February 13, 2010
I observed one week of post-election commentaries (some more sources here): this is my short ‘net take’.
But before attempting to answer this question, let’s get rid of one frequent misconception in Western reporting: that the Presidential elections was a choice between Russia and Europe.
Here is a clear quote from an interview by www.EurActiv.sk of Dr Copsey, an academic focusing on EU neighbourhood policy: “It is misleading to say there is any ‘pro-Russian candidate’, therefore the victory of Yanukovich cannot in any way damage the Ukrainian EU membership prospects.”
I would venture this analogy: castigating Russian-speaking Ukrainians as pro-Russian would be like accusing francophone Belgians to follow a Paris line. Or – more controversial here – the Irish to be really British. Cultural affinity does not mean political allegiance.
In former times, Yugoslavia also showed the importance of playing both Western and Eastern cards. Until the EU makes a firm commitment, it would not be in Ukraine’s interest to play differently its relatively weak hand.
Anyway, ‘economic interests’ in Eastern and Southern Ukraine behind Yanukovich probably fear the Kremlin more than any Kyiv government. And certainly more than soft legislation creeping in from Europe. Why? Because they watch Ostankino, the Russian TV. They know that in the ad hoc Russian coalitions between oligarchs and siloviki (men of power, ex KGB included), it is the latter who have the upper hand. Not only for Khodorkovsky (ex Yukos) and the likes.
Even among business leaders who ‘stay put’, things are getting tougher: Russian oligarch Potanin was publicly forced by Putin to change industrial decisions. I’m not privy to any statistics, but I bet the number of exile oligarchs from Russia in London and Cyprus alone greatly exceeds the number of super-rich Ukrainians who fled their country. For different reasons, democracy based on free press and free elections is better for all, poor and rich.
Now, moving to Ukraine’s preparation for Europe, let’s be honest: for all the congratulations messages and re-positioning, still, the election results were disappointing. Most people in the West (of Europe, not only Ukraine) would have preferred the weaknesses they know, with Timoshenko, than those they don’t, with Yanukovitch (tried as Prime Minister, but then under President Yushenko control, still re-assuring at the time)
The interview mentioned above goes on: addressing what Europe did (little) and could do (much more, even short of enlargement): “But we could have been more generous towards the Ukrainian people, we could have provided more scholarships for Ukrainians to come and study in the West, we could have provided more favourable conditions for Ukrainians to travel to the EU, we could have provided more visas, but we didn’t do any of that.”
Indeed, current UK Ambassador to Ukraine, Turner, writes on his official blog:
“Why the election strengthens Ukraine’s EU case”
I would even broaden the point, with two arguments:
1) The very fact that Yanukovitch is more Russia-leaning than Timoshenko means a) he needs to be offered something concrete to remain balanced b) he would be more trusted by Eastern and Southern Ukrainians to answer such European ouvertures.
For example, the European Parliament monitoring delegation went much further than the OSCE election watch: It says
2) Europe has a geopolitical interest that Ukrainians, Turks and even Russians come and experience for themselves our societies. This creates expectations for good governance that are more powerful than any diplomatic negotiations, or Council of Europe resolutions. That speaks for lifting the visa requirements (not the same as free movement of labour).
I have tried to address this challenge already last Summer, with my questions here. In this interview, the current acting Vice prime Minister, Nemyrov, indicated Ukraine’s ‘realistic path to European integration’.
Will Yanukovich apply for EU membership? Here press report differ widely: some say he is in favour ‘like Timoshenko’, some interpret him as opposed. Here is an extract from the Kiev Post, normally well informed:
Yanukovych has said he will sign a previously negotiated association agreement with Europe, lowering trade barriers and paving the way for a visa-free travel regime. But he has said that Ukraine is not ready for EU membership and will not actively seek to join the bloc.”
In fact, one should distinguish between electoral promises (Timoshenko’s talk of five year to membership), and realistic expectations, testing the waters informally on preparedness.
So, I cannot answer my own question above yet. We will go back to this issue when a new government is formed. If it includes parts of the Julia Timoshenko Block (and it’s difficult otherwise), this would be an easy ‘negotiation give-in’. My early intuition is that any Ukrainian government will try to prepare Ukraine for European economic integration, and people if not labour movement. First by finalizing, signing and hopefully implementing an association agreement in the next year or so. This includes a major part of acquis communautaire, and changes in society, which would be a great step forward in any case. Then by negotiating visa facilitation or visa lifting, ideally before the 2012 football championship.
But I would also reverse return the question: will Europe prepare for Ukraine? And for Turkey? That requires even greater re-thinking and political will:
Georgi Gotev says the same in more blunt terms.
This debate is still very open, to be continued… Perhaps YOU have a view, a reaction below?