David Marples and Myroslava Uniat
After the February 25 16th EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels, Ukraine’s chances of signing an Association Agreement later this year in Vilnius appeared as uncertain as they were before the meeting. What is lacking is a single unequivocal statement from President Viktor Yanukovych that he is prepared to meet the EU halfway and agree to the preconditions that have been outlined and reiterated numerous times by various leaders of Brussels. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s relations with the Russian-led Customs Union seem equally as ambivalent, but continue in parallel form in the background.
The Europeans have made it plain that the continuing imprisonment of opposition politicians Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko is part of the equation. If the EU has compromised, then it may be on the issue of the former. While Brussels-based politicians condemn the escalation of the charges against Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, there is less emphasis today than hitherto that the release of Ms Tymoshenko is an essential prerequisite for the signing of the agreement. Regarding Lutsenko, on the other hand, the situation is simply confusing. Evhen Balitskiy, a deputy from the Regions Party, speaking on Ukraine’s Channel 5 on February 21, stated firmly that the two detained figures would be released only when they had completed their sentences, and that Ukraine would not cave into outside pressure for an early end to their confinement (http://www.unian.net/news/554646-regional-otpuskat-timoshenko-i-lutsenko-ranshe-sroka-nikto-ne-sobiraetsya.html).
Another report of February 23 suggested that Yanukovych was indeed willing to compromise on both cases, but without setting a time frame (http://www.unian.net/news/555201-ukrainskiy-interes-anketa-evrointegratsii-i-ansambl-dlya-igryi-na-trube.html). Lutsenko’s wife expressed her view that the president had paid close attention to issues dealing with her husband and that his detention was a political matter, i.e. that he had been imprisoned for criticizing the government (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/02/22/6984173 ). Just three days later, a report from the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, maintained that after his meeting with the presidents of Poland and Slovakia, Yanukovych had promised to release Lutsenko in order to demonstrate Ukraine’s commitment to joining Europe. But the press service of the Polish president Bronislaw Kororowski would neither deny nor confirm the statement (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/02/25/6984254/).
Meanwhile EU politicians were expressing optimism both before and after the Brussels summit. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso enunciated his vision of Ukraine as future member of the European Union and expressed his faith that Ukraine has a European future. The effort to get an Association Agreement signed in November at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius was endorsed not only by Barroso, but also by President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, and European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule. They did add the proviso, however, that Ukraine should resolve the issue of “selective justice” and remove “deficiencies” in the conducting of parliamentary elections (http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?kerivnitstvo_yes_hoche_shhob_ukrayina_stala_chlenom_yevrosoyuzu&objectId=1279188).
There was, however, another familiar Ukrainian visitor in the Belgian capital. Prior to the summit, at an evening meeting with Barroso that lasted over an hour, former president Viktor Yushchenko commented that the Tymoshenko case should not hold up proceedings (http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?yushhenko_pered_samitom_govoriv_z_barrozu_pro_ukrayinu_i_timoshenko__zmi&objectId=1278974). The future of the Ukrainian state, stated Yushchenko, should not be a hostage of the “Tymoshenko affair.” Whether the Europeans still perceive Yushchenko as a credible authority is a moot point. The former president has rarely missed an opportunity to denounce his former Prime Minister, whose lengthy jail sentence was due in part to his testimony, and he appears content to serve the Regions government in his new role as an informal negotiator.
The delayed visit of Yanukovych to Moscow, on the other hand, finally took place on March 4, following its postponement last December. The main topics on the agenda were cooperation in energy, trade, and the economic sphere, particularly the conditions on which Ukraine might join the Customs Union. In addition Yanukovych returned to an old conundrum of the Kuchma era, namely the notion that there could be a joint Ukrainian-Russian venture to rent out Ukraine’s gas transportation system (http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?yanukovich_u_rosiyi_zaproponuye_stvoriti_spilne_pidpriyemstvo__taran&objectId=1279284; http://www.rferl.org/content/putin-yanukovych-moscow/24918397.html ). Russia, however, is insisting that Ukraine recognize the validity of previous agreements, which include not only the unfortunate 2009 deal on gas prices negotiated by Tymoshenko, but also cooperation and progress toward the integration of the Russian and Ukrainian nuclear industries in accordance with the July 12, 2012 memorandum signed in Yalta. One possible component of this agreement is joint construction of units 3 and 4 of the VVER nuclear power station at Khmelnyts’kyi (http://www.unian.net/news/556804-yanukovich-i-putin-pogovoryat-o-gaze.html ).
In April 2011 Yanukovych suggested that Ukraine might join the Customs Union in a 3+1 format precluding its full integration. That notion received qualifiede support from Regions deputy and Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko, a former chair of the National Bank of Ukraine. Tihipko observed that Ukraine’s entry into the Customs Union has been under negotiation since 2010 and that the proposed treaty details are about 1,000 pages in length. Good progress has been made in his view. But neither side has started to work seriously on the 3+1 idea, an approach that he would not reject. Still, the EU market is seven times larger, which renders it more interesting for the Ukrainian economy (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/02/22/6984174 ). Implicitly therefore the Customs Union is a viable back-up plan should negotiations with Brussels result in failure.
If, as seems plausible, Yanukovych is using talks with Russia to persuade Brussels to void the various conditions for signing the Associaton Agreement, he is demonstrating remarkable political naivety. The outcome could be the failure of the November meeting with the EU and equally unfruitful negotiations with Russia, which has considerable sway over the immediate future of Ukrainian energy policy in several of its major spheres, but especially oil, gas, and nuclear power. Andrew Wilson of the European Council of Foreign Relations commented that if the president was a wise man, then he would at least agree to release Lutsenko, but [he] «is not wise» (http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?yes_pidpisav_bi_ugodu_pro_asotsiatsiyu_navit_z_timoshenko_v_tyurmi__ekspert&objectId=1278880 ). Valery Chaliy of the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center maintains that the chances of the Association Agreement being signed are no better than 20%. And Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt declared that «To put it mildly, the current signs of progress in Ukraine are quite limited» (http://zaxid.net/home/showSingleNews.do?imovirnist_pidpisannya_ugodi_pro_asotsiatsiyu_z_yes__20__ekspert&objectId=1278849).
The EU has no doubt taken into consideration the overwhelming support for Ukraine’s European aspirations in the Ukrainian Parliament and the fact that even the government, despite its vacillations and the lack of firm directions at the level of the presidency, is generally in favor. It should take note, however, that negotiations on the side of Kyiv are not taking place with sincerity or even an evident willingness to compromise. All too often the vindictiveness toward former enemies and fear of retribution at some future date for more conciliatory policies, particularly in dealing with the Tymoshenko and Lutsenko cases, mean that at best, the Europeans will see no more than sluggish and very reluctant steps to comply with even modest requests. As Wilson has noted, however, a failure in November could seriously undermine the very existence of the Eastern Partnership. Ukraine might then have no immediate options other than the Customs Union, either in the so-called 3+1 formation or deeper integration on terms emanating from Moscow.