While global issues, chiefly the economy and innovation, were the focus of Day One of the Yalta European Strategy conference Yalta European Strategy conference, the conversation on Day Two centered more around the host country, Ukraine. The country’s Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, began in the morning by detailing Ukraine’s challenges. Food and energy security remain central concerns for him, while he also admitted he was not satisfied with the results of measures to tackle corruption. If Ukraine is to meet these challenges it needs a committed partner. The good news is it has two suitors: the EU to the west and the Russian-led Customs Union to the east. The less good news is that both come with baggage.
Let’s start with the EU, whose future was the topic of the first of the day’s sessions. All four panelists provided examples of Europe’s ‘baggage’, to differing degrees. Former UK leader Gordon Brown was the least scathing of the four. For him, an economist, the problem is economic and stems from a lack of fiscal union and the disparity in wealth between it’s richest and poorest members. Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s negotiator with Brussels, illustrated his country’s frustrated EU membership ambitions by comparing the Union to an overweight dietician; he says it has helped Turkey by urging reforms even if, itself, it has failed to follow its own advice. Then Mani Shankar Aiyar, a member of the Indian Upper House of parliament and former diplomat, described Europe as “a figment of the imagination…a geographical abstraction” that needs to give up its “quest for world dominance.” He backed up his criticism of the old colonial powers with a joke about the old saying that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, not because it was so vast but, he said, “because not even God trusts the British in the dark.”
The fourth speaker, Scottish Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, quickly criticised Aiyar’s anti-colonial rhetoric as outdated but provided a metaphor of his own: the EU is a game of jenga, in which players take it in turn to remove blocks from a tower without causing it to collapse. Each time there is a national election in Europe, he explained, it is like removing a block and being one step closer to bringing the whole thing crashing down.
All four agreed that Europe needs to stop looking inwards and instead expand, take on new members. For Aiyar, it should reach out and be more friendly to countries in Eurasia. “All You Need is Love”, he suggested.
So that’s the EU. But Russia is no perfect partner either as the following session on Energy made clear. Ukraine pays more than anyone else for Russian gas, on which it depends. When Russian Deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich was asked why this was, he gave a master class in dodging the question. Something about European hypocrisy in demanding a special partnership discount, while at the same time insisting Russia obeys market forces.
Session Three, ‘Ukraine: east or west’ got straight to the point. The conference’s moderator Chrystia Freeland summed up the argument of guest Kairat Kelimbetov thus: “the Custom Union loves Ukraine more than Europe does.” Andrei Kostin, chairman of Russia’s VTB bank chipped in with a comment that Europe offers love to Ukraine with strings attached, whereas Russia’s love would be unconditional. With the tears welling in my eyes I didn’t even notice who said it, but the phrase “All You Need is Love” was definitely repeated by someone on the panel.
Then came lunch, which had a Russian theme and was delicious. It got me thinking that if the way to Ukraine’s heart is through its stomach, all the love-torn country has to do is choose between the gastronomical sophistication of the French combined with Italian culinary simplicity, German bratwurst and English fish and chips on the one hand and caviar and Russian salad on the other. If it was up to me I’d walk down the aisle with China.
The feel good factor continued during the interval with an unexpected performance by the Buranovskiya Babushki, the elderly ladies who represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest back in May. Not quite the Beatles but it brought a smile to most faces all the same.
After lunch the love-fest came to an abrupt end and tension fell on the proceedings with a session about Ukraine and the Tymoshenko case. While I had been looking forward to it I was left disappointed. Perhaps, after the emotions of the morning, I expected someone to announce Tymoshenko had been released and pardoned. Nope. In fact the session was almost farcical. Supporters of the jailed former Ukrainian prime minister railed loudly that the trial was unfair and political. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister and its Chief Prosecutor gave lengthy but completely irrelevant answers seemingly designed to play for time until 17:00 when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was scheduled to give a live link-up by satellite. Barroso spoke again about the need for a “coordinated and cooperative approach” on just about every issue. I’m starting to think he gets paid a bonus for saying those words given the frequency with which he uses them. I suppose he’s right but it’s hardly the best chat-up line around. The battle for Ukraine’s heart goes on….
MarK Davis, @mlad_euronews.