New heights of geopolitical struggle between European Union and Russia are being speculated upon lately. The reason is Ukraine gearing up for the signing of the association agreement with the EU. Analysis of internal processes and external pressure draws a complicated picture. Official Kiev faces a difficult decision, with no light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, experts predict Ukraine to become a signatory to association agreement under any circumstances.
Moscow-Kiev: trade war exacerbating?
Adoption of a document envisaging Ukraine association membership with the EU had resonated throughout the geopolitical environment. Moscow was the most aggrieved party, as Kremlin issued several warnings to Kiev. President Putin spoke of losses to be sustained by Ukraine. In his widely publicized interviews with the Ukraine’s news agencies, he reiterated that it could provoke impediments for bilateral economic relations.
It was explained by the fact that Ukraine-made products would struggle on the domestic market in the wake of signing of the respective document. That in turn, will lead to the influx of Ukrainian products on the Russian market. Since there are differences in the tariff system of EU and the Customs Union, it would cause economic constraints for the Customs Union member states. Therefore, Kiev should carefully evaluate the association membership (See: Татьяна Ивженко. Виктор Янукович желает занять два стула (Yanukovich wishes to sit on two chairs) / ”Независимая газета”, 5 September, 2013).
Fierce debate broke out between politicians during the annual “Yalta European Strategy” forum. Attendees that included Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich, European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle and S. Glazyev, Assistant to President Putin had explicitly voiced their arguments. Glazyev warned that Ukraine may lose its status of Russia’s strategic partner (See: Татьяна Ивженко. Евроинтеграция Украины может быть сорвана (Ukraine’s Euro-integration may be undermined) / ”Независимая газета”, 23 September 2013).
Association agreement implies adoption of a different geopolitical course, and in that case Moscow may invalidate existing trade-economic agreements with Ukraine. Russia’s representative had also articulated before the audience of the event the approximate extent of damage to be sustained by Ukraine. According to him, Kiev’s association membership will cost the country some 35 billion USD while European Union’s ability to compensate Ukraine’s losses is questionable (See: previous article).
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov assured the audience that Glazyev’s arguments were unfounded. He insisted that situation resembled the times when Ukraine was set to become the member of the World Trade Organization in 2008. The experience shows that the country suffered no losses. Russia economy was also not impacted by that issue. Ukrainian businessmen believe that association membership to the EU is unlikely to cause significant economic problems, although cardinal changes to the economic-trade system will have to be made (See: previous article). This is the most intriguing aspect of the issue.
Yanukovich at the crossroads: West or East?
President Yanukovich’s remarks at the event were mostly dedicated to reforms to be conducted in the economic system, and he did not rule out the challenges facing Ukraine along the way. However he did say that there was “no other way”, reiterating official Kiev’s determination to fully adopt a system conforming to the European standards. This was said to be the only framework, where on certain points Ukraine can collaborate with the Customs Union.
Position of the European Union and that of the Ukraine’s opposition with respect to the developing processes are quite notable. European politicians argue that even Russia, let alone Ukraine, stands to benefit from the association membership. Irrevocable loss of Ukraine is their ultimate fear. In August, Catherine Ashton, EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Commissioner explicitly stated: “We cannot lose Ukraine”.
European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Elmar Brok lamented: “Russia’s pressure on Ukraine is mounting to prevent the signing of the document” (See: Татьяна Ивженко. Брюссель берет Киев под защиту (Brussels assumes Kiev’s defense) / ”Независимая газета”, 28 August, 2013). The European politicians are expressing their weariness on the issue. They are convinced that in strategic terms, Kiev may play a critical role. This aspect, they believe has to occupy a prominent place in EU’s policy on Russia. Ukraine’s opposition is generally supportive of the association membership, with the exception of Communists that advocate the Customs Union.
Ukrainian experts agree that European integration will be advantageous in terms of overall country development, although some of them highlight the expediency of having strategic relations with Russia. Apparently, public opinion is largely in favor of expansion of Cooperation with the West. The need to make a choice underlies President Yanukovich’s remarks suggesting holding of a referendum to decide on membership either to the EU or the Customs Union.
Moscow believes that Ukraine’s President is unequivocal about his EU aspiration, hence the dilemma. Speculations were that on the sidelines of the Yalta forum, Russia deliberately blew Timoshenko’s case out of proportions. Director of the Institute for Ukrainian Politics Konstantin Bondarenko and economist Boris Kushniruk had some fascinating thoughts about it (See: Татьяна Ивженко. Евроинтеграция Украины может быть сорвана (Ukraine’s Euro-integration may be undermined) / ”Независимая газета”, 23 September 2013). Interestingly, Elmar Brok who spoke on behalf of the European Parliament, said: “If Cox-Kwasniewski cannot produce a positive report (on Timoshenko’s case) then we have a problem” (See: previous article). These developments are indicative of fierce battle around Ukraine’s geopolitical choice. It is thought-provoking both in light of domestic political sensitivities and fighting for clout between Russia and the West.
Official Kiev has no intention of pardoning Y. Timoshenko. Yanukovich rejects all EU proposition concerning her release and medical treatment. According to experts, Ukraine’s President does not wish to confront Timoshenko in the next presidential elections scheduled for 2015; a condition demanded by currently jailed Timoshenko. All criminal charges against her would have to be dropped. Such a case settlement runs counter to the position of the Ukraine’s leadership.
Can such a situation preclude Ukraine’s association membership to the EU in November? Hypothetically, yes. Renowned boxer and an opposition figure Vitaly Klitschko asked Yanukovich a question: “Are you ready to step down, if EU association agreement were not to be signed?” His vague response was: “Life does not end there” (See: previous article). Apparently, the problem remains a source of tension on the country’s political scene. The geopolitical force pulling the strings is another story.
Choice between the European Union and the Customs Union is not just a matter of Ukraine’s fate. It is Europe’s and Russia’s influence that is at stake. It is by identifying its geopolitical course that Kiev is capable of tipping the balance of power. That is an aspect that not only instills fear in Moscow and Brussels but also provokes extreme positions.