Ukraine’s newly elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, chose Brussels as his first destination for a working visit abroad. Inaugurated on February 25, Yanukovych held talks with European Union leaders on March 1, ahead of a March 5 visit to Moscow. This chosen sequence, as well as the tenor of Yanukovych’s remarks in Brussels, contrasted with his pronounced tilt toward Russia, by which he had mobilized his electoral base in the recent presidential campaign.
Unsurprisingly, Yanukovych shifted toward a more even-handed posture between Russia and the West in the post-election period. He moved more promptly than might have been expected of him, apparently in response to EU leaders’ broad overtures to Ukraine through him as the new president. These overtures apparently reflect intentions in Brussels to compete patiently with Russia for Ukraine’s future (even if the EU finds it unpalatable to acknowledge the reality of competition). During this visit, EU leaders as well as Yanukovych decided to avoid (at least in public) those issues on which Yanukovych had promised major concessions to Moscow during the electoral campaign.
The presidents of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Council Herman van Rompuy, and the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek respectively, held out to Yanukovych clear prospects for an EU-Ukraine association agreement, as well as a deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) and a visa-free travel agreement. The DCFTA would broaden the access of Ukrainian products to the European market and would encourage European investments in Ukraine. As key parts of a possible Ukraine-EU association agreement, the DCFTA and visa-free travel agreements could be signed by 2011, conditional on Ukraine’s performance on internal reforms (Interfax-Ukraine, March 1, 2).
The EU leaders have already agreed to draw up a road map toward visa-free travel with Ukraine this year. The commission is also prepared to disburse 500 million Euros in assistance funds, if Ukraine meets the International Monetary Fund’s macroeconomic reform criteria to qualify for such assistance.
Brussels has now opened, for the first time, the prospect of Ukraine’s eventual accession to the EU. According to Barroso, “If the process [of Ukrainian reforms] advances, we see Ukraine’s future very clearly as a European future, and Ukraine in the European integration process… Ukraine’s possible accession to the EU has always been on the agenda,” Barroso was cited as saying at the joint briefing with Yanukovych (Interfax-Ukraine, March 1).
This statement entails a degree of positive reinterpretation of earlier EU positions. In fact, Brussels had traditionally stopped short of giving Kyiv the much-desired political signal that Ukraine’s eventual accession figured on the EU’s agenda. In their turn, Ukrainian leaders (particularly Viktor Yushchenko, the now-departed president) often solicited such political signals from the EU, to incentivize Ukrainian reforms. In the event, incentives as well as reforms fell short. The EU’s Eastern Partnership program, launched in 2009 following a Swedish-Polish initiative, is starting to overcome this impasse by accelerating the negotiations toward an association agreement, and opening the prospect of ultimate membership contingent on performance.
Yanukovych in Brussels listed the foreign-policy priorities of his presidency as: “Integration with the European Union, resumption of friendly and good-neighborly relations with Russia, development of relations with other neighboring countries, and strategic partnership with the United States” –in that order. He singled out the “key priority, European integration” for involving foreign policy and internal reform strategy in equal measure. Alluding to east-west political fault lines in Ukraine, Yanukovych (the eastern candidate repositioning as president) defined European integration as a unifying factor for Ukrainian society (UNIAN, March 1).
At a minimum, such remarks demonstrate that Yanukovych has learned to talk the talk, before walking the walk of reforms. His acknowledgments that European integration involves external and internal policy in equal measure and that it can unify society, echo almost verbatim the statements of Moldova’s former President, Vladimir Voronin, another “eastern”-leaning politician repositioned as European from 2004 onward, with moderately encouraging results.
The European Parliament marked Yanukovych’s inauguration with a resolution underscoring that Ukraine is a European country that can, by adhering to principles of freedom and democracy, apply for EU membership in the future (EDM, March 3). The resolution demonstrates that the European Parliament (now with substantially enlarged powers under the Lisbon treaty) will work with this president for Ukraine’s future. Significantly, European Parliament members who had earlier invested high hopes in the Orange project are ready to work with Yanukovych after the final Orange collapse.
Yanukovych told Brussels that he would adhere to the March 2009 agreement with the EU on modernizing Ukraine’s gas transit system (EUObserver, March 1). The outgoing government under Yulia Tymoshenko had entered into that agreement. By contrast, Yanukovych campaigned on a promise to include Russia’s Gazprom in a consortium to operate Ukraine’s system. He seemed noncommittal about this issue while in Brussels.
Regarding NATO, Yanukovych merely stated that he would continue the existing programs, without expanding these, at least for the time being (UNIAN, March 1). That current level, however, compares unfavorably with the pre-Orange years.
Russia’s shadow did not loom over Yanukovych’s Brussels visit. The EU takes the position that the resumption of Ukrainian-Russian partner relations (as Yanukovych formulates this goal) is also in the EU’s interest. Yanukovych welcomes this thesis because it does not require Ukraine to make stark choices between Moscow and Brussels.
Such flexibility, however, will only be sustainable if Russia does not make excessive demands on Ukraine (or Kyiv does not offer pre-emptive concessions to Moscow, as Yanukovych signaled from electoral calculations during the campaign). If Moscow does, however, start posing major demands, the new Ukrainian president and his Party of Regions will need to make some stark choices; and the EU will need to support European choices in Kyiv.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>