Ukraine Is Bluffing Over Russia’s Offer

KIEV, Ukraine -- Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, says that deepening his country’s relations with the EU is a priority.


Kiev wants its democratic ills to be ignored, says Steven Pifer.

Recent comments by his officials hint, however, at a turn towards Russia and the customs union Moscow has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Will these hints become reality? Unlikely.

Mr Yanukovich is flirting with joining the customs union as part of an effort to persuade the west to ignore Ukraine’s regression on democracy.

The EU and US should adhere to their values and make clear that respect for democracy and human rights is crucial to better relations between Ukraine and the west.

Ukrainian and EU negotiators agreed the terms of an association agreement in 2011, a significant part of which is a comprehensive free trade arrangement to boost Ukraine’s economic integration with Europe.

But the agreement has languished for more than a year, as concerns in Brussels and EU capitals grew over the decline of democracy that has taken place on Mr Yanukovich’s watch.

This has included the selective prosecution of former government leaders, such as Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, and election processes that have been criticised by both foreign and domestic observers.

Several EU states have indicated they would block the agreement unless Kiev improves its record on democracy.

Similar concerns in Washington have led to a parallel downturn in US-Ukrainian relations.

Congress has even begun to talk of sanctions against Ukraine.

As the country’s relations with the west have deteriorated, Moscow has sought to lure Kiev into the customs union.

Russian officials dangle the prospect of discounted prices for natural gas . . . if Ukraine joins.

Although Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said in Ukraine on Sunday that he saw no obstacles to Kiev drawing closer to European institutions, Moscow would dearly love to bring Ukraine into the customs union.

That would derail the EU-Ukraine free trade arrangement.

In the past, Mr Yanukovich has ruled out joining the customs union precisely because it would kill Ukraine’s prospect of a free trade arrangement with the EU.

A fundamental turn away from Europe and towards Russia and the customs union would prove controversial within Ukraine – both with the public, where polls show consistent support for integration with the EU, and with the elite, including some in Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party.

A deputy prime minister quit the government last month, expressing concern that the reappointed prime minister would not pursue European integration.

Ukrainian business would also have doubts.

The customs union represents a combined gross domestic product of about $2.1tn, which is dwarfed by the EU’s combined economy of $17.6tn.

A pivot east, therefore, would pose serious domestic political risks for Mr Yanukovich.

Kiev’s expressions of interest in the customs union aim to raise concern in the west that it is somehow “losing” Ukraine to Russia.

The president and others in the elite appear to have an inflated sense of Ukraine’s significance to Europe and the US, believing their nation figures so importantly in a geopolitical tug of war between the west and Russia that, in the end, the west will set aside its democracy concerns and accept Ukraine as it is.

That is not likely to happen.

First, there is no evidence to suggest that Barack Obama, US president, or many EU leaders think in such cold war terms.

Second, the west understands that, for Kiev, joining the customs union would risk compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty, something the country has fought hard to bolster over its 21 years of independence.

For Ukraine, the logical foreign policy is one that deepens links with Europe while maintaining good relations with Russia.

The west should not set aside its values to embrace a Ukraine that looks more likely to become Europe’s next Belarus rather than its next Poland.

The EU and US should instead do everything to crystallise a clear choice in Mr Yanukovich’s mind: he can live up to the democratic standards that he has, at least in word, accepted and improve his relations with Europe and the west, or he can become more isolated.

He may claim such a choice will drive him to Russia.

But he almost certainly does not want to go there.

Source: ft

Comments

It seems sad to me that Ukraine and Russia's governments are always at odds. I have several Ukrainian and Russian friends here in America, and they always get along quite well here. There respective countries should take an example from them.