This tug-of-war began four years ago, when the EU proposed an "eastern partnership" with Ukraine as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus. The EU offered cooperation, free trade and financial contributions in exchange for democratic reforms. The planned partnership agreements were intended to facilitate visa-free travel, reduce tariffs and introduce European norms. The only thing that was not offered was EU membership.
The EU's other goal, even though it was not as openly expressed, was to limit Russia's influence and define how far Europe extends into the east. For Russia, the struggle to win over Ukraine is not only about maintaining its geopolitical influence, but about having control over a region that was the nucleus of the Russian empire a millennium ago. The word Ukraine translates as "border country," and many feel the capital Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities.
This helped create Cold War-style grappling between Moscow and Brussels. The Russian president, hardened by his fights in the Kremlin, is more adept than EU bureaucrats at manipulating people with venality and affections.
The official reason for the agreement's failure is Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition politician who has been in prison for the last two years. The EU had made her release a condition of the agreement. Yanukovych was unwilling to release his former rival, and last week the parliament in Kiev failed to approve a bill that would have secured her release.
But then there are the financial incentives. In the end, the Russian president seems to have promised his Ukrainian counterpart several billion euros in the form of subsidies, debt forgiveness and duty-free imports. The EU, for its part, had offered Ukraine loans worth €610 million ($827 million), which it had increased at the last moment, along with the vague prospect of a €1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yanukovych chose Putin's billions instead.
The EU had been banking on its radiant appeal, and on its great promise of prosperity, freedom and democracy, but now Brussels must confront the fact that, for the first time, an attempt at rapprochement was rebuffed because the price was wrong.
It leaves the Europeans, rather red-faced and empty-handed after six years of engaging in the process of the Eastern Partnership, once celebrated by the starry-eyed as almost the European equivalent of the Manifest Destiny. Conversely, and symptomatically, it provides ample reasons for the man in the Kremlin to feel rather smug and satisfied.
So how are we to interpret the decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to turn his back on an Association Agreement with the European Union?
The underdevelopment of Ukraine’s economy will now be accelerated, as the country becomes even more isolated from that of the world; its population will become significantly poorer. The opposition will become more implacable, more radical, and more intransigent, and its popular support will grow. The polarization within Ukraine between Europhiles and Russophiles will intensify and major civil disturbances are now quite possible, especially in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, which Yanukovych cannot possibly win fairly, freely, or even quasi-fairly and freely.
Yanukovych’s decision to abort the EU agreement makes perfect sense—for him, that is. Integrating with Europe would mean that he would have to try to meet Western electoral standards and get reelected cleanly in 2015—which would never work—or make himself attractive enough to Europhile voters to get their votes—which would mean talking and acting like a liberal.
Rejecting the Association Agreement makes Yanukovych unelectable on any legitimate basis, but leaves the door open to fraud and coercion, which appeals to his authoritarian impulse. Integrating with Europe would also mean living up to Western judicial standards and releasing Tymoshenko from prison. That was a deal-breaker both because rule of law is anathema to him and because it would have meant losing face by caving in to a woman.
Given the principles that underlie Yanukovych’s behavior, the country’s immiseration, underdevelopment, and instability are actually good things for him. After all, the weaker and more isolated the country is from the Western world’s inconvenient standards, the easier it is to control politically and exploit economically.
The only silver lining in this cloud is that these same principles will also militate against Yanukovych’s joining Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist pet project, the Customs Union made up of such, er, thriving market economies as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Joining the CU would bring Yanukovych and his corrupt operations within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and undermine his power and wealth.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Like all tin-pot authoritarians, Yanukovych thought he could pull a fast one on the people. He was wrong. On Sunday, November 24th, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in protest against the regime’s anti-European moves. The opposition called for the government’s resignation and Yanukovych’s impeachment. They may or may not succeed this time, but one thing is clear, and Yanukovych must know it. Sooner or later, his regime will come crashing down.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP- Russia's President V. Putin & Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych