24th Sep 2020


Ukraine's return to a multi-vector policy

"Ukraine must return to a multi-vector and balanced foreign policy," Serhiy Tihipko, a candidate in Ukraine's upcoming presidential elections, said in a newspaper article last week.

A former ally of Viktor Yanukovych in 2004, Mr Tihipko argues that Ukraine must stay away from Nato membership, normalise relations with Russia, give up political rapprochement with the EU and focus on pragmatic dialogue and "economic diplomacy."

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Although he has little chance of winning the January presidential race, his words reflect ideas that all the key candidates at the upcoming election seem to share.

The phrase "multi-vector policy" was coined by the administration of Ukraine's ex-president, Leonid Kuchma, to express the need to reach a balance between East and West in Ukraine's foreign relations. The idea posits that Ukraine, an ethnically-diverse nation of 47 million people lying between Russia and the EU, should avoid choosing just one foreign policy direction.

After the Orange Revolution in late 2004, the new elite said that the multi-vector policy was finished because the country would in a few years' time enter the EU and Nato.

But after five years of post-revolutionary development, Kiev has advanced little on its path to the West. Pro-European romanticism has been weakened by the lack of an EU membership perspective, Nato's closed doors, EU visa barriers and the painful Russian gas crisis. The anti-romantic mood is helping bring the multi-vector policy back into play.

The multi-vector 'big three'

The three top candidates in the upcoming election all share, to a greater or lesser extent, this old-new approach.

Viktor Yanukovych, whose "victory" in the 2004 presidential vote was contested by the Orange Revolution, has in the post-revolutionary years tried hard to shed his pro-Russian image. His Party of the Regions is highly critical of EU and Nato-enthusiasm. But it increasingly uses European-style rhetoric, with its message often sounding more Western than that of its Orange opponents.

Mr Yanukovych has not abandoned his pro-Russian sympathies, however. He recently said he backs a new treaty giving Russia permission to station its Black Sea fleet in the Crimea after 2017. He has even said he would follow Russia in recognising Georgia's secessionist republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states. The move would be a u-turn in Ukraine's foreign policy.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, originally part of the Orange Revolution, has now cast herself as Ukraine's best negotiator with Russia. She recently demonstrated the strength of her ties with Russia by negotiating a deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin under which Ukraine pays only for the gas it consumes, rather than for a set volume of gas each month.

Her silence on Nato is matched by her enthusiasm for a chimerical "new European security and defense system." The poorly-explained project is also being discussed by some politicians in the EU and Russia, along the lines of a new Paris-Berlin-Moscow triangle.

Arseniy Yatseniuk, the most European-style personage in Ukrainian politics also mixes moderate euroscepticism with liberal nationalism in calling for "symmetry" in Ukraine's relations with the EU and Russia.

"We are always pulled or joined to something," he recently said, voicing regret that Ukraine is too passive in its foreign policy and that the EU and Russia both take a unilateralist approach to their separate relations with Kiev.

"The European Union believes it can unilaterally propose to Ukraine an Eastern Partnership or a European Neighborhood Policy, but I don't think this is how symmetrical partners behave," he added, in a remark that raised brows in both Brussels and Kiev.

Ukraine's president in office, Viktor Yushchenko, seems to be the only advocate for the values-based continuation of the Orange foreign policy vector. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, he said there is no alternative to rapprochement with the EU and Nato, while suggesting that Mr Yanukovych and Ms Tymoshenko are part of a Russian "fifth column."

A different Ukraine

Multi-vector rhetoric does not necessarily spell bad news for EU-Ukraine relations. The EU itself, tired of Ukraine-Russia gas wars, wants relations between Kiev and Moscow to get better.

But rhetorical games aside, the 2010 election is likely to bring substantial changes compared to the Ukraine of the past five years. The return to a Kuchma-era multi-vector foreign policy would add an extra layer of complexity to EU relations on top of the existing political chaos in Ukraine.

The post-revolutionary Orange elite in Ukraine would be partly to blame because it failed to fulfill the promises it made in 2004. But the EU side would also be guilty because it has failed to propose anything more tangible to Ukraine than a basic Association Agreement due to lack of political courage.

In 2010, the EU risks losing Ukraine as an unquestionable ally for its policies in the post-Soviet region. The wind of change from the east is blowing bad news for Brussels.

Volodomyr Yermolenko is an analyst with the Kiev-based Internews-Ukraine think-tank


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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