Ukraine has been accepted as the latest member of the World Trade Organization after fifteen years of negotiations. WTO membership is expected to accelerate Ukraine’s prospects of joining the European Union. Further, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has requested that Ukraine be permitted to participate in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), and ultimately to be accepted as a full member of NATO. What has been the impact of these events and what are the likely consequences?
WTO membership should bring some benefits to the Ukrainian economy, particularly for the steel industry, which faced prohibitive export tariffs from EU countries hitherto. The resulting free competition and reduction of barriers are expected to boost industrial growth and ensure the production of more high quality products in this nation of 46 million. However, it may also increase foreign competition in a number of sectors, such as banking and machine building. Ukraine’s acceptance preceded that of Russia, which is on the waiting list. Officially Ukraine supports Russian membership, since problematic issues such as Russian gas prices could then be resolved under the WTO umbrella rather than bilaterally.
There should be no problems with the Ukrainian parliament’s ratification of WTO membership. The same cannot be said of the bid to take part in MAP, which has aroused angry responses from the Party of Regions and from Russia. Over the past week, MPs from the large opposition party have blocked the rostrum in the Rada, refusing to allow debate on the issue of NATO membership. Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych has stated that on this issue there can be no compromise, membership is inconceivable without a national referendum, and a majority of Ukraine’s residents are firmly opposed to the country joining the defensive alliance.
For Russia too, the issue is a thorny one. Russian president Vladimir Putin is still smarting from Poland’s agreement to accept a US anti-missile base on its territory which, allied with a radar station in the Czech Republic, would serve as an interception point for missiles aimed at the United States by a rogue state (the inference is Iran). Russia has accepted NATO membership of former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. Ukraine is a different matter entirely.
Putin, who is due to step down as president next month, points out that whereas Russia has dismantled military bases in areas like Cuba and Vietnam, the United States has established new sites in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, in addition to the anti-missile site slated for Poland. NATO’s eastward expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia is seen as a bid to surround Russia with hostile bases and to commence a new arms race.
Ukraine is a particularly sensitive case for Russia. Under Putin, Russian-Ukrainian relations were very close prior to the Orange Revolution in 2004, at which time Yanukovych, Russia’s choice for president, was defeated in a third run-off election. Though Putin’s likely successor Dmitry Medvedev has not engaged in anti-Western rhetoric, he is expected to echo Putin’s concerns over new perceived threats to Russian security.
NATO leaders, who meet in Bucharest in April, have welcomed the potential membership of Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noted that Russia’s protests would not be a factor when making a decision whether to accept Ukraine. The rationale behind further NATO expansion, however, has rarely been outlined. The implication is clearly that new members require protection from a real or potential external enemy, which could only be Russia. The latter country has not helped its case by its belligerence toward its neighbors. Estonian president Toomas Ilves stated recently that in making a decision on the future membership of Ukraine and Georgia, NATO members should not give into Russian threats and blackmail.
The danger for Ukraine lies in the precarious position of the Tymoshenko government. With a majority of just two deputies, it has embarked on a campaign to integrate Ukraine with Euro-Atlantic structures without further delay, including membership of the EU, which ostensibly has been boosted by WTO membership. But it is not in a position to join NATO without alienating a large segment of the population. While most residents of Ukraine welcome WTO and future EU membership, they do not feel the same way about the country joining the alliance. NATO has a poor reputation associated with past actions in Serbia and the Near East.
Others are concerned about the impact on relations with Russia, a country with which trade turnover totaled $30 billion in 2007–the next highest turnover, with Germany, was $5 billion. Ukraine’s plans to ease dependence on Russian resources by building pipelines from Turkmenistan seem based on wishful thinking rather than reality. Ukraine has a number of serious issues to discuss with post-Putin Russia, including the future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol. And Russia has never hesitated to use its greatest state-owned resource–gas– as a means of maintaining its former Soviet-era ties to Ukraine.
In short, whereas the government’s initiatives toward Europe seem logical, there are grounds to question the wisdom of a fast-track Ukrainian entry into NATO, particularly without a sustained internal debate on the issue first.
[This article was first published on 13 February 2008 by the Edmonton Journal, along with the subtitle: “But other initiatives toward Europe seem logical, enjoy wide appeal.” Copyright is owned by CanWest and the article may be cited but cannot be reproduced without