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Ukraine After Vilnius

The country has stepped away from history’s threshold into stalemate.

by Peter Rutland 11 December 2013

In recent months observers waited with much anticipation for the 28 November Vilnius summit, at which Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were to sign associate member agreements with the European Union. The event was billed as a momentous occasion in European history – the point at which the legacy of a Europe divided, dating back to the 1945 Yalta accords, would finally be overcome.


The Vilnius summit was also seen as vindication for the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, an initiative launched in 2009 to reach out to Eastern neighbors who, it seemed clear, would not be offered full membership anytime soon.


Left to right, Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, Leonid Kravchuk, and Leonid Kuchma meet to discuss the crisis on 9 December. Photo from the Ukrainian president's website.


Those heady expectations were abruptly deflated on 22 November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that he would not, after all, be signing the association agreement, or a related free-trade agreement.


Two factors stood in the way. First, the Europeans were insisting on the release from prison of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, something Yanukovych was loath to do lest she become the standard-bearer for the political opposition. Second, Ukraine had been put under extreme economic pressure by Russia – from tighter controls on border trade to threats to maintain punitively high gas prices – to reject the EU deal. Yanukovych was asking the EU and IMF for financial assistance to cover these losses, on the order of $5 billion to $7 billion for this year alone.


It is not clear whether Yanukovych ever seriously intended to sign the agreement, or if the whole process was just a prelude to a shakedown of the EU and/or Russia for economic concessions.


In the wake of the botched summit, critics began asking why the EU was rushing to sign up a country like Ukraine, whose democratic credentials clearly fall far short of what is required and whose leader cannot be trusted to follow through on his commitments.


The failure of Vilnius exposes a deeper paradox in the EU policy-making process. Since its inception, the EU strategy has been to knit together the countries of the continent through economic integration, creating a thousand economic and cultural ties, and harmonizing laws. At the same time, this essentially apolitical process needs some grand gestures, pivotal moments at which the countries involved politically commit to the integration. As we saw in the failed referendums over the new EU constitution in 2005, when Brussels seeks political sanction for European integration, the process can backfire.


A similar process unfolded in Vilnius. Intense back-door negotiations had taken place since Yanukovych provisionally committed to the association agreement in March 2012: he had met no fewer than 18 times with the lead negotiators, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament President Pat Cox. However, the Ukrainian public remained divided over the issue, and the EU would not or could not make the only obvious counter-move to Vladimir Putin’s strong-arm tactics to derail the accord, namely offering Ukraine more money.


Notwithstanding the protests in Kyiv, sentiment about closer ties with the EU or Russia in the rest of the country has been hard to gauge. Poll results seem sensitive to how the question is framed. According to a November poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 31 percent favored EU membership even assuming that Russia closed its borders to Ukraine, compared with 40.5 percent who thought it better to keep open borders with their neighbor at the expense of EU integration.


On the other hand a GfK poll, also in November, found that while 47 percent favored the EU treaty, only 14 percent favored the Customs Union. And in a May poll by the Razumkov Center, 41.7 percent of respondents favored accession to the EU, compared with 31 percent who wanted the country to join the Russia-led Customs Union.




Ukraine is blessed with a political system considerably more open and pluralistic than that of Russia. But that is also a curse. For the price Ukraine is paying for that pluralism is chronic instability and poor governance.


Unlike Russia, the Ukrainian state is not strong enough to decisively suppress political dissent. In 2004, ordinary Ukrainians were able to take to the streets and overturn the results of a rigged election – something that has never happened in Russia.


However, one election does not a democracy make. The subsequent record of the post-Orange government, under President Viktor Yushchenko, showed that the pro-Western political leaders were just as prone to cronyism and factionalism as their pro-Russian adversaries. The election of Yanukovych to the presidency in 2010, in a fairly free election, was a blow to the hopes for reform in Ukraine.

However, Yanukovych has proved to be just as inept in government as his predecessors, and he has singularly failed to pull the country out of its economic stagnation. This led reformers to hope that Yanukovych might be willing to throw in his lot with the European Union, since this seemed to be the only strategy that could ensure his re-election in 2015. 

Also, in the run-up to Vilnius some argued that Ukraine’s oligarchs were strong supporters of the agreement, since in the long term they would profit greatly from selling Ukraine’s steel, coal, and food products into European markets. Even if that were true, in this case the decision to sign or walk away was up to Yanukovych himself.


Out of disappointment and frustration with these dashed hopes, protesters took to the streets of Kyiv and other cities on 22 November, following the Yanukovych announcement. On 30 November, riot police ejected 300 demonstrators camped out on Independence Square. The next day up to 350,000 people flooded the streets protesting the police violence, and Yanukovych backed off from a hard-line solution, at least for the time being. In a striking display of unity, on 6 December the three former presidents of Ukraine – Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko – signed a letter supporting the EU accord, condemning the use of force against protesters, and urging Yanukovych to start a round-table dialog with the opposition.


Street protests are a hallowed tradition in contemporary Ukraine. Even before the Orange Revolution, back in October 1990 students erected a tent city in what is now Independence Square and declared a hunger strike, calling for the resignation of the government, an end to military service outside Ukraine, and opposition to the new union treaty being negotiated in Moscow. Their actions set the stage for Ukraine’s dramatic declaration of independence in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup, a step that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.


Now, however, it is harder to see a scenario where the protesters triumph. Ukraine faces a stalemate. The demonstrators occupy some streets and a couple of public buildings, while the government soldiers on, surviving a vote of confidence in parliament on 3 December. Even if the protests force the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, it is unlikely that the Yanukovych administration will do yet another about-face and try to restart negotiations with Brussels.


In Western capitals, geopolitical analysts are wringing their hands and complaining that the EU and United States have been outmaneuvered by Putin. Senator Chris Murphy, chairman of the European Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said bluntly on 2 December that “Being in Russia's back yard, the future of Ukraine will matter more to Russians than Americans. Clearly the Russians have more at stake here.”


The protesters have succeeded, however, in exposing the political vulnerability of the Yanukovych regime. Economic prognoses for Ukraine over the next year or two are grim, and now Yanukovych – and Putin – will be the ones held responsible. Only by tightening still further the restrictions on opposition politicians will Yanukovych stand a chance of winning reelection in 2015.

Peter Rutland is a professor at Wesleyan University. He is also editor in chief of Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity.

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