, the EU and Russia have been pulling the former Soviet republic in opposite directions.
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The EU incentive was a "deep and comprehensive" free trade agreement, or DCFTA, described by the people who drafted it as a "blueprint for future accession."
Russia's tactics included: threatening to block trade; calling in billion dollar gas debts; and calling Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych to Moscow for man-to-man chats.
Ukraine's DCFTA signature was to crown an EU summit in Vilnius on 28 November.
In the run-up to the event, EU countries agreed to do it even if he kept opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in jail. "It's sad, but true. The future of Ukraine is more important than the future of one woman," one EU diplomat said.
The stakes were high.
If Yanukovych took the EU option, it would have marked a geopolitical shift in Europe.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin needs Ukraine to be the cornerstone of his "Eurasian Union" - a project to revive Russian hegemony in the east. He also needs to show pro-democracy movements in Russia there is no hope for reform in the former Soviet domain.
But on 21 November, Yanukovych shocked the EU by saying No.
He went to Vilnius anyway. A video published by the Lithuanian EU presidency showed the stony-faced former lorry driver talking about Russian pressure to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Nice of you to come. But we expected more," Merkel said.
"[Yanukovych] is from a different civilisation. He is not a partner for Europe," British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly told his EU colleagues.
The Ukrainian leader shocked Europe once again a few hours later.
At 4am the day after Vilnius, his riot police attacked a group of students at a pro-EU protest in Kiev.
But the biggest shock came next, when up to half a million Ukrainian people joined street protests waving EU flags and calling on Yanukovych to go.
The numbers dwarfed the Orange Revolution itself.
Police clashes got worse and EU diplomats, who expected a mass-scale crackdown, began talking about Ukraine as Belarus II: autocratic; isolated; under Russia's boot.
The story continues to unfold.
Yanukovych in December accepted a $15 billion Russian bailout.
He says he wants to revive the EU deal in the new year despite the Russian accord, but EU leaders do not believe him any more.
Meanwhile, the pro-EU barricades are still there in Kiev.
On Sunday (29 December) a few thousand demonstrators even marched toward Yanukovych's private mansion to voice anger on state corruption.
Their number is dwindling despite fresh scandals, such as the roadside beating of investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovil.
But even if the EU has to wait until Yanukovych leaves power before trying to relaunch the DCFTA process, the events in Ukraine have made their mark.
People have stopped laughing at the EU's soft power and "benchmarks" after the huge rallies in Kiev.
They have also noticed that Ukraine exists amid other priorities in Iran and Syria.
EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy told press at an EU summit in December: "The most significant development for Europeans currently is the peaceful popular protest in Ukraine."
A senior EU official told this website: "It goes to show that what we take for granted in Europe - rule of law and political freedom - is a rare and precious thing."
"The reason why Ukrainians want to get closer to Europe is precisely because we did not go for some cheap deal with Yanukovych. Because we have standards and values," he added.
This article was printed in EUobserver's yearly magazine 'Europe in review 2013'. The print edition looks back at the most important stories of the year. To obtain a copy of the magazine, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Price per copy €4.75 + postage, excl. vat. Discounts on larger purchases