European Union Looks East At Summit, And Sees Trouble On Horizon

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The idea was to concentrate on closer trade ties and visa liberalization, as leaders of the European Union and six eastern neighbors began two days of talks in Warsaw.

Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych (R) with Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenko (L).

But instead, the summit appears set to be dominated by the fading prospects for democracy in Ukraine, and the authoritarian tilt of the government in Belarus.

Awkwardly for diplomats, the meetings on Thursday night and Friday coincide with the end of the politically charged trial of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister and a rival of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

The trial has highlighted the difficulties facing Western Europeans as they try to coax Ukraine toward liberal democracy and away from the centralized political model in neighboring Russia.

At the moment the West is preoccupied with its debt crisis, to the point that two of its most prominent leaders, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, are skipping the Eastern Partnership Summit, as the gathering in Warsaw has been called.

The European Union has reshaped the continent in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall by offering former-Communist countries membership if they embrace democracy and free markets.

But enthusiasm for admitting new nations to the bloc has dwindled.

“The E.U. doesn’t really have a strategy, because it doesn’t have a final objective,” said Nicu Popescu, senior research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the Moldovan prime minister.

“Some countries ultimately want membership for some of the Eastern partners; others do not.”

By contrast, the recession and fiscal crisis in the West has made Russia a stronger regional force, at least on the surface.

“Because of the way it is governed, it is easier for Russia to present a united front and look more decisive and influential than is perhaps the case,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels.

“Because the E.U. has lots of different voices, it often looks less influential than it really is.”

Ms. Grabbe said the bloc was making a mistake by grouping together six eastern European and central Asian nations — Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — with very different aspirations.

Even so, the bloc has earmarked around $2.6 billion in aid for the six countries through 2013.

Political progress has certainly been mixed.

Of the six nations, only Moldova and Georgia show signs of movement toward a European democratic model, Mr. Popescu said: “Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus are consolidated authoritarian regimes, and in the Ukraine there is a rapidly deteriorating situation and a centralization of power. Ukraine is not yet Belarus, but it could be in the next few years.”

Belarus, which once seemed to be gradually moving away from authoritarianism, has lapsed back, with a crackdown on political opposition over the last year.

Its leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, is banned from entering the European Union; the foreign minister was invited to Warsaw, but another diplomat was sent instead.

Though Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, managed to obtain the release of 13 Belarussian prisoners earlier this month, most diplomats in Brussels see little ground for optimism, and European officials say they plan to step up support for civil society in Belarus.

The Tymoshenko case in Ukraine, Mr. Popescu said, is “an extremely worrying sign that Yanukovich is moving to exert a monopolistic control over politics, to replicate the example of Vladimir Putin in Russia — though actually much faster than Putin did this.”

Ukraine has tried to play the European Union and Russia off against one another, but is reaching some decision points.

It has nearly completed three years of talks on a free-trade agreement with the European Union, while Russia has been pressing Ukraine to enter its customs union instead, with an implied threat of higher energy prices and other tariffs if it does not, Mr. Popescu said.

The choice is not easy: Ukraine exports about the same amount of goods to each side.

Source: The New York Times


Gronya said…
A bit off topic but I am wondering if anyone knows what's up with the new practice of having to show one's passport to make a currency exchange in Ukraine. My daughter lives in Dnepropetrovsk and she says now whenever she changes dollars for grivna she must show her passport and its number is registered by the bank or merchant or moneychanger. This doesn't auger well for the future. Those who have long memories cannot see any good coming from this.