By Ria Novosti
By Volodymyr Skachko
The Tuesday meetings between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, in Donetsk and between their prime ministers, Vladimir Putin and Mykola Azarov, in St. Petersburg, as well as the EU’s decision to withdraw its invitation to Yanukovych to visit Brussels, have created a political and economic situation that is completely new to Ukraine.
Not entirely unexpected
Integration with Western Europe, which Ukrainian authorities see as a political priority, has again come to a standstill. On Monday, Yanukovych told Western media that the signing of the free trade and political association agreement with the European Union could be postponed. “If the EU is not ready for one reason or another, or Ukraine is not ready, the decision can be made not now but later, when we are ready,” The New York Times quoted the Ukrainian president.
In the past, when Ukraine felt offended by the West, it rushed to embrace its eastern neighbor, Russia. But not this time.
Ukraine has a standing invitation to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Yanukovych said after his Tuesday meeting with Medvedev that Kiev needs to weigh all the pros and cons. He said Ukraine would like to see the initial results achieved by the Customs Union and assess the effect of Russia’s possible accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on this union.
Experts monitoring Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West were not surprised by the interruption in progress – they expected it. Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov raised this possibility in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse a week ago. “Soon we will have to consider how we will move forward,” he said. “Negotiations can last a long time, and no one can say when they will end. But if Ukraine is not offered a European future, we will have to question why we should sign a political association agreement.”
Integration without full membership
Brussels has been clear with Kiev from the start that the Association Agreement is, first, a comprehensive document that will not be split into political and economic parts to be signed separately, and second, it cannot contain even the slightest hint of a guarantee of EU membership for Ukraine.
So, what happened on Tuesday was inevitable. Kiev and Brussels both used the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko as an excuse to slow integration. The EU said through its member states’ prime ministers that the signing of the Association Agreement depends on the liberation of the former prime minister, who has been sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from holding government office for three years after her prison term. The EU has also accused Ukraine of the “selective use of justice” for political purposes.
Yanukovych rejected the accusation and said he would not influence the judges or his supporters in parliament to change the Criminal Code article used to convict Tymoshenko. “Criminal cases against Tymoshenko should be separated from Ukraine’s integration to the EU,” Bloomberg quoted the Ukrainian president. “What signal will we give to society? That you should be a member of the opposition to be able to commit crimes [with impunity]?”
Even if the Association Agreement were signed ahead of schedule, it would not guarantee Ukraine’s accession to the EU, the fulfillment of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, or relaxed visa requirements for Ukrainians visiting the Schengen Area.
First, there is no provision stipulating this, and second, even if the sides sign the agreement, it will come into force only upon ratification by the parliaments of all 27 EU member countries. The process could be extended indefinitely, with new requirements saddled on Ukraine. Simultaneous ratification is almost impossible, because of the pace of democracy in Europe.
Ukraine could agree to sign the Association Agreement because it offers considerable benefits, even without the right of membership. However, such affiliation is part of the European policy of encouraging more post-Soviet countries to break with Russia. The same offer has been made to Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
You can’t be slightly pregnant or expect parallel lines to cross, and so Ukraine faces a choice between the EU and integration with Russia. There is no third way, and yet the EU and the above-mentioned post-Soviet states continue searching in vain for the point where parallel lines cross. These countries want full EU membership – at least Ukraine does – but the EU is not eager to grant it or has no time to even consider the matter since the start of the global financial and economic crisis.
Integration without gas
Ukraine only wants one thing from the east, or more specifically, Russia – cheap gas. So far it has not received it, although there has been some positive change recently.
During their meeting in Donetsk, Yanukovych and Medvedev said Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko had been instructed to seek out new forms of mutually beneficial cooperation in the gas sphere. The same day, the majority of the CIS heads of government signed the CIS Free Trade Zone Treaty at their meeting in St. Petersburg.
Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are taking until the end of the year to consider signing the agreement, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.
The document provides for lifting import and export duties on a number of commodities, with certain exemptions. “We regard these exemptions as temporary. They will eventually have to go,” Putin said, adding that this agreement does not contradict the WTO requirements, which is a matter of special concern for the CIS countries that are WTO members.
Prime Minister Azarov, who signed the agreement on behalf of Ukraine, said at a meeting with Putin: “I hope that the treaty will go into effect in January of next year.”
It is yet unclear if Russian energy resources have been listed as exemptions and so Ukraine does not know what the CIS Free Trade Zone Treaty will offer it – a real hope for lower gas prices or just another political and economic promise similar to the Association Agreement with the EU.
What impact have the October 18 events had on Ukraine?
First, Yanukovych’s firm stance on the Tymoshenko’s verdict is very important for the domestic political situation in Ukraine. The president has shown himself willing to defend the honor and dignity of his country and to resist any pressure, no matter where it comes from, that could harm Ukraine’s national interests. By standing up to the challenge, Yanukovych now has a chance to rally the nation around him.
Second, by imprisoning Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian authorities have removed a major political rival. Yanukovych had reason to fear Tymoshenko, who was the only charismatic opposition leader who could rally voters angry with the current government over the deteriorating socioeconomic situation in the country. Now the former prime minister will be unable to run in next year’s parliamentary elections.
Third, the authorities can relax and take time to analyze both integration options in order to determine which would yield the most benefit. The CIS and EU free trade agreements stipulate certain limits on sovereignty and the enforcement of common rules, which does not suit Ukraine. It favors a multi-pronged policy that allows it to maneuver between two or three centers of power with a view to gaining political and economic benefits from all of them.
So far, eastern integration has offered more concrete benefits in the form of planned projects. Putin and Azarov agreed at their meeting in St. Petersburg to discuss the possibility of making payments under bilateral contracts in Russian rubles.
They also discussed in detail – at extended meetings and one-on-one – cooperation in the energy, aerospace, and financial industries. Furthermore, Russian-Ukrainian trade is expected to exceed $50 billion this year.
The EU, Ukraine’s second largest trade partner, has not even proposed holding such talks, because it does not need an industrialized Ukraine.
(Volodymyr Skachko is editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian newspaper Kievsky Telegraf)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.