By Wesley Uhl, Transatlantic Community Analyst
The recent conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko should not distract the European Union from the progress that Ukraine had made in recent years. While the trial is a stark reminder of the work Ukraine has yet to do, it should be viewed in a wider context. The EU’s decision to not meet with President Yanukovych to discuss a potential trade and association pact is but a temporary setback for Ukraine’s long-term future with Europe, and will not change the ‘big picture’ of EU-Ukraine relations. With Russia attempting to extend its sphere of influence over Ukraine, now is an important time for both the EU and Ukraine to remember that their futures lie with one another.
At this point in time, it looks like both members stand at a crossroad. The EU may finalize a long-anticipated trade and association pact with Ukraine, setting the country on the path toward EU-candidate status. On the other hand, the Commission may decide that Ukraine’s visibly weak state of democracy deserves a punishment. After all, in order for the carrot of EU support to work, it must also employ the stick of public condemnation and cancelled meetings, right? For Ukraine, turning west toward the EU means a long and unclear accession process that, while likely to produce both economic and political gains, may also be frustratingly slow and meticulous. But Ukraine also has a suitor from the east in Russia. Recently, Prime Minister unveiled a plan for a ‘Eurasian Union’ that would mirror the EU and, more importantly, feature Ukraine as the second biggest economy behind Russia.
While the EU may have snubbed Yanukovych and Ukraine by “postponing” a scheduled meeting to discuss the significant trade and association pact, Russia took a different route. President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia said that the conviction of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko was none of his business, and respected the decision of the “independent” court. Russia’s timing cannot be a coincidence: Putin’s Eurasian Union proposal came the week before Tymoshenko’s verdict as tensions were peaking, and now Medvedev’s comments to Vanukovych come hours after the EU cancels its meeting with him. The events of this week, arguably, illuminate the two paths Ukraine can follow: the EU will push Ukraine to be better than it currently is, while Russia will welcome Ukraine as its number two, satisfied to let Ukraine’s level of democracy remain unchallenged.
The truth of the matter is that, despite Russia’s competing offer, Ukraine will follow the same path that other Eastern European states have already followed because their relationship with the EU is similarly asymmetrical: though the EU will wants Ukraine, Ukraine needs the EU. Membership will be too much to deny, despite the fact that a customs union or even a Eurasian Union with their eastern neighbors will be productive for Ukraine, and give them beneficial access to Russian gas.
Aside from access to the enormous Single Market of the EU, becoming a Member State would transform Ukraine’s level of democracy. Transparency International’s most recent Corruptions Perceptions Index, released last October, ranks Ukraine at 134th of 178 countries. Croatia, which will likely enter the EU in 2013, sits up at number 62. The accession process will likely push Ukraine closer to Croatia. For the citizens of Ukraine, and even its politicians, that is the type of progress and reform they want to see. The foreign minister of Montenegro, a candidate state, recently said that his country had made reforms in one year with the help of the EU that would have taken ten by themselves. A poll taken a month ago showed that over half of Ukrainians want to join the EU. Given the choice between membership in the EU or a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, 43.7% chose the EU and 30.5% chose the new customs union. Truth be told, sticking with Russia may allow Ukraine to stay where Transparency International currently places it, between Uganda and Pakistan.
The EU will have a similar choice to make. Punishing Ukraine right now makes sense. With Ukrainian accession a long way away regardless, delaying the current trade and association pact sends the message that progress must be made in order to enjoy the benefits of EU support. Of course Ukraine has, in fact, made progress in many spheres. Kyiv can boast that recent changes have brought border and migration management near European standards, large tax and pension reforms have been passed, and, as once one of the most Moscow-oriented and non-European states in the Soviet Union, Ukraine has implemented a functioning market economy. Where they lack the most progress is in quality of democracy, something that has never been a secret.
Through the carrot and the stick, the EU will turn Ukraine into a Member State, to the delight of the Ukrainian people. As a World Trade Organization member, Ukraine has a growing economy that is looking westward. However, for geographical and historical reasons, Kyiv will always be close to Russia, providing the EU with a great negotiating partner. The EU wants its influence in the region, for obvious reasons, and will take the necessary steps to see Ukraine implement the liberal reforms that Russia does not seem to want to implement itself. In the end, it’s not a question of whether Ukraine will decide that its future lies with Europe, but when they will make the changes necessary to join their Western neighbors.