RIGA - On Sept. 20, President of Lithuania and current EU revolving Chair(person) Dalia Grybauskaite opened what is called the 10th annual Yalta European Stragety (YES) Conference in Yalta, Ukraine along with her counterpart of Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovich. The four day conference drew some 250 participants from some 20 different countries to discuss the global economy, energy security, and terrorist threats faced by all countries attending.
The conference took place in the historic Livadia palace, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided the fate of Europe in early 1945.
At this conference the economic and political fate of Ukraine was again the main topic. Russia played a trump card and challenged Ukraine on the upcoming EU Summit in Vilnius this November, where Ukraine is expected to sign a 5 to 7 year negotiated Association Agreement, qualifying for consideration into the European Union.
In a prepared statement, Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov said, “As president, Viktor Yanukovich has recently stated [that he] is able and certainly [ready to] fulfill the criteria necessary for the signing of this Association Agreement.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Ukraine that he would retaliate with protectionist measures if it signs a deal with the European Union, and has suggested for Ukraine to enter the Russian-sponsored Customs Union instead.
“We would somehow have to [protect] our market, introduce protectionist measures. We are saying this openly in advance,” Putin said. “We will need to consider how many goods access our market and what protective measure we will have to take.”
In August, talks held in Moscow with Ukraine were interrupted by the holdup of freight at the Russian border, caused by detailed inspections of Ukrainian goods. This stoppage was a demonstration of how Ukraine’s association with the EU could effect the future Ukraine-Russian relationship. This action by the Russian government indicates that Russia will not agree easily to Ukraine signing the Association Agreement with the EU.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said that European integration cannot be reconciled with Moscow’s proposal for Eurasia integration, and that if Ukraine decided to sign the Association Agreement, it must take into consideration the fact that trade between the two will become more difficult.
Ukraine has truly hit a sensitive nerve of the Russian bear, and the Aug. 14-20 customs blockade was simply a reminder that Ukraine needs to toe the line and think twice about any EU agreements.
Ukraine reaction – playing both sides of the fence?
Prime Minister Mykolv Azarov told his cabinet ministers on Aug. 28 that Ukraine could sign certain agreements with the Russian-sponsored Customs Union, which includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. At the same time, he instructed the ministries to develop a mechanism for cooperation with the Customs Union. However, that would be subordinate to the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
The EU will not turn a blind eye to subordinate agreements between Ukraine and members of the Russian-sponsored Customs Union, and it will be determined in Vilnius the likelyhood that such agreements can be entered into by any aspiring EU member.
The prime minister was the highest ranking Ukrainian politician to speak out politically on the matter of the blockade, blaming domestic exporters for not maintaining Russian customs standards, according to the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland.
Thus, he can take responsibility for the actions of the Russians and say to his counterpart, “OK, we need to get our act together” and take some of the heat for a situation that was not really Ukraine’s fault – and give Russia a political “out” in the short run on their true intentions of harassing Ukraine at the border.
Customs Union vs. the European Union
All is not certain in Kiev, and the final decision is truly to be determined by the potential 6th largest future member state of Ukraine, behind Spain but ahead of Poland, with a population of some 45,000,000. Ukranian elections are scheduled for 2015 and the political wrangling will now just begin, along with the upcoming EU Summit.
It is too early to tell what effect that may have on future presidential candidates, and their positions against each other, but the topic of debate in the meantime will certainly be about Ukraine and EU, or CU, integration. Political polling says the people are looking west.
President Yanukovich has recently stated, “[We are] able to fulfill the criteria necessary for the signing of the Association Agreement. And right now our government is drawing a line under an important step in preparation for the association with the European Union and, at the same time, opens a new phase of radical reforms in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian government’s statements thus far suggest it is determined to stick to the EU course.
Ukraine still has some domestic hurdles to overcome including the issue of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with EU calls for her release. Yanukovich has said that special envoys are working towards a solution to the ‘problem of Tymoshenko,’ who has been jailed for the past two years as a result of a political trial.
Political pressure remains
The Yalta European Strategy (YES) is the largest social institution for public diplomacy in this region, providing an open and equal dialogue on global issues affecting the Europe Union, Ukraine, Russia and other countries according to its official Web site.
Regional leaders take part in open and frank discussion affecting them all, and provide a sounding board by which each country and guest speakers address the concerns of the participants.
The political pressure will contine from Russia over the next month-and-a-half, and as each side, Ukraine and Russia, jockeys for advantage in influence, Russia makes no hesitation in declaring its position.
Ukraine’s position was summed up best by member of the Ukranian Parliment Serhiy Tigipko: “The three issues that we need to address are as follows. Our number one problem is that we should be continously concerned about the improving democracy in the country. Democracy creates an opportunity to make the public administration in Ukraine efficient and fair.”
“Our second big issue is that we need to strive to improve the standards of our market economy. A strong market economy will provide the best chance for work for our gifted youg people,” added the MP.
The third big issue, he said, is the implementation of a more efficient social policy. “We spend a lot of money on our social policy, and yet, the way I see it, our social policy is very unfair. We are constantly subsdizing wealthy people which creates a feeling of injustice in the country,” he concluded.
For the MP and for Ukraine, these are lofty ideas and good principles to govern and lead by. The only question for now is, will Ukraine work towards these goals as a future participant of the West, with the prospects of EU intergration, or succumb to the politcial pressure of Russia, of which Ukraine is much dependent on in the form of exports of manufactured Ukrainian goods. Russia is its biggest trading parther.
We will soon know.