David Marples and Myroslava Uniat

The administration of President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov appears to be in confusion. On the one hand it faces a large bill from Russia’s Gazprom for portions of unused gas, along with intense pressure from the Russian government to join the Customs Union. On the other, it awaits a significant summit with the EU in Brussels on February 25 to discuss an Association Agreement, a prelude to its potential signing at the EU Eastern Partnership in November in Vilnius, without first meeting preconditions requested by the Europeans. In fact the president seems blandly oblivious of the tightrope he is walking, assuming that in the world of realpolitik, it is Ukraine rather than Brussels that holds most of the cards. The Ukrainian leader’s logic is that the Kyiv government can operate between the EU and Russia, which are also limited in their bargaining power: Russia, because it needs Ukraine to make the Union work, and the EU because by isolating Ukraine, it would push that country firmly into the Russian orbit. He has witnessed similar maneuvers by the president of Belarus, after all, who has survived largely unscathed to date and remained in power for almost two decades.

In reality, however, Ukraine’s position seems much weaker than the Yanukovych-Azarov team imagines or acknowledges. Russian pressure is constant. The former deputy of United Russia, Sergey Makarov, commented that if Ukraine joined the Russian-led Customs Union—it currently comprises Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan has expressed a wish to join—then the $7.09 billion fine for unused gas will simply be waived. Joining would also mean more chances that gas prices would be reduced ( In brief: join us and your troubles are over! Understandably, the Ukrainian side baulks at Gazprom’s demand, partly because it has denounced the 2009 agreement, signed between former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009, which failed to anticipate the fall of gas prices and committed Ukraine to paying for the full amount of imported gas, whether or not it was actually needed. Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Yuri Boyko met with Chairman of the Gazprom Board Aleksey Miller in early February and stated that he did not think it appropriate for Ukraine to pay such a sum (

Meanwhile, the Regions Party has not responded to a variety of requests from the Europeans to fulfill what are seen as essentially minimal requirements for the signing of the Association Agreement in November. The Dutch Ambassador to Ukraine, Pieter Jan Wolthers, has commented that there is no guarantee that the Association Agreement will be signed because all depends on the Ukrainian side meeting the terms, which include dealing with the issue of selective justice ( Likewise, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of this year, informed Yanukovych during his working visit to Lithuania on February 6, that she believes the imprisonment of two former opposition leaders, Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, to be politically motivated. She also took Yanukovych to task over the Customs Union, pointing out to him that the simultaneous signing of agreements with the EU and the Customs Union was impossible, because the two contradict each other ( Therefore it is necessary for Ukraine to choose one or the other. British analyst Andrew Wilson posits that Yanukovych is ignorant of how the EU works, believing that the crucial matter is a balance of power and that the EU’s concern for Tymoshenko is ritualistic. Wilson’s view is that Yanukovych expects at some point that the EU will simply stop making demands and sign the Association Agreement, whereas in reality Ukraine is becoming isolated ( accessed Feb 17).

For his part, Yanukovych is defending himself and casting stones simultaneously. First of all, he informed European Commissioner Stefan Fule on February 7, his Regions Party has already introduced draft proposals to meet some of the EU’s demands starting in 2010. They are somewhat delayed because he has to deal with officials and politicians “who are used to living in the old way” ( He responded to Grybauskaite that Ukraine could not ignore the fact that trade with the members of the Customs Union currently amounts to more than $60 billion, and therefore he supports “simultaneous cooperation” with the EU and the Customs Union. He also blamed the EU Energy Community, which Ukraine joined in 2010, for its failure to intervene to defend Ukraine when Russia made the demand for $7.09 billion for gas, a comment to which director of the Community Secretariat Janez Kopač responded with surprise, noting that Ukraine has to date never requested such assistance (

Other officials simply blame the parliamentary opposition for the lack of progress on meeting EU requests. Thus Cabinet and Regions Party member Olena Lukash stated that five projects have been submitted to parliament, dealing with improvement in laws to combat corruption, and increasing penalties for corruption offenses. The president has submitted two bills dealing with the ratification of the UN protocol against the illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms. She hopes therefore that the opposition will provide its support for the adoption of European laws and confirm its choice of European integration ( The opposition in turn has blocked the parliamentary tribune in an effort to demand individual voting of each deputy (, ending the practice of multiple voting through the voting cards of absent MPs. On February 20, however, it supported the Parliament’s draft statement on implementing Ukraine’s goals for integration with Europe and signing of the Association Agreement.

The subplot behind these issues is the continuing detention of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko cited above, and the recent introduction of new criminal charges against the former for the murder of former parliamentary deputy Evhen Shcherban in 1996, together with the then Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who is still under house arrest in the United States serving a sentence for money laundering. One possibility widely discussed is that Yanukovych could conceivably pardon Lutsenko, a secondary figure who would be unlikely to pose a political challenge, if he received such a request. The former minister has been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and portal hypertension, and political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko surmised that his release could happen prior to the EU-Ukraine summit on February 25. Lutsenko’s wife, however, thought that her husband would not request such a pardon, which would imply an acknowledgement of guilt ( But without any such concessions, it seems inconceivable that the Europeans would be very welcoming toward the Ukrainian leaders in Brussels.

The irony of these complex discussions and internal wrangling is that even a leader as out of touch with the world around him as Yanukovych, and his trusted aide Azarov, would not have to do much to assuage the anger emanating from some capitals of Europe. The early release of Lutsenko, with or without a pardon, would cost the president nothing, but would be perceived as a positive step from the EU’s perspective. Moreover, the oligarchs within and outside the Regions Party have little to gain from Ukraine being drawn into the Customs Union, which would curtail their control over a lucrative part of the domestic economy as well as reducing Ukraine’s political independence. At times the president does appear to perceive where future policy should lie. All too often he appears simply to be unaware of the limitations of his position, which unfortunately affects not only to his administration, but the Ukrainian state, which has a limited number of options. Despite the growing authoritarianism and corruption of his government and in the country at large, Yanukovych has an opportunity to move closer to the EU. It is one that requires decisive and prompt action.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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