Ukraine’s two-decade long period of fence-sitting between its choices of European integration and a pro-Russian vector appears to be drawing to a close. During the European Union’s third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, which will take place November 28-29, Ukraine is due to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.
Firstly, it does appear that the current government, comprised of the “Donetsk clan” – thus referred to because President Viktor Yanukovych and most of the government’s senior officials come from this eastern Ukrainian city – is serious about wanting the association agreement with the EU signed. Based on private talks with high-level people close to the Donetsk clan, it seems they are even anxious to sign. The current ruling elite sees the agreement as a way out of Ukraine’s financial troubles and as opening the door to business expansion by The Family – this is how the commercial interests of President Yanukovych, his two sons and their associates are commonly referred to – and by Ukraine’s richest man, a leading figure in the Donetsk clan, Rinat Akhmetov, onto the international business scene, though the latter motive is probably misguided.
In the run-up to the Vilnius summit Russia has been its own worst enemy. For months the Kremlin imposed a trade embargo on Ukrainian goods, but this tactic backfired when Ukrainians took umbrage. So Putin announced on October 8 that Gazprom would be lowering the price it charges for natural gas to Ukraine from $380 USD per thousand cubic meters to $260 USD. Ukraine had been trying to lower the price for gas from Russia, unsuccessfully, for the past three years.
But the Russian change in course is too little, too late. Although the Russians are in a panic over the association agreement, it would not mean all that much in practice, since the agreement’s free trade aspects could have been achieved without an association agreement and relations between Ukraine and the EU have been moving in that direction in any event. The significance of the planned signing is that this will be the first, very real, specific step Ukraine takes in the direction of Europe and… away from Russia. Caught off-guard, the Kremlin has no viable response and now Russia has no role to play.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko remains the key as to whether the association agreement is signed or not. Despite the official rhetoric on Europe’s part, personalities do matter and whether or not Tymoshenko is freed from prison is the only obstacle standing in the way of Ukraine’s signing the agreement. Tymoshenko has been playing a game, saying just enough to be able to wash her hands and claim she did not want her imprisonment to stand in the way of signing, though in practice she wants to continue causing as much trouble for her arch-rivals in the Donetsk clan as possible and the devil take the hindmost. It would be a fair guess to say that Tymoshenko is elated that her own persona has become the key to such a strategic decision by Ukraine. For a megalomaniac like her, the obscurity toward which she was sliding would have been a fate worse than death.
There are some signals, very subtle, that perhaps the agreement may be signed without Tymoshenko’s release, but, naturally, Europeans are maintaining a solid front in demanding Tymoshenko’s release. The problem is that Tymoshenko remains Yanukovych’s enemy number one and it will be very, very difficult for him to let her go, even for medical treatment in Germany, that is, even with no presidential pardon.
Ukraine’s opposition has become somewhat flustered by Yanukovych’s pro-European drive, at a loss as to how to deal with his co-opting one of their pet issues. Since most Ukrainians support integration into Europe, this topic is the first glimmer of hope, given his low poll ratings, for Yanukovych’s 2015 campaign. Even if Ukraine’s signs the association agreement, however, this will be far from sufficient to carry him through, since a pro-European stance hurts him at his base, with leftists and the communists, who are decidedly pro-Russian.
There is nothing approaching certainty as to the signing of the EU association agreement, which will probably hang in the balance down to the last minute. And what, if anything, Yanukovych decides to do is impossible to predict. The chances are good that there will be some fudge solution adopted at the end, a release from prison for medical treatment by Western doctors within Ukraine, a release which leaves her prison record intact on the order of Kwasniewski’s recent proposal, something of that sort, though it would be foolhardy to bet money on any specific scenario.