As recently as a few months ago, the prospects for Ukraine’s European ambitions looked unpromising to say the least, but it seems a few months is a long time in geopolitics, and Russian pressure has decisively shifted the landscape, seemingly providing an engine and impetus on the EU and Ukrainian side to get the deal done. In attempting to satisfy the EU’s requirements for signing the Association Agreement, slated for November’s Eastern Partnership Summit, Ukraine’s parliament has been pushing through relevant legislation with impressive speed. The laws however are not short on Party of Regions-friendly appendages to keep the troops happy. The authorities are also employing the security service, the SBU, to harass the communists for their anti-EU advertisements. Ukraine’s brand of European integration is not exactly out of the textbook of Schuman or Adenauer.
Internal sabotage by pro-Moscow figures in Ukraine’s government has long been cited as one of the biggest single risks to Ukraine signing the agreement, so pushing through the necessary laws has required a high level of party discipline in the Party of Regions, exemplified in the recent defrocking of deputy Igor Markov, an individual with pro-Moscow sympathies who has even been described as a Ukrainophobe politician, after being found guilty of election irregularities. The removal of his mandate will have sent a very clear message to any other would be dissenters in the party, the point being that a) being out of the Verkhovna Rada deprives individuals of abundant opportunities for personal enrichment and a degree of personal protection b) voting irregularities of one sort or another could most likely be dredged up in a great many voting precincts in the country, giving the party considerable available leverage if needed.
It is this culture of rank and file discipline that has been key in allowing the Donbas clan to establish their power base in Ukraine thus far, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are able to turn the screw in this way, albeit in the name of an unlikely cause. Such methods understandably have their detractors, but one such detractor has been none other than the supposed red line in the EU-Ukraine deal, imprisoned former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who went as far as to describe Markov glowingly as “a new young, energetic, charismatic, ideological leader of the pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine”. If Brussels truly has decided to realpolitik with Ukraine, surely such a statement is somewhat unhelpful.
Tymoshenko’s and her party’s statements in support of Markov may actually reflect a fear that Tymoshenko’s makeweight status may be put aside in the context of the wider geopolitical interest (although Tymoshenko has previously urged the EU not to withhold signing the agreement on her account). Already, EU figures are talking of demanding ‘progress’ with the Tymoshenko situation, which may be Brussels giving itself some elbow room come November, and to paraphrase European Parliament member Hannes Swoboda, if Ukraine returns to the Russian sphere what leverage will the EU have to resolve Tymoshenko’s situation then? About as much as it has on Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky or Pussy Riot, to be frank. It also reminds us that parochialism is never far from the minds of Ukraine’s politicians, the whole reason Tymoshenko is behind bars in the first place.
As for Russia, the Association Agreement would be an unusual setback for a country currently emboldened on the world stage. Russia’s sway on Syria, the arrest of Greenpeace activists for ‘piracy’, persistence with homophobic laws against boycott threats for Sochi 2014, and military aggravation of the Baltic States, Finland and Sweden could all be seen as manifestations of Russian confidence. However, at the same time, Russia may overreach itself, and is prone to mistakes.
Medvedev stated Russia’s ‘all or nothing’ position on Ukraine’s integration with east and west (although Yanukovych’s suggested ‘3+1’ co-operation with the Customs Union always sounded like a ‘thanks but no thanks’). Perhaps Russia would have been better biding its time and letting Ukraine drift a little longer. Instead, Russia’s concerted pressure has very rapidly created an imperative for the EU and Ukraine to sign. In its customs blockades, it also managed to step on the toes of every major player in the Ukrainian oligarchy, uniting them like never before, and even the natural sympathy for Russia of the population in Eastern and Southern Ukraine has been significantly eroded. One leading commentator has gone as far was to describe their actions as ‘nation building’ for Ukraine. And Russia ought to be careful not to make things even worse for itself; threats last week to dismember Ukraine could conceivably reverse Ukraine’s decision to no longer pursue NATO membership.
Russia’s information war also looks increasingly ham-fisted. Russian presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev is clutching at non-existent straws by suggesting Ukrainian officials ‘don’t know what they’re signing because they can’t speak English’ and talking generally of Ukraine’s actions as ‘suicidal’. One should not underestimate Russia’s leverage however, even within the EU itself. The apparent reluctance of Slovakia to export gas to Ukraine to neuter the tried and tested gas cut off threat* may be such an example, and the Kremlin may still have other cards to play. One can’t rule at a last minute wet fish capitulation by the Ukrainians, but again Russia’s potential to offer any carrot is limited. When Yanukovych extended the Black Sea Fleet lease in early 2010 he was promised cheaper gas, but more than three years on it is clear to see that the Black Sea Fleet concession yielded nothing, and Russia in fact looks with disdain on such bargains with its near neighbours. Against such a background, why would Ukraine make a similar deal?
If the Association Agreement is signed and eventually takes Ukraine on a path to free trade and democracy, Yanukovych’s methods seem an odd way to get there, but a look at history shows that the EU is no stranger to pragmatism. Italy was included in the original 6 amid fears of the strength of the communists there, Spain and Portugal against a fear of democratic backsliding, Greece to prevent either the return of military rule or absorption into the Soviet bloc (and going on to effectively waste over 3 decades of membership), and the Baltic States despite reluctance in the early ‘90s in some quarters. If Ukraine not only signs the agreements, but is able to comply with its conditions, the ends may have more than justified the means.
* - it would be interesting to know whether Russia diversifying gas transit away from Ukraine and via the Nord Stream pipeline and Belarus (whose gas transit system was finally surrendered to Moscow) and lower transit volumes through Ukraine has inadvertently given Ukraine a freer hand in the technicalities of reversing the gas flow etc. Quite possibly it has.