Ukraine, and a Europe-Russia crack

The conflict in Ukraine is part of a wider tussle over eastern Europe's political orientation. The European Union remains pivotal to progress, says Krzysztof Bobinski.

Krzysztof Bobinski
27 December 2013

In the good old cold-war days when divisions in Europe were clearer, popular upheavals in Soviet-run eastern Europe were met with a measure of consternation in western capitals and some sympathy among western populations. At that time, everyone knew that freedom was at stake - and also that the demand for freedom couldn’t be fulfilled.

Now, amid fading memories of the period, mass demonstrations in post-Soviet eastern Europe - such as the ones in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, from late November 2013 - prompt a subtly different reaction in the west. Among western populations, there is a degree of confusion and some concern, reflecting the fact that no one is quite sure what is at stake this time; since 1989, after all, people have come to take it for granted that the eastern Europeans had won back their freedoms. So people in the west, seeing the many thousands waving starred European Union flags, respond less with hope than with trepidation. They fear that many of these Ukrainian Euro-enthusiasts will want to come over to the west, with bad consequences for their jobs.

In western capitals, meanwhile, there is again a measure of consternation, though its nature has changed. During the cold war, leaders were most afraid that the protests (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956. Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1970 and 1980-81) would get out of hand and undermine the division of Europe which had been agreed in the wartime conferences of allied leaders at Yalta and Potsdam. These deals between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill (later Attlee) underpinned the decades-long stand-off between the Soviets and the west. So when the intermittent popular eruptions were repressed and order restored, western chanceries - even as they complained vigorously - breathed a sigh of relief. Today's leaders have far more freedom of manoeuvre and options than their constrained predecessors, yet they still seem paralysed by the challenge of integrating with post-Soviet Europe.

The popular fears and the leaders' worries interact. The result is that the spectacle of the pro-EU crowd on the euro-Maidan in Kyiv - the largest such demonstrations in history, the likes of which could never have been dreamed of by Jean Monnet and others of the EU’s founding generation - generates very little enthusiasm on the western side.

This outcome is the product of the European Union’s very cautious approach to post-Soviet eastern Europe.

The context

It was the European commission, aware that the EU had grown tired of enlargement to the east but desperate for a policy towards the "eastern neighbourhood", which invented the notion of "association agreements" (AAs) with the region's states. A joint Polish-Swedish scheme, conducted under the umbrella of the Eastern Partnership, sought to bring six post-Soviet states closer to the EU: Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

At the same time, the European commission began to negotiate the AAs, which included so-called "deep and comprehensive free trade area agreements" (DCFTA). The purpose of the DCFTAs was to allow the eastern-partner countries to adopt most of the EU’s regulations  and open each other's markets; they fell short of an offer of full membership, but their acceptance and implementation would have meant a complete reform of these countries' largely corrupt and monopolised economies. In turn, people in the European commission thought, existing EU member-states would find it easier to absorb them in a new phase of enlargement.

Behind the promise of reform, modernisation and prosperity held out by the DCFTAs is the fact that they threatened the deeply entrenched vested interests of local oligarchs and political cliques.

DCFTAs were prepared with Ukraine, then Georgia and Moldova. Armenia too was included. But the plan began to go awry in mid-2013 when President Putin’s Russia realised that the association agreements were taking countries like Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit. The Russians began to agitate against having Kyiv and the others sign the AAs and their component DCFTAs. What had been a highly technical process between Brussels and the Eastern Partnership states began to look like a tug-of-war between Russia and the EU.

“Everything will change with the implementation of the DCFTAs”, a senior Armenian foreign-ministry official, tired of his country’s failure to reform, had said. The statement was premature: on 3 September 2013 his president, Serzh Sargsyan pulled out at the last minute under pressure from Russia. That decision was seen by civil-society groups as a final betrayal, leading them to fear the worst. “Now Russia will take over completely and we will have the Putin model”, said one prominent activist.

Ukraine had completed the negotiations and initialed the deal. But its failure to comply with a series of EU demands, notably the freeing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, meant it could not not be finalised. Amid rising awareness among Ukraine's population about the issues at stake, Yanukovych's announcement that he would not sign the AA provoked an eruption of pro-European feeling in Kyiv and western Ukraine.

In Vilnius at the biannual summit of the Eastern Partnership on 28-29 November, Georgia and Moldova did initial the AA and the DCFTA. They did this with a certain amount of trepidation as Georgia now fears that Russian pressure will be brought to bear on Tbilisi, while Moldova faces national elections in late 2014 which could well see a victory of the pro-Moscow party. And it must be remembered that the free-market reforms required by the DCFTA initially bring a measure of pain. The gain only comes later - too late, maybe, for the reformers to win an election.

The outsiders in all this are Belarus (which because of its human-rights record has a tenuous relationship with the EU) and Azerbaijan (which doesn’t have a relationship with the World Trade Organisation and therefore could not start negotiations on a DCFTA). Not that Azerbaijan wants a DCFTA; Baku has oil-and-gas giants, EU member-states and Norway lining up to be in its graces, despite its bad (and worsening) human-rights situation.

The choice

With the demonstrations in Kyiv, the EU finds itself having scored a moral victory which shows that its model is attractive to people (especially the young) in eastern Europe - especially compared with what Russia has to offer. True, Russia’s offer of a $15bn dollar loan and agreement to markedly lower gas prices have given President Yanukovych respite from a dire economic situation; but this offers no promise of reform and thus of a medium-term solution to the economic crisis. The leaders of the protests, meanwhile, have called on their supporters not to give up, to continue to press the authorities to resign, and to call for new elections.

The events of late 2013 in Ukraine have shown that Russia holds out little to people in eastern Europe in terms of a prosperous economic future. The demonstrations have also shown the Russians themselves as well as people in the states such as Azerbaijan that the street can checkmate corrupt and tyrannical rulers. There is a young generation in the region, as before the fall of the Soviet Union, which wants to live “normally, like people in the west”.

Whatever happens in Ukraine over the coming days and weeks, the game is far from over. And officials in European Union capitals and their populations have to get used to the idea that eastern Europeans will continue to knock at their doors asking for support. These are the EU’s neighbours and only the reforms which the EU is proposing can bring long-term stability. The failure of reforms in the region and a  continuation of regimes run by corrupt politicians and monopolistic economies  dominated by oligarchs can only lead, sooner or later, to popular revolts and repression. That will only leave the EU’s eastern neighbourhood fundamentally unstable.          

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