Germany needs a new Ostpolitik
In the light of today’s constellation of forces and interests in eastern Europe, Germany needs to adopt a new eastern policy.
A future German approach should combine high level of attention to Russia with more care for what has sometimes been called "intermediate Europe" or Zwischeneuropa - first of all, for Ukraine.
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The previous heavy emphasis on German-Russian relations has become dated and needs to be replaced with a more balanced approach to the entire region on the EU’s eastern border.
To be sure, Berlin has long been rife with such calls.
They had become topical years ago when Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s creeping centralization of power in Russia started to amount to a fundamental political rollback.
The changing mood in Berlin has been expressed in an increasing number of self-critical German political and analytical publications.
Calls for a reorientation of Germany’s "Ostpolitik" have sometimes been voiced by relevant politicians themselves.
As far back as January 2005 - shortly after the Ukrainian electoral uprising known as the Orange Revolution - the influential German politician Wolfgang Schaeuble, then Bundestag CDU/CSU deputy faction leader and today federal minister of finance, was surprisingly explicit.
Schaeuble complained in a newspaper article that "in its statements on Ukraine’s European prospects, the EU has so far confined itself to the principle of equidistance.”
He added: “Now the EU has no right to leave this country on its own and must be prepared to include it into the EU structures one day - provided that democracy, the rule of law and a market economy have been established."
However, these and similar ideas voiced by politicians of various EU countries and political camps during and after the Orange Revolution had, at that time, little effect on either Berlin or Brussels’s policies toward Ukraine.
Instead, in February 2005, Kyiv and Brussels adopted a so-called Action Plan which the EU had drawn up and approved of already in the previous year - before the climax of the Orange Revolution in late December 2004.
The very name of the document - "Action Plan" - highlights the pusillanimity of Western politicians and diplomats then involved in tackling the problem of Ukraine’s European integration.
Following the Orange Revolution, they adopted a document drawn up in the period of Ukraine's pre-revolutionary and semi-authoritarian leader, Leonid Kuchma, as their reaction to the democratic uprising.
The fact that the 2005 Action Plan was presented as Brussels’s response to one of the largest mass actions of civil disobedience in post-war Europe illustrated the inability of the EU to adequately respond to big events.
Later, to be sure, the EU played catch-up by drawing up, together with Ukraine, a major Association Agreement that includes provisions for a "deep and comprehensive" free trade area.
Initialed in 2012, it implies both close political association and far-reaching economic integration of Ukraine into the EU. If signed and ratified, it would be not only Ukraine’s - by far - most important international agreement, but also the most far-reaching treaty that the European Union has ever concluded with a non-member state.
Despite this, there still is no official prospect for a possible future membership of Ukraine in the EU, neither in the text of the Association Agreement nor in the European Council’s statements of the past few years.
Germany bears part of the responsibility for this.
The strategic failure is due to both the sluggishness of the EU bureaucracy and the sceptical attitude in some of Europe’s national elites toward the idea of Ukraine’s future accession.
For sure, the numerous oddities in Ukrainian domestic politics and the clumsiness of its diplomats in the international arena have also played a part over the past three years.
But scholarly research on EU enlargement has shown, time and again, that a conditional, yet plausible offer of future EU membership is an important factor in the successful transitions to democracy of post-Communist East European countries.
The crucial factor in Germany may simply be lack of attention to Ukraine and the failure of Germany’s political elite to understand Ukraine’s geopolitical significance.
This naivety is, in turn, connected to the continuing domination of Russia in Germany’s overall vision of eastern Europe. Despite the 2005 statement by Schaeuble and numerous similar comments, there have been few, if any, substantive changes in the basic priorities of Germany's Ostpolitik and its fixation on Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The inertia comes despite the fact that both, the geopolitical and the domestic political situation in eastern Europe today is different from the one in 1991 and that German public opinion has become increasingly wary of Putin's Russia.
The time has come for Germany, as well as its EU partners, to take a stronger interest in the consolidation of Ukraine’s young new state.
Over the past 20 years, various Ukrainian governments have for various reasons obstructed better German-Ukrainian relations as well as closer ties with other Western states.
Since President Viktor Yanukovych took office in February 2010, the main problem is his increasing subversion of Ukraine's already weak democratic institutions and rule of law. His administration has paralysed EU relations and hindered the signing of the association treaty.
But despite all this, Germany and the West as a whole ought to take a more favourable attitude to Ukraine.
Firstly, the current authoritarian tendencies in Ukraine are still weaker than in most of the other post-Soviet states.
Secondly, Ukrainian politics over the past 20 years has been relatively more pluralistic than, for example, Belarus and Russia. Ukrainian democracy has seen wave after wave of upsurge and rollback. The next shift could well be in the more positive direction.
The destabilisation of the neo-authoritarian Yanukovych regime looks like a matter of time only.
But will this also lead to substantive change in German-Ukrainian and EU-Ukrainian relations? Taking into account Ukraine’s marginal status on the mental map of West European elites, this question remains open.
The writer is a DAAD associate professor of politics at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”