With a key trade deal put on ice, Ukrainian supporters of integration with the European Union have been furious since Thursday. The last time Kyiv saw crowds of protesters on this scale was in the 2004 Orange Revolution – which brought pro-Europeans to power after voters had contested election results.
Ukraine looks both West and East, geographically and culturally – towards Europe and towards Russia. It set out on an EU road ten years ago. The second president of the country that had gained its independence from the defunct old Soviet Union in 1991, Leonid Kouchma had got the ball rolling. Russia then was already pushing for a common economic space, called the Eurasian Customs Union, comprising it, Belarus and Kazakhstan – with Ukraine.
The Orange development saw Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko turn the tiller the other way – openly calling ‘Westward ho!’ Their time in government was characterised by strong tension with Russia. But political bedfellows Tymoshenko and Yuschenko bickered between themselves so much they couldn’t hold on to power.
Their pro-Russian enemy made a come-back, yet Viktor Yanukovic kept his options open, he didn’t burn the bridges built up with Brussels along the way – though doubts persist over the sincerity of his commitment.
Kyiv soon saw it couldn’t have its bread buttered on both sides, and it became clear how sore Russia was prepared to get if Ukraine dumped it. Yanukovic met secretly with President Vladimir Putin in the days just before the Ukraine-EU association deal was scheduled to be signed.
Putin had made plain that Kyiv could expect economic reprisals if the signing went ahead.
Former president Yuschenko and other critics of the Eurasian Customs Union warned that Moscow’s sole aim with it was to appropriate sovereignty and “destroy competitive industries in the neighbourhood” – not qualifying as a partnership.
Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan intend to form a Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, on the basis of the Customs Union.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suggests that a vision of short-term simplistic pragmatism carries the most weight: “What would compensate our huge losses if we closed ourselves off from the [Eurasian] Custom Union Market?” he asks in parliament. “I ask you, what? Unfortunately we haven’t got any realistic answers to that question.”
Yuschenko – out of power – still voices a different question: “Ukraine is the biggest European state by territory, with opportunities in trade, energy and agriculture. How can its importance to Europe be discounted?”
Euronews sought comment on the source of Ukrainians’ anger from Kataryna Wolczuk, Deputy Director of the centre for Russian and East European studies at the University of Birmingham.
Maria Ieshchenko, euronews: “Ukraine has suspended preparations of the Association Agreement with the European Union.What message is the government sending with its decision?”
Kataryna Wolczuk, University of Birmingham: “The Ukrainian government is sending the message that the benefits of integration with the EU have not been so clear, and have not been clearly communicated to the people of Ukraine. And it is partly surprising, because the negotiations have lasted many years, but they were very, rather technocratic, it was sort of intergovernmental – lots of Ukraine officials and experts involved, but not really the people.”
euronews: “Does it necessarily mean that Ukraine intends to strengthen ties with Russia?”
Wolczuk: “Not necessarily. Russian is investing in its own regional integration regime called the Eurasian Economic Union, which is supposed to be created by 2015, and Russia has been working very hard on making it happen. Having said that, Ukraine has resisted so far and – even when suspending the signing of the Association Agreement – has said it was not about joining the Eurasian Economic Union. And Russia has been conducting, over the last two years, a strong campaign against the Association Agreement, calling it suicidal for Ukraine, [saying] Ukraine would be signing up to all sorts of things that the EU decides, without having much say, and in terms of short-term costs, they would be very high. And Russia not only offered, for example discount gas prices, but also threatened punishment, to apply punitive measures against Ukraine.”
euronews: “How would you qualify the mass pro-EU rallies in Ukraine in defence of the Association Agreement?”
Wolczuk: “The protests are very symbolic. We are talking about nine years after the Orange revolution. It is the culprit of the Orange Revolution who is now the president of Ukraine. And people over the last three years have become very disillusioned with the way Ukraine has been going. It’s enough to talk to people on the streets to see this palpable sense of frustration. And the decision to suspend the signing of the Association Agreement has really exemplified – for the people of Ukraine – sort of the dashed hope that Ukraine could become a normal European country.”
euronews: “Without the Association Agreement with Ukraine, can the Eastern Partnership still fulfil its purpose or will it be significantly downgraded?”
Wolczuk: “I don’t think it can be downgraded. If anything, the EU needs to make sure that the two countries which are, as of today, the most likely to sign the Association Agreement, Moldova and Georgia… that the benefits for them integrating with Europe are immediate and much more visible.”
euronews: “The Association Agreement with Ukraine could have become one of the key achievements of the upcoming summit in Vilnius. What should we expect from this event now?”
Wolczuk: “It is very difficult to tell as of today what Ukraine is going to do. We are seeing that Ukrainian President Yanukovich has been conspicuously silent about his position on the Association Agreement. It was the prime minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, who announced that the preparations are abandoned. To what extend Ukraine is prepared to make another u-turn, and how would it be seen in the EU itself… I think Ukraine has lost a lot of credibility. It is very difficult to predict. So the Vilnius summit, the preparations of the Vilnius summit are going to keep all of us in suspense.”