Since Croatia’s ascension, Ukraine is one of the next in line hoping to participate in the Brussels community. While Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, has been encouraged by various EU leaders in guiding his country’s European aspirations, bashing Ukraine has also become a popular pastime. Kiev has been depicted as flirting with both Russia to the East and the EU to the West – but is that really the case? And more importantly, is this the right approach to be taking?
Yanukovych’s presidency has come under criticism for both holding observer status within the Russian-led Customs Union and seeking to sign an Association Agreement with the leaders of Western Europe. According to certain spectators, Ukraine has been deliberately remaining uncommitted to both entities so as to further its own interests.
On the other hand, we should be a little hesitant to go labelling the former Soviet republic. The truth is that Ukraine has less control than certain critics have made out; its policies are frequently being bossed by its neighbouring blocs on either side, between which it has found itself increasingly pinned. Despite this, the Ukrainian government has shown that it’s highest priority lies in signing the Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit in November.
Russia represents the large majority of Ukraine’s gas energy supplies, and thus Moscow holds an economic ace over its neighbour. With this in mind, President Yanukovych has been aware that he must not make the same diplomatic error as ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose outright rejection of Moscow led to crucifying gas prices for the nation.
Ukraine is a nation which was knocked hard by the recession, and even in comparison to its neighbours, Bulgaria and Romania, still suffers from a fragile economy: recent figures from the International Monetary Fund place Ukraine’s GDP far below its neighbours.
Meanwhile, Kiev knows that its brightest future lies in better Brussels ties, but the messages given to it have not been entirely clear in recent years. Brussels has been swinging between encouragement for Ukraine’s efforts, and at other times suggesting that Ukraine will never even become a member state.
At the Eastern and Central European Leaders Summit in Bratislava, held June 12-13, Ukraine’s participation in the EU took precedence; the most powerful Europeans cautiously weighed up Ukraine’s merits, and gave President Viktor Yanukovych the same answer he has received a lot recently: keep progressing and hold on tight.
It is unfair to claim Ukraine has not been clear about its objectives: it has. Kiev’s position as observer to Russia’s Customs Union should not be misread, since the country has repeatedly rejected offers and demands to take part in the union as a full member. It has let both Moscow and Brussels know that its true intentions lie in a European future and not a Eurasian one.
Its efforts to reach the European democratic standards should equally not be overlooked. Steadily ticking off the Füle list – the run-down of democratic to-dos given to it by the EU – the Ukrainian government has made considerable changes to the country. Most recently, the issue of political prisoners has been at the top of its agenda. Having pardoned opposition leaders such as former Minister of the Interior Yuriy Lutsenko, Yanukovych is now focussing on the final big obstacle: negotiating the release of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to offer her medical treatment abroad.
Let’s not get carried away: Ukraine is still far from being a shining example of democracy. Yet in the EU’s neighbourhood integration over the last ten years, which new member – or for that matter, which of any member – has been? The focus for Brussels should be on the determination of the nation to take part, which has been shown and deserves to be acknowledged.
The underlying threat which should not be forgotten is that Ukraine’s determination to gain ground on its Brussels ties cannot last forever if it continues to be discouraged by cynical onlookers. President Yanukovych met with opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently, in a promising sign that Ukraine is finding a common purpose in EU ambitions. Criticism is only a waste of our own breath, as well as Ukraine’s time and efforts. Western Europe should instead be looking forward to solidifying its relationship with a promising and enthusiastic country with November’s Association Agreement.