14th May 2021


The end of Ukraine's EU integration?

  • Squashed oranges: the Orange Revolution of 2004 did not deliver promised reforms (Photo: mattlemmon)

The first two months of office of Ukraine's new President Viktor Yanukovych look like the unfolding of the worst possible post-election scenario for the country.

The new President has prolonged the stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2042, which cancels any chances of joining Nato for the next 30 years and also puts in doubt the country's EU membership prospects for decades to come.

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He seems poised to accept a takeover of Ukraine's highly-advanced aviation and nuclear industries by Russian companies, and is ready to "examine" the Kremlin-proposed merger, or takeover, of Ukraine's key strategic asset, the state-owned gas and oil monopoly Naftogaz, by Russia's Gazprom.

On top of all this, he has stood up and denied in the Council of Europe that the great famine of 1932-1933, which was caused by Stalin and claimed up to 7 million Ukrainian lives, should not be called "genocide." There is talk he may recognise the independence of Georgia's Russia-backed rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The EU has observed all these developments in a supine manner. EU leaders in March congratulated Mr Yanukovych on his victory even before publication of the official results (a similar endorsement by Russia's Vladimir Putin in 2004 helped provoke popular unrest leading to the Orange Revolution). MEPs who came to Kyiv in March silently accepted the legitimacy of a parliamentary coalition which is expected to wave through all of Mr Yanukovych's decisions despite the fact that its formation is contrary to Ukraine's constitution.

The navy-gas agreement of 21 April, which saw Russia give Kiev a whopping gas price discount in return for prolongation of the Crimea lease has been described as Ukraine's "sovereign right" by Brussels. The European Commission gave a similar reaction last week to Mr Putin's Gazprom-Naftogaz proposal.

While the navy-gas pact does not formally concern the EU (the EU is not a security organisation), the Gazprom-Naftogaz proposal would trash a major EU-Ukraine agreement of March 2009 to de-monopolise its gas market.

Russia's re-engagement with Ukraine in the past few weeks is a genuine blitzkrieg with spectacular results, which are sad both in terms of the country's independence and its EU prospects. It stands in stark contrast to Ukraine's progress toward Europe, which has moved at a snail's pace, with no real breakthroughs in the past five years, except perhaps for a visa-facilitation deal, which still puts off a visa-free regime into the long-term.

Contrary to Ukrine's previous pro-Western leadership, the pragmatist Yanukovych administration has a big integration alternative to the east of the country. In this respect, if the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and its related Free Trade Area are not put in place this year, they may never be signed as internal discussion moves away from the EU.

This would spell bad news for both sides. For Ukraine, the adoption of EU norms generally means better living conditions for ordinary people. For the EU, the death of Ukraine's Association Agreement might mean the death of the Eastern Partnership.

Association deals are the cornerstone of the partnership policy. But if the biggest eastern partner, Ukraine, puts its agreement on ice and the second largest, Belarus, continues to play cat-and-mouse with the EU, what is left? Of the four other countries in the partnership basket - Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - three are hog-tied by Russian-backed frozen or active separatist conflicts.

The Eastern Partnership is officially aimed at helping the EU's neighbours conduct reforms. But some EU states have always seen it as a chance to create "buffer states" between themselves and Russia in the context of lingering hard security concerns.

This approach brought no good to the West in the past. Napoleon Bonaparte aimed to create a knot of buffer countries to the east of Poland, including Napoleonida in Ukraine's eastern flank. Germany in the last century tried to keep hetman Skoropadsky in power for the same reasons. It all ended in Russia's reconquest of Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine's current 19-year-long period of independence is the longest in its history.

Given the Russian blitzkrieg, former Ukraine leader Leonid Kuchma's notion of a "multi-vector policy" - in which Ukraine maintains a balancing act between Russia and the EU - may be the most optimistic scenario. But many predict that the EU and, speaking more broadly, the West will have an ever-decreasing role in Ukraine's future. If Russia manages to take over Ukraine, as Gazprom is to take control of Naftogaz, the EU's former-Communist eastern flank will feel much less secure.

Volodomyr Yermolenko is an analyst at Internews-Ukraine, a Kyiv-based NGO


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

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