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Ukraine, Europe and the Yanukovych game

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Negotiations over the Ukraine's EU Association Agreement were finalised last month, but Yulia Tymoshenko's continued imprisonment prevented the EU from signing off on a deal. Borys Tarasyuk wonders whether the Europeans may have overestimated their leverage in the matter, and whether their approach will turn out to be counterproductive.

Borys Tarasyuk
4 January 2012

On 19 December, the 15th EU-Ukraine Summit officially concluded negotiations over Ukraine’s Association Agreement. Yet no deal was reached, as the EU refrained from actually initialing the document.

The event can hardly be called a summit in the full sense of the word. It was more a meeting that took place behind closed doors between the three presidents — Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, Jose Manuel Barroso of the EU Commission, and Herman van Rompuy of the European Council — and attended by two interpreters. The face-to-face discussion took four hours, but details of the conversation were not made public.

'While Yulia Tymoshenko is the personification of all the problems, her release alone would not resolve them. The EU’s focus should be much broader, and include Ukrainian government’s overuse of internal security forces.' 

On the positive side, it was the first time the EU leaders held separate meetings with leaders of the democratic opposition, including myself, and with representatives of the Ukrainian civil society. Doing so, the EU showed that it is ready to engage not only with the Ukrainian government but also with those who are not in power. This dual-track diplomacy should be maintained in the future.  

The fact that the Association Agreement was not initialled during the meeting is, however, perceived by a majority of Ukrainians as a failure and a sobering lesson for authorities. And this is certainly a view I subscribe to.

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The recently concluded Ukraine-EU summit was a missed opportunity, putting the proccess of Ukraine’s closer integration into Europe on hold. (photo: www.president.gov.ua

The EU’s reasons are clear enough. It happened after President Yanukovych rejected their demand to release Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the strongest opposition party in Ukraine. A couple of months previously, Yanukovych and his officials had promised that the Agreement would be initialled this December. Speculation has thus been raised that this obvious failure will result in a reshuffling of roles in in the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the replacement of the respective cabinet minister.

Yet, there is a risk that the EU may be falling into a trap of its own making,  where the the Association Agreement is held hostage to Yanukovych’s whims and wishes. This is because the Agreement is important for Ukraine and its people. Yulia Tymoshenko has even acknowledged this in her call to the EU to sign the agreement, regardless of whether she stays in prison or not.

I strongly believe that the EU should move forward with agreement on the Association Agreement, and that this has to be done well before the parliamentary elections scheduled for Autumn 2012. The following signing and ratification of the Agreement, however, should be made conditional upon the success of Ukrainian authorities in dealing with its serious problems in regards to democratic standards and the rule of law. 

While Yulia Tymoshenko is, in a sense, the personification of all these problems, her release alone would not resolve them. The EU’s focus should instead be much broader, and should, for instance, include such questions as the Ukrainian government’s overuse of internal security forces in clamping down on peaceful protests by opposition groups, new methods of control introduced in mass media, and the fact that the Head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) controls, albeit indirectly, the main TV station, “Inter.”

The relationship between the European and Ukrainian sides is characterised by both a lack of understanding and a distortion in communication. The European Union, for example, does not take into account the psychology of the current Ukrainian power-holders, and in particular President Viktor Yanukovych. As someone who has spent some time in prison and was at one point allegedly a good card player, Yanukovych could be seen as a master of bluffing – a poker-face. What constitutes an unfulfilled promise for European leaders, like EU Commissioner Stefan Fule or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is merely part of a political game for Yanukovych.

“Yanukovych could be seen as a master of bluffing – a poker-face. What constitutes an unfulfilled promise for European leaders is merely part of a political game for Yanukovych.”

The two sides are carriers of two very different sets of values. The West tries to convince Yanukovych to be more democratic and demands the release of Tymoshenko as well as her re-entry into politics. Yanukovych is trying to convince the West that he is right and that Tymoshenko is guilty and belongs into prison.

By arresting the opposition leader, Yanukovych wanted to exact revenge for his less-than-comfortable victory in the 2010 presidential contest, when he polled merely 3% more than Tymoshenko, and less than 50% of the overall vote (a first in the history of Ukrainian presidential elections). He is afraid of her as a competitor in the 2015 presidential elections, and in the psychology of people like Yanukovych, this meant Tymoshenko had to be punished and humiliated.

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Supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko staged a protest as the Kyiv Appeal Court confirmed the original verdict of seven years imprisonment for supposedly exceeding her authority when the former PM signed a 2009 gas import agreement with Russia. On New Years' Eve, Tymoshenko was abruptly moved from a Kyiv prison to a the Kachanivska penal colony in Kharkiv, to the east of the country (photo: www.byut.com.ua)

The abrupt transfer of Tymoshenko from a Kyiv detention center to a much more remote Kharkiv prison just on New Year’s Eve is the very clear manifestation of such a ‘strategy.’ The European Union is but a superfluous third party in this game.

The sensible approach for the EU going forward is more subtle, and involves using the Association Agreement as a leverage for democracy and rule of law promotion in Ukraine, rather than just a pressure point to release Tymoshenko. The Agreement can be used to achieve something more significant in the short term, namely to ensure that the 2012 parliamentary elections are transparent, democratic and fair.

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