Decision time for Ukraine

  • 2013-11-20
  • By Steven G. Traylor, EU Correspondent

The political intrigue is coming to an end in Kiev, while Ukraine, as the largest country in the Eastern Partnership, teeters on the brink of becoming a future EU aspirant or remaining a subordinate-in-waiting for the Eurasian Customs Union led Russia.

Events that are bound to happen over the next two weeks could tip Ukraine one way or another, and finally balance the geopolitical influences in this Eastern European country which, in turn, will have long term economic and political consequences on both the eastern and western borders of Ukraine.

Scheduled for Nov. 28-29 in Vilnius, the EU Eastern Partnership Summit will present Ukraine as one of the six invited counties for consideration into the world’s largest trading bock – the European Union. The EU will meet to consider the future of the Eastern Europe, and in particular, whether Ukraine is going to remain in the sphere of influence of Russia or shift westwards to Europe.

Ukraine’s latest moves

All EU candidate countries are pre-conditioned to fulfill certain domestic, legislative and administrative reforms in order to be in line with European standards. Political issues are also critical to the EU member states, and Ukraine is currently being tested.

The issue here is “judicial prisoner” Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minster of Ukraine. Imprisoned since 2011 for “abuse of power” and “embezzlement,” the EU has made her release a pre-condition for future consideration of Ukraine and its 46,000,000 citizens to be part of the Europe Union.

Ukraine’s parliament on Nov. 19 once again postponed until Thursday a vote on legislation that could set the wheels turning for the release of the most famous female prisoner in Ukraine’s history.

The EU sees Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as part of ”selective justice,” and Brussels wants her released prior to any signing of agreements in Vilnius. But, time is running out; in fact, some critics say it is already too late.

The issue of Tymoshenko is very important to the European Parliament Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, headed by ex-president of the European Parliament Pat Cox and ex-president of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski, who were in Kiev awaiting the final legislation and decision of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) on whether the release of Tymoshenko was possible or not.

The issue is long, complicated and gathering the attention of the local and foreign media, to the point that Ukraine’s future revolves around the fate of but one individual – a single inmate.

In Kiev, the political fight is in the final minute of a ten-round bout.

The ruling political party – the Party of Regions – headed by the Ukrainian president has left it up to the Parliament to work out the legislative approach to the Tymoshenko issue. Other Ukrainian MPs see this simply as a delaying tactic to force the EU to accept the initialing of the Association Agreement without any final outcome on Tymoshenko; thus the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, avoids any political responsibility of freeing his opponent, which he can legally do “due to medical reasons.”

Minister Viktor Chumak of the UDAR party said: “What we have today is probably the biggest geopolitical game after WWII and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is my opinion. Just think about it: one choice could change all balances [around] the world.”

Arseniy Yatseniuk, representative of the Batkivshchyna party said: “Europe sticks to its principles; and this is about principles right now.”

The Russian bear is not in hibernation

Russia, of course, is a geopolitical player in all of this, and Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Ukrainian leader that nothing will be the same in the future if Ukraine initials the Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnius.

The Russian bear is used to getting its way within its sphere of influence, and Ukraine represents the biggest and closest county Russia gets to Europe with a common border.

Russia’s Interfax news service quoted President Putin as saying: “That’s why we warn in advance; we say, listen, we understand everything. This is your choice, do it. But keep in mind that we would have to somehow protect our market, to introduce protective mechanisms.”

President Putin is known for this famous saying: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” This notion is still paramount in the mind of Russian leaders when dealing with former Soviet satellite states, and Ukraine today is a case in point.

Thus, Russia has come to the conclusion that any and all political and economic means can be exercised in order to maintain Ukraine as one of its own regions of interests.

Three months ago Russian’s pressure was particularly felt. Ukraine’s Federation of Employers said: “Russia is blocking Ukrainian exports, a de facto action that could incur losses up to $2.5 billion in the second half of this year.” This was manifested by unwarranted and unnecessary uploading and unloading of goods, which was experienced at numerous border checkpoints between the two countries

As Presidency of the EU Council, Lithuania too suffered economic losses caused by Russia’s discontent, which resulted in stoppage of exports of Lithuanian dairy products to Russia, explained by the latter as a consequence of faulty ”technical issues.”

With less than two weeks to go, Ukraine is still in the “EU Summit limbo,” with all political factions voicing concern over which way Yanukovych will go.

Gas trap for Ukraine

Come December, no matter what happens in Vilnius, the Ukrainian government will have to find some $4.5 billion which the country owes to Gazprom for their winter supply of gas. If Ukraine signs the EU Association Agreement, it will poke the Russian bear in the eye, and ultimately suffer “consequences.”

Quoting from The Irish Times, Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Olefirov said: “We understand there would be possible negative effects of signing the Agreement with the EU. But we are equals [with Russia] and having support from the EU will help us on many issues, like getting a fair price for the gas.”

Ukraine may have to turn to suppliers other than Russia, as the Russian bear is not going to be happy that part of its “sphere of influence” has been lost following hundreds of years of common history between the two countries.

European Union vs. Customs Union

Following the Second World War Berlin became the divide between the ‘East and West,’ whereas today the common border between Ukraine and Russia may become the ‘New Divide’ between Europe and Putin’s Customs Union.

The European Union is based on a philosophy of shared sovereignty with an administrative body known as the European Council. However, Russia is promoting access to its Customs Union to former members of the Soviet Union offering no independent Administrative Authority: this is now under the control of Moscow. Russia is trying to promote itself as a world leader through trade, as opposed to mere military might, its usual strategy.

The ultimate decision for Ukraine will have the most lasting consequences on Eastern and Central Europe and will pave the way for future EU-Russia dealings on all subjects, with Ukraine being the new focal point in the 21st century.

If Russia gets its way, Ukraine will remain its interdependent servant. President Yanukovych runs for re-election in 2015, and his number one challenger, Tymoshenko, should still be in jail, and “out of the way” for a major challenge. 

And President Putin will be his happy neighbor.