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Two Decades Of Ukrainian Sovereignty: Awakening From Illusions – Analysis


By Anatoly Oryol and Oleg Gritsayenko

August 24, 2011 marks two decades since Ukraine’s parliament adopted the Declaration of Independence. But instead of looking back on Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, let’s look ahead to see what lies in store for the country.

In the early 1990s, it was essential that Ukraine moved away from its Soviet legacy, positioning itself as a European state. It then seemed that membership of prestigious European and trans-Atlantic alliances would be the best course of action to effect this transformation. But with little experience in state governance, Ukraine struggled to translate its drastic reform plans into reality. And those elitist Western clubs had no real interest in taking the transitional state on board.



After the Eastern bloc collapsed, the Western powers agreed they would offer integration opportunities only to nations that had not been part of the Soviet Union pre-WWII. The West had a sense of guilt over abandoning these countries, consigning them to a future behind the Iron Curtain, by signing the Yalta and Potsdam Accords.

In January 2005, right after Viktor Yushchenko’s victory in a presidential runoff, the United States made an attempt to break that consensus by suggesting that Ukraine should be allowed to join NATO. But when it came to the possibility of the country’s accession to the European Union, the old unwritten rules remained in force.

Ukrainian diplomacy then found itself trapped. European rhetoric spoke of a policy of equal opportunities, pledging EU membership if Ukraine proceeded with market reform. But it has been a long while since the Ukrainians achieved the development level required of fellow Eastern European candidates. Even Kosovo is now seen in Brussels as a potential candidate for EU accession. Ukraine, meanwhile, is still regarded as an outsider.

Former President Leonid Kuchma made some attempts to break this vicious circle during his second term in office. He agreed to Ukraine’s participation in the common economic space with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But this move was made against an unfavorable backdrop of scandals over Kuchma’s alleged involvement in the murder of an investigative journalist and the sale of weapons to Iraq in violation of a UN Security Council resolution. So it was bound to produce only negligible effect.


Yushchenko’s advent into power essentially pushed the country back into the 1990s. But if, then, his pro-European policies would have been consistent with the emerging post-Soviet nation’s natural desire for a Western lifestyle, in the 2000s they proved damaging.

The pro-Western president’s decision to unilaterally scrap visa requirements for EU and G7 nationals in 2005 did Ukraine, and its national interests, more harm than good, as no concessions were offered in return.

Under Yushchenko, Kiev tended to go along with every single EU foreign policy statement, regardless of how its trade partners might view them. The result is clear for all to see. But the years of that pseudo-integration into Europe had a profound impact on Ukrainian society. It gave rise to a whole caste of politicians, experts, journalists, and political scientists for whom European integration is a fetish, an ideological axiom, and the sacred cow of their pseudo-religion.

Real politics

The essence of the constraints on Ukraine’s EU integration bid is quite simple. Here is how it was expressed by European Commission President Romano Prodi in early 2000: “Everything except for institutions.” As of today, there are three domains where Ukraine can closely cooperate with the European Union.

First, there is a political dimension, limited to Ukraine’s political association with the EU, much like the associations Eastern European nations had in the 1990s. Second, there is an economic dimension, limited to a free trade zone with compatible trade regulations. And, finally, there is a cultural and human dimension, limited to the abolition of visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals on short trips to the EU.

None of the above will get Ukraine into the EU. But this policy corresponds to the state of play both within Ukraine and in the EU, as well as to the latest trends on the European continent.

Yanukovych’s European pragmatism

President Viktor Yanukovych’s European policy is very pragmatic, concerned with action rather than status. Thanks to this approach, Ukraine is unlikely to be affected by the EU’s current political and financial crises.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian leader’s policy fits in well with the ongoing process of creating common political, economic, cultural and security zones with European nations east of the EU’s borders (notably with Russia, which has its own European integration strategy).

It is in this context that we should consider Kiev’s European and Russian policies toward building sort of a network of “common zones.” Ukraine may soon become the first European country to have free-trade zones both with the EU, Russia, and with CIS countries.

We should not overestimate the scale of Moscow-Kiev negotiations on the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in the Customs Union. In Kiev, these negotiations are pictured as a battle for Ukraine between leading world powers, a battle whose outcome will define paths for the human civilization’s future development. But the reality is that Ukraine’s immediate accession to the Customs Union, would, despite proven massive profits, lead to negotiations over the nearly ready treaty on a free-trade zone with the EU, currently in their final stages, grinding inevitably to a halt.

This would trigger a wave of anti-government criticism and accusations of betrayal of the European integration principle. The political risks are so high that they outweigh economic advantages. But Ukraine does not want to lose lucrative commercial opportunities, so it has developed the 3+1 formula for its interaction with the Customs Union.

Being patient

The battle for Ukraine in the field of national security may be less apparent to the casual observer, but it is no less fierce. Yanukovych’s non-aligned approach, consolidated in the Law on Interior and Foreign Policy, has proved too audacious. It shocked those who regard the non-aligned approach not as a vector of the country’s development in the decades to come, but as a forced, temporary concession to Russia. They believe that Ukraine can make a U-turn any minute, declaring this concession null and void and resuming preparations for NATO membership.

However, it would be naive to expect the trans-Atlantic bloc, weakened by the Afghanistan and the Libya wars, to give Ukrainian integration another try.

The world is so unpredictable though, that no scenario, even the least credible one, should be ignored. The most reliable safeguard for Ukraine’s non-aligned status would be the introduction of a constitutional provision to this effect. Especially since Ukraine’s intention to become a non-aligned state was proclaimed in the 1990 Declaration of National Sovereignty.

The declaration of Ukraine’s non-aligned course and the renunciation of its former course toward NATO membership became the foundation for its rapprochement with Russia in early 2010. This is all the more impressive if we recall that just two years previously, Ukrainian media seriously discussed scenarios for a military conflict with Russia, and the Russian president communicated with his Ukrainian opposite number via video blogs only.

Ukraine’s departure from its Cold War-style policy vis-a-vis Russia has provided both countries with an opportunity to address bilateral economic and trade issues. The sides are now attempting to resolve these issues through talks, but the negotiating process is slow going. Which is only natural. Russia and Ukraine need to be patient and press on, eventually, they will arrive at mutually acceptable solutions.


Twenty years after regaining its independence, Ukraine is arising from its long slumber and shaking off its age-old illusions. It is now trying to bring its foreign policy priorities into line – not with any particular ideology – but with real public needs and objective trends of global development.

Despite all the EU’s recent upheavals – new wars and the redistribution of spheres of influence on the continent seem unlikely. This means that Ukraine stands at least some chance of fitting in with the integration processes that are underway, albeit slowly, in Greater Europe. Moreover, it may also be able to speed them up a little.

Prepared by The Moscow News as part of the project “20 years Without the SovietUnion,” a collaboration between MN, RIA Novosti and the magazine Russia in Global Affairs

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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