Germany’s Eastern policies have to adapt to the novel political challenges in the post-Soviet space

In the light of today’s constellation of forces and interests in Eastern Europe, Germany needs to adopt a “new Eastern policy.” A future German approach should combine a high level of attention to Russia with more care for what has sometimes been called “intermediate Europe” (Zwischeneuropa) – first of all, for Ukraine. The previous heavy emphasis on German-Russian relations has become dated and needs to be replaced with a more balanced approach to the entire region across the EU’s eastern border.

Berlin has long been rife with such calls, to be sure. They had become topical already years ago when Vladimir Putin’s creeping centralization of power in Russia started to amount to a fundamental political rollback. The changing mood in Berlin has been expressed in an increasing number of self-critical German political and analytical publications. Calls for a reorientation of Germany’s Ostpolitik have sometimes even been voiced by relevant politicians themselves.

For example, in February 2012 an inter-party group of parliamentarians interested in Eastern Europe presented a joint statement on Germany’s engagement within the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, at the offices of the German Society for Foreign Policy. The memorandum points out that Brussels’s Eastern Partnership initiative has not only a humanitarian, but also a geostrategic dimension and is important to basic German interests. The inter-party statement suggested that “the Federal Government should appoint a Special Representative for the Eastern Partnership who will coordinate strategic considerations at the national level.” The politicians also demanded that the partnership countries should be given the prospect of EU membership as an instrument complementing Brussels’s neighborhood policy, and that the EU conclude association agreements with such countries as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia (DGAPstandpunkt, no.1, 2012).

As long ago as in January 2005, i.e., shortly after the Ukrainian electoral uprising known as the Orange Revolution, the influential German politician Wolfgang Schäuble, then Bundestag CDU/CSU deputy faction leader and today Federal Minister of Finance, took a surprisingly explicit stance. Schäuble complained in a newspaper article that “in its statements on Ukraine’s European prospects, the EU has so far confined itself to the principle of equidistance.” He furthermore asserted: “Now the EU has no right to leave this country on its own and must be prepared to include it into the EU structures one day – provided that democracy, the rule of law and a market economy have been established” (FAZ, January 27th, 2005). However, these and similar ideas voiced by politicians of various EU countries and political camps during and after the Orange Revolution had, at that time, little effect on either Berlin’s or Brussels’s policies towards Ukraine.

Instead, in February 2005, Kyiv and Brussels adopted a so-called Action Plan which the EU had drawn up and approved of already in the previous year, i.e. before the successful accomplishment of the Orange Revolution in late December 2004. The very name of this document – “Action Plan” – symbolizes the eyewash on the part of the Western politicians and diplomats then involved in tackling the problem of Ukraine’s European integration. Following the Orange Revolution, they adopted a document drawn up in the period of Leonid Kuchma’s semi-authoritarian presidency as a reaction to the Ukrainian democratic uprising. The fact that the 2005 Action Plan was presented as Brussels’s response to one of the largest mass actions of civil disobedience in post-war Europe illustrated the inability of the EU to adequately respond to big historic events.

Belatedly, the EU did react to the November-December 2004 events in Kyiv when it started drawing up together with Ukraine, in 2007, a large Association Agreement that includes provisions for an especially deep and comprehensive free trade area. Initialed in 2012, the agreement implies both, a close political association with, and a far-reaching economic integration of Ukraine into, the EU. If signed and ratified, it would be not only Ukraine’s, by far, largest international agreement so far, but also the biggest treaty that the European Union has ever concluded, with a non-member state.

Moreover, over the last three years, the well-respected Czech EU Commissioner on Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle has repeatedly indicated that, in principle, Ukraine – like other European non-EU countries – has a “European perspective,” i.e. the chance to apply on day for accession to the Union. However, there still is no officially announced prospect for a possible future membership of Ukraine in the EU – neither in the text of the Association Agreement nor in the European or EU Council’s statements of the past few years. Thus, Brussels has been unable to fully employ the conditionality mechanism that had proven so effective during the transformation of the post-communist states in the 1990s. And Germany bears a part of the responsibility for this fateful omission.

Brussels’s strategic failure regarding Kyiv has to do not only with the sluggishness of the EU’s political bureaucracy, but also with the skeptical attitude that parts of Europe’s elite display towards the idea of Ukraine’s future accession to the EU. Apparently, certain psychological factors are in play too – which is partly understandable in view of the numerous oddities in Ukrainian domestic policies as well as the more and more clumsy behavior of the Ukrainian leadership on the international arena, during the last three years.

