The year 2011 is crucial for the relationship between Ukraine and the European Union: Kyiv and Brussels are negotiating an Association treaty that will include an unprecedented Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. If successfully concluded, this would be the largest foreign treaty in the history not only of Ukraine, but also of the European Union. Anatoliy Martsinovskiy of the Ukrainian “Eurobulletin,” published by the Kyiv Delegation of the EU, interviewed Dr. Andreas Umland, member of the Valdai Discussion Club (valdaiclub.com), Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” (ukma.kiev.ua), and General Editor of the trilingual book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” (ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html). This interview was earlier published by the “Kyiv Weekly” and is reprinted here with the permission of its editors.
If one looks at the EU-Ukraine relations during the first half of the year, can one say that everything has been proceeding according to plan?
A.U.: There have been positive as well as negative developments. The talks on the Free Trade Agreement and the Association Agreement are proceeding more or less well. At the same time, developments inside Ukraine, in particular concerning violations of such principles as the rule of law, political pluralism and democratic procedure, are unsatisfactory. The situation with these issues is getting worse and worse.
Does the lawsuit against former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko pose a potential threat to the EU-Ukraine relations and the talks you mentioned?
A.U.: I think that it does, if the sentence is unreasonably tough and debars her from future political activity. Europe would consider such a sentence as an attempt to eliminate the main leader of the opposition, from the political process. It may be the case that Tymoshenko indeed violated certain laws and there is some basis for a lawsuit. In Ukraine, however, many of those in power violated and still violate the law, yet they are not prosecuted. The peculiar persistence in the prosecution of Tymoshenko suggests that we are facing a case of selective, politically motivated application of the law.
A few months ago, there were passionate discussions concerning Ukraine’s possible entry of the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. This would have made it impossible to sign the Free Trade Agreement with the EU, while the EU Association Agreement would have lost its significance. Do you think that this possible turn is already forgotten, or may the prospect of joining the Customs Union again become a topic of interest?
A.U.: I think it may become relevant again. If Tymoshenko is debarred from political activities, an escalation of the confrontation between the EU and Ukraine over this issue will be inevitable. It would result in a domino effect concerning other aspects of EU-Ukrainian relations, and the idea of joining the Customs Union may resurface.
However, it also appears that the process of rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU has already gone too far for Kyiv to venture such a flip-flop. This would trigger a negative social reaction towards the authorities. Besides, the Party of Regions hopefully understands that joining the Customs Union is a risky move. On the one hand, it may become an instrument of Russian political influence upon Ukraine—up to the point of a partial loss of the country’s sovereignty. I doubt that the Party of Regions or President Viktor Yanukovych are interested in this.
On the other hand, Russia and Belarus—as well as, to a certain extent, Kazakhstan—are wrapped up in their own problems concerning the further political and economic development and modernisation of their societies. It would be strategically unwise for Ukraine to join a Customs Union in which two member states are currently, at a crossroads of their development. It is unclear what will happen to Russia and Belarus in the near future, and what socio-economic as well as geopolitical paths these two countries will eventually choose. Joining an organisation with such an unclear future would be a dead end for Ukraine.
Of course, the EU too has problems, for example, concerning the future of the Euro-zone. Yet it is possible to envisage already now the ways in which the Union will eventually solve them – even if only on a long-term basis. The situation concerning the EU is, altogether, more predictable than that within the Customs Union.
You have outlined a possible position for the Ukrainian establishment with regard to the Customs Union. But to what extent do you find the many pro-European statements of those in power sincere? At the end of the day, the movement towards the EU implies a consolidation of democracy and pro-European transformations inside the state, which, for many, may turn out to be undesirable.
A.U.: Of course, there are doubts concerning the sincerity of the statements made by many Ukrainian officials with regard to their country’s movement towards the EU and its values system. Yet the idea of European integration is popular among the Ukrainian population, in all regions of the country, and this is to be reckoned with. Though European integration might be, for some members of the Ukrainian leadership, just a game, this game has already gone too far. In case they just throw up their cards, this would be costly in political terms. It will result in widespread disappointment.
As a matter of fact, I think that the negotiations with the EU, especially those concerning the implementation of the visa liberalisation roadmap, belong—in the eyes of many people—to the few positive aspects that are left, in the policies of today’s authorities. These negotiations still instil some hopes, and offer some prospects for the future of Ukraine. If the government and the Party of Regions are unsuccesful in bringing Ukraine close to the EU, that will result in a further loss of their popularity. If, on the other hand, they indeed manage to sign the Agreements with the EU, they will be able to say: “See, we have made a breakthrough in the relations with the EU, we are on our way to Europe.” I suspect that such a calculation is exactly what drives the current authorities’ seemingly strong desire to conclude the negotiations successfully.
And what does the EU expect and wish? Does it have any geopolitical plans regarding Ukraine, and should the EU have such plans at all?
A.U.: The EU is split on these issues. On the one hand, there is a clear desire to make Ukraine part of Europe—if not (yet) an EU member state, but a state that will follow the European model of development, and will form a part of a common security and trade zone in and around Europe. This is basically what the European Neighbourhood Policy is about. But on the other hand, there exists a different geopolitical paradigm, namely a need for balanced relations with Russia—a desire also conditioned by security and economic considerations. Moscow is very sensitive about Ukraine, and many EU states take this into account. An illustration of this position was the refusal to offer Ukraine and Georgia a NATO Membership Action Plan at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit. This refusal came from influential EU member states that, for better or worse, argued against the Action Plan for the two countries.
