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Ukraine’s choice: the arguments and what the EU can do now

Apologies that we have left the blog without new posts for quite a while. As a compensation, the last post on Russian pressure on Ukraine not to sign the Association agreement with the EU this month flagged developments which only got more dramatic in the meantime. It  is worth another post to recap the comments and arguments on what was behind President Yanukovich’s decision. Roughly two sets of arguments seem to highlight, on the one hand, the failure of the EU and  – much less frequently – the positive lessons of the Ukraine debacle.

Critical of the EU:  Andrew Rettman’s summary of what went wrong in the EU observer: the EU’s accession promise never came when Ukrainian pro-European politicians needed it, instead the EU kept playing its usual technocratic game and Russia marshalled its ‘hard’ (in Georgia and Ukraine through the gas delivery issue) power to get neighbourhood countries back in its sphere of influence. Ukrainian elites undoubtedly also to blame. EU member states, in the meantime, made it humiliatingly hard for Ukrainians to get EU visas, so people felt not welcome at a very basic level (this sounds familiar to anyone who has ever queued at an EU embassy). The Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog has another appalling visa story illustrating how EU member states are really sending the wrong signal. Most seem to agree that regardless of all else, President Yanukovich was playing the EU against Russia and vice-versa to get concessions from both sides (a majority of commentators among diplomats and the Lithuanian Presidency have confirmed that impression).

A lot more optimistic on the outcome for the EU: Techau in the StrategicEurope blog: Russian actions forced the EU to see that the ENP is a play for influence and not a technocratic exercise, the EU stood firm against Russian pressure, Germany took the lead on a difficult foreign policy issue, so all in all not such a bad outcome. Russia showed that the only way it can succeed in its neighbourhood is through blackmail and coercion and not attractiveness and its blackmail is not an EU foreign policy failure (I like that one).

Another set of commentators such as Gvosdev here claim that Yanukovich and the government simply were guarding Ukraine’s best trade interests by bowing to Russian blackmail.

In the absence of research on this,  all of the above sound plausible, a bit like ‘a-glass-half-full’ or ‘glass-half-empty’ perspectives. The people on my mind, however, are Ukrainian citizens who hoped getting closer to the EU would make their country more democratic. The people demonstrating, the #EuroMeidan movement are trying hard to gain support for a Ukraine committed to European values. They certainly cannot be blamed for anyone’s geopolitical failure, so I hope they succeed convincing their fellow citizens and government that a European, democratic Ukraine will have a better future than the next member of a Customs Union including Russia and Belarus. They hope the EU would support them. Considering a friendlier visa regime for Ukrainians would prove the EU is not about to punish Ukrainians for the decisions of their leaders as Polish MEP Saryusz-Wolski has urged. I doubt that it will happen, but it would be a move that could really make a difference.

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