The results of scholarly research on EU enlargement have, however, shown time and again that a conditional, yet plausible offer of future EU membership was an important factor in the successful transitions to democracy of the East-Central European countries. Besides, when Turkey was recently granted the status of an EU candidate with unclear future, this created an important precedent: It effectively cancelled the hitherto functioning automatism of an EU accession prospect and even official candidacy leading necessarily to an entry into the Union. The Turkish case provides an example of a country that had, for a long time (since 1963), a membership perspective and acceded to candidacy status, but may never enter the Union.

Against this background, it is unlikely that a deliberate collective decision in Germany’s corridors of power is the main cause of the relative passivity of the German foreign policy establishment towards Ukraine’s European prospects. Rather, the crucial factor may be a plain lack of attention to Ukraine and failure of Germany’s political elite to understand Ukraine’s geopolitical significance. This naivety is, in turn, connected to the continuing domination of Russia in Germany’s overall vision of Eastern Europe, and its repercussions on the behavior of Berlin’s political decision-makers. In spite of the above-quoted statements of Schäuble and a number of similar comments from Germany’s other political camps, there have been few, if any, substantive changes in the basic priorities of the German Eastern policy and its fixation on Moscow after the breakup of the Soviet Union. That is in spite of the facts that both, the geo- and the domestic political situation in Eastern Europe today is different from the one in 1991, and that German public opinion has become increasingly skeptical about Russia.

In collaboration with its European partners, in the future, Germany should take a stronger interest than before in the consolidation of Ukraine’s young statehood. At the same time, it should try not to irk the Kremlin too much with this, and is hence obliged to continue cooperating with Moscow. To be sure, it may be impossible to follow such an “equilibristic” approach always harmonically. This may result in a greater or lesser alienation between Berlin and Moscow – and this would be a matter of regret.

Yet it is, after all, the current leadership of Russia that bears the main responsibility for these complications. If, in view of its serious domestic problems, Russia dropped its dubious great power claims and senseless rivalry with the West for the former Soviet republics, the EU and Russia would not be at loggerheads about Ukraine as well as liberated from various other confrontations. An EU-oriented Ukraine would not be a thorn in the side of a pro-European Russia, but, on the contrary, a bridge to her Western ally. Moreover, the Ukrainian elite would be much less anti-Russian and, maybe, even interested in closer cooperation with Moscow, if the latter were to take a more friendly attitude towards Brussels and Washington. Not only Kyiv, but also Moscow could be striving to sign with Brussels treaty on political association and comprehensive free trade similar to the various Association Agreements the EU is now negotiating with several Eastern Partnership countries (including Azerbaijan!). In that case most of the disputable issues in the relations between the two Eastern Slavic brother nations and the related conflicts in the relations between Moscow and Germany and other Western states would simply disappear.

In the past 20 years, the different Ukrainian governments have prevented, for a number of reasons, Germany and the West as a whole from taking a more clear-cut attitude to, and actively cooperating with, Ukraine. President Kuchma practiced a so-called multi-vectored foreign policy which left open the question of where exactly Ukraine was heading. In 2005-2010, the infamous quarrels between Ukraine’s President and Prime-Ministers were an obstacle to more effective cooperation between Ukraine and all of her foreign partners, including Germany. Since President Yanukovych took office in February 2010, the main problem in the relations between Ukraine and the West has been the increasing subversion of already weak democratic institutions and rule of law Ukraine. The latest political regress has been paralyzing for several months now political and economic relations between Ukraine and the West and is hindering the signing of the initialed EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

In spite of these and many other problems, Germany and the West as a whole ought to take a more favorable attitude to Ukraine. First, the current authoritarian tendencies in Ukraine are still weaker than in most of the other post-Soviet states. Second, Ukrainian politics during the past 20 years has been relatively varied if compared, for example, to the recent histories of Russia or Belarus. Particularly, Ukrainian democracy has seen several waves of upsurges and rollbacks. This allows one to presume that the pendulum will soon be swinging again in the other direction, i.e. towards a new democratization. A destabilization of the semi-authoritarian Yanukovych regime seems to be merely a matter of time. But will this also lead to substantive change in the relations between Brussels and Berlin, on the one side, and Kyiv, on the other? Taking into account Ukraine’s continuing marginal status on the mind map of the West European – including German – elites, this question remains open.

An unauthorized, shorter version of this article, containing some imprecisions, was – as a poor translation from Russian – first published at Kyiv, in the Ukrainian newspaper The Day. An abridged version was published by the EUobserver at Brussels.