The NATO issue is clear, this is a security issue. But what threat does Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU or joining the EU pose to Russia?
A.U.: The Moscow political elite’s change of mood toward the EU after the start of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative in 2009 speaks volumes. Russian analysts and politicians have begun to consider the EU as a competitor for influence in the EaP’s part of the post-Soviet space. The idea of a new “gathering of the lands” and of a renewal of some kind of empire, even if in a non-institutionalised form, is still alive in Russia. This is why I am afraid that, in the course of Ukraine’s further rapprochement with the EU, the tensions between the EU and Russia may grow – unless Russia itself changes, leaves behind the imperial paradigm, and stops defining her core national interests in terms of a revival of her former spheres of influence.
Looking at the EU-Ukraine-Russia triangle, the situation does not look encouraging: Russia seems to be against Ukraine joining the EU and the EU is currently also unwilling to discuss this issue, while in Ukraine the authorities’ behaviour with regard to European values spawn doubts. In what “angle” of this triangle should the radical change take place in the first instance, in order to change the situation for the better?
A.U.: It would be great if changes took place in all three “angles”. The EU should start considering Ukraine as a prospective member, Russia should leave behind her imperial paradigm, while Ukraine (and, ideally, Russia too) should take Western political principles more seriously. Of course, this scenario is difficult to imagine today, but everything changes quickly. Three years ago, it was also difficult to imagine that Ukraine would receive a visa liberalisation roadmap from the EU. Perhaps, in five years, we will already find ourselves in a different situation—especially in the case that the Free Trade and Association Agreements are signed and are going to be implemented. The most important task today is to finish the job regarding their conclusion. Such a move may by itself create an entirely new political reality, in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine aspires to attain the membership prospect within the Association Agreement. Is it so important?
A.U.: I think it is. The EU’s persistent refusal to give such an unequivocal promise are obviously determined by its many current internal problems and are somewhat understandable, against this background. In addition, Turkey and the countries of the Western Balkans are in queue for EU membership. To add Ukraine too to this queue is psychologically difficult. However, from my point of view, European leaders need to overcome their fears and should include Ukraine’s membership perspective into the Preamble of the Association Agreement. In fact, such a statement does not bind the EU to much. Turkey has been granted Candidate Status for Membership in the EU in 1999. But, as of now, it is still unclear whether Turkey will ever enter the EU. On the other hand, Ukraine’s (or any other European country’s) membership prospects are, in fact, already guaranteed in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. Therefore, the inclusion of this phrase into the Association Agreement would mean little substantive change of the current status quo for the EU and its member states. In fact, a formal declaration of Ukraine’s membership prospects would be beneficial to the EU, in view of Ukraine’s geopolitical significance.
But one can hardly hope that, if Ukraine were granted a membership perspective, Kyiv’s authorities would instantly start pro-European reforms and transformations—namely a process of real European integration.
A.U.: Naturally, in substantive terms, nothing would change quickly. But the political climate, in Ukraine, would change immediately. This would concern the mood of both—the elites and society. There would, for the first time, be a credible long-term perspective for the country’s development. Psychologically, this would be rather important for Ukraine and its citizens today.
On 1 July, Poland took over the Presidency of the EU. Can that be considered a positive factor for the successful outcome of the negotiations on the Association and Free Trade Agreements?
A.U.: Indeed, it is a fortunate concatenation of circumstances that Poland will preside in the EU in the course of the (hopefully) final stages of the negotiations. From my point of view, Ukraine’s most urgent problem is a lack of attention from most EU member states. With Poland, this is not the case. That is why its Presidency in the EU may be beneficial and productive for the EU’s future relations with Ukraine.
In its recently published report, Freedom House predicts that the former Soviet states, including Ukraine, may reach an impasse, when their regimes can be changed only through revolutions, since the democratic procedures do not work there. Is this a viable prospect?
A.U.: The concerns articulated by Freedom House are justified. In a worst case scenario, the situation could turn out to be dead-ended. A new popular uprising like that in 2004 may become inevitable. But this time, such a mass action of civil disobedience could result in a regional segmentation, or even in the final break-up of the country. In view of the growth of social polarisation, in Ukraine, in the past year, provoked by dubious “political technologies”, anti- and pro-regime demonstrations may de facto turn into anti-state activities. New movements may appear in which narrowly political demands will no longer prevail. Rather, they may be guided by deeper civilisational, national or ethnic ideologies which will greatly complicate the search for compromise, or may even exclude a peaceful solution. This would be an explosive situation.
These days, Ukraine celebrates the 20th anniversary of its independence. Considering the problematic situation with democracy, human rights, the problems with energy security, many citizens’ uncertainty about their future etc., what can Ukrainians celebrate on Independence Day? What can they be proud of?
A.U.: All the difficulties notwithstanding, Ukrainians can be proud of the establishment and survival of their state, as well as of the impressive revival of Ukrainian culture, during the last 20 years. It is also noteworthy that the Ukrainians have managed to prevent armed conflicts on their country’s territory, whereas this important aim has not been achieved in Russia (in the Northern Caucasus), Yugoslavia, Central Asia, Moldova, and the Southern Caucasus. Furthermore, Ukraine’s citizens have so far prevented the creation of a new dictatorship, as it has happened in Belarus or the Central Asian states. These and other achievements still make Ukraine a special country, in the post-Soviet context. The EU should duly acknowledge this fact, and finally grant Ukraine a membership perspective.
(Translated from Russian by Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov, Kreisau-Fellow of the George Bell Institute.)