Ukraine may be turning back towards the EU, but integration remains a distant prospect.
Posted by democratist on May 18, 2011
18th May 2011,
Democratist has spent the past couple of days in Odessa, where he met a new contact who seems to know everyone worth knowing there, and certainly talks a good game.
Our new friend informs us that the next 18 months are about to witness a significant and decisive shift in Ukrainian foreign policy.
Apparently, the intensified wave of high-level corruption since Yanukovich came to power last year is essentially a final fight over the spoils as part of a prelude to a new period of Ukraine making a concerted effort to deepen its relationship with the EU. This in turn will lead to enhanced domestic reform, a clampdown on corruption, and an unequivocal return to the path of democratization.
In this regard, the PoR’s key aims over the coming months are the completion of an EU Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) by the end of he year, and the agreement of a much simplified visa regime for Ukrainian Citizens visiting the EU next summer (perhaps to coincide with Ukraine’s joint hosting of Euro 2012 with Poland in June/July). The PoR believes that the successful conclusion of these agreements would give it a considerable (and badly needed) boost in the October 2012 parliamentary elections.
This renewed concentration on EU integration comes after Ukraine ignored Russia’s invitation to join its Customs Union in late April, despite Putin’s promises that Ukraine would earn an additional $6.5 billion to $9 billion per annum from the deal. It has been rumoured for some time that the oligarchy that funds the PoR has come to see the Russian “virtual mafia state” as a key threat to its own independence (although this does not automatically make them keen Europeans, or mean that they will easily accept restrictions on their own activities). Additionally, according to almost everyone Democratist has spoken to, there is considerable popular sentiment throughout the country that Ukraine will be far better off as an independent state than it would be as a glorified southern province of Russia. More specifically, the pro-European policy is being driven to a considerable extent by the First Deputy Head of the presidential administration, the economist Irina Akimova.
From Democratist’s perspective, Ukraine’s timely completion of the Association Agreement and DCFTA would be most welcome, as it would prove beneficial to both the European and Ukrainian economies and set the stage for further integration. If these negotiations are indeed successfully completed by the end of the year then it certainly would make a great deal of sense to reward the government with a relaxation of the EU’s visa requirements next summer (provided all required criteria are met) with a view to scrapping visa requirements entirely for Ukrainians over the medium term. The current tight restrictions are very unpopular in Ukraine, with many people feeling that they are being treated more like potential criminals, than potential “Europeans”.
However, further progression towards full integration beyond that point is clearly going to take some time, and the current situation is not very promising. A critical indication of whether Yanukovich is really serious about Ukraine’s eventual European orientation will come during the conduct of the parliamentary elections next October: If domestic and international observers conclude that these are run in a free and fair manner (with none of the problems witnessed in the municipal polls last year), if the media and judicial situations show sharp improvements, if there is no abuse of “administrative resources”, if the rumours that the PoR is secretly funding the nationalist Svoboda Party in Western Ukraine suddenly cease, and if Tymoshenko does not discover that she is unable to contest the poll because she is in prison on politically-motivated charges, then even the more reluctant EU member-states will have to concede that Yanukovich is someone who means to transform Ukraine, and with whom they should do business.