Ukraine’s Path to Europe: A Long and Winding Road
KIEV—Although Russian and Ukrainian officials suggested this week that Ukraine was ready to sign the Commonwealth of Independent States’ free trade agreement (FTA), the accord’s significance should not be exaggerated. Attempts at implementing the FTA have constituted a pitiful 17-year-long saga, and it is widely believed that the FTA, even if agreed upon and signed, would never be ratified by all its signatories and thus never come into force. But the announcement reminds that Russia still stands in the way of integrating Ukraine more closely with Europe. Ukrainians are well aware that Russia remains their country’s main trading partner and that Russians in Ukraine desire good relations with Moscow.
Ukraine also remains an important link between Russian gas producers and European consumers. Given these realities, the recent Ukrainian U-turn toward Europe has rightly been applauded by many European governments and strategists. Not only has the rhetoric of the Ukrainian government altered radically, it has taken concrete steps to upgrade relations with its European partners. By the end of the year, it is likely to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which includes a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA) and visa-liberalization action plan. Should that materialize, it would be the most generous package offered by the European Union to one of its neighbors.
The Ukrainian legislature is currently reviewing a good portion of its legislation, attempting to bring its legal provisions more in line with EU requirements. And the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy is taking steps to increase the country’s domestic gas production, and thus decrease its dependence on Russian gas. But despite these welcome steps, Ukraine’s road to Europe remains tortuous. The Ukrainian government does not subscribe to Western standards of democracy, freedom of speech, and fair elections. Its desire to integrate more closely with Europe arises not out of a sense of shared values, but out of practical interests. In and of itself, that might not be a bad thing—transactional relationships can sometimes be stronger than emotional ones—if Ukraine’s oligarchs did not have a strong sense of shared interests with Russia. This means the possibility remains of another U-turn back to Russia, barring the consolidation of stronger ties with Europe and the derivation of greater economic benefits.
Two possible inflection points loom on the horizon: Russian elections between December 2011 and March 2012, and Ukrainian elections in October 2012. Should the Russian government appear weak on the eve of elections, it may decide to increase pressure on Ukraine and Europe in the middle of winter, when the demand for gas is at its highest, and thereby slow Ukraine’s westward slide. Ukraine’s elections might be cause for more concern, as a government determined to maintain power by any means could become more populist and could undermine reforms, including those required by the European Union. The government’s dependence on oligarchs for campaign funds might also influence its decisions. And there are signs that the government could resort to electoral fraud, to which Ukraine is no stranger. That would mark a major setback for relations with Europe.
Had Ukraine been governed by leaders who cherished European values, the country’s decision to sign the CIS FTA would have little or no significance. As the situation stands now, it is a reminder to an ever-busier Europe that it needs to remain focused on Ukraine, urge the Ukrainian government to follow its words with deeds, and ensure a coordinated response by its members to potential future obstacles in the EU-Ukraine relationship.
Alina Inayeh is Director of the Black Seat Trust for Regional Cooperation and the Bucharest Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Photo by LancerenoK
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.