Ukraine Moves Closer to Europe

Ukraine Moves Closer to Europe

In spite of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s warnings to Ukraine that he will take “protective measures” if the country signs a trade pact with the EU, Ukraine seems to be taking the Western route. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has re-affirmed his commitment to signing trade and other political association agreements during an EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, slated for November.

It is no secret that the EU and Ukraine have been on a rocky path recently concerning human rights and rule of law issues, and the EU’s offer to formalize any agreement is contingent on Ukraine’s progress in this regard in the coming months. The major sticking point is former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in jail since 2011 in what her supporters say are trumped-up political charges. The Europeans have made it clear that to secure the trade pact, Yanukovich must soften his stance on his former rival and give in to increasingly louder calls to transfer Tymoshenko to Germany for medical treatment.

In addition to closer political ties that could form during November’s summit, a formal trade agreement with the EU would open up a huge export market for Ukraine and could significantly boost the country’s economy. The EU is Ukraine’s largest export market, but Russia comes second, and this is why Putin is threatening Ukraine with so-called “protective measures” if Ukraine follows the EU path.

Putin wants Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union, a free trade agreement among Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. A strong, multinational Customs Union is one of Putin’s stated foreign policy goals, and many outside observers view the Customs Union as an effort to “re-Sovietize” the region. Putin is no stranger to economic bullying of his neighbors to achieve his policy agenda, which is why Russia recently introduced strict customs checks on Ukrainian exports. It was an attempt to show Ukraine that it needs the Russian market.

But Yanukovich does not seem too worried. Perhaps Ukraine is paying attention to Kazakhstan’s membership in the Customs Union. Kazakhstan’s terms of trade have been on a downward trend since the Union’s formation. It is even more telling that Kazakhstan’s president was an early supporter of the concept of an integrated Eurasian economic sphere.

If one of the Customs Union’s founding members cannot benefit economically from integration with Russia, then why should Ukraine fare any better? Ukrainian businessmen, just like some Kazakhstani businesses, are concerned taking notice of how their industries are faring alongside their Russian counterparts.

Moreover, the pro-Russia lobby in Ukraine has become noticeably weaker since the beginning of Yanukovich’s presidency. Many of Ukraine’s top businessmen – involved in energy and agriculture – are closely tied to Russian industry. Because Ukrainian-Russian business ties are so tight, it will prove more difficult for Russia to isolate Ukrainian industries in any trade disputes, even if Ukraine does actually shun the Customs Union in favor of a free trade agreement with the EU. However, as Ukraine works to appeal to Europe, Russia may start relying more heavily on Ukrainian Eurosceptics to maintain political influence.

It remains to be seen how long Yanukovich will stay on this pro-EU path and keep his declaratory policy to make concrete steps towards further integration with the West. The country itself remains fairly evenly divided between pro-Russia and pro-Western factions. Moreover, Ukraine’s foreign policy decisions rest heavily on who is in power, and so the winner of the 2015 presidential elections will also determine Ukraine’s future path.

For the time being, it is telling that during Ukraine’s Independence Day holiday (celebrated on 24 August), Yanukovich publicly affirmed his country’s independence by choosing a future path with the EU rather than turning back towards Russia. How he deals politically with the Europeans regarding Tymoshenko and other sticky human rights issues leading up to November’s summit will be even more telling.


Categories: Europe, Politics

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