As Brussels Falters, a Growing Realism about “Europe” in Ukraine

March 29, 2013
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Some recent statements by Prime Minster Azarov may indicate that Ukraine is coming around to a more clear-sighted view of Europe – the object of Kiev’s uncritical affection since independence.

Meeting with senior US diplomat Wendy Sherman on an official visit to Kiev, the prime minister took the European Energy Community to task for having assented -- over Kiev’s objections -- to Russia’s North and South Stream pipeline projects.

Then, in a subsequent interview with TV Mir, he questioned the degree to which the preconditions Brussels set at the EU-Ukraine summit last February 25th for granting Kiev a Free Trade Agreement were “objective” and compatible with Ukrainian sovereignty: “…to what extent,” he asked, “ are these demands objective, to what extent do they factor in our sovereignty, our legal rights? Why are we accused of violations?” [Emphasis added.]

On March 28th, Azarov rejected the IMF’s demand that Ukraine curtail its gas subsidies for households and enterprises as a precondition for further lending, even as an IMF negotiating team was about to arrive in Kiev: “We are interested in cooperating with the International Monetary Fund. However, we have no urgent need to agree to just any conditions.”

The prime minister’s recent comments are well taken, although somewhat awkward in the context:

  • Does he have an alternative path to reaching agreement with the IMF, or a plan for maintaining state solvency in the event the talks fail?
  • However objectionable Brussels’ preconditions (i.e., legal and judicial reforms, including a satisfactory resolution of the Timoshenko case) for signing the Association Agreement may be, Ukraine agreed to them, and to having them in place by the end of May.
  • His plaint about Brussels’ disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty sounds a tad naïve as the whole point of the European Union is the evisceration of national sovereignty.

Having said that, the prime minister is entirely correct to question why only Ukraine should stand accused of “violations” when the same charge could be leveled against “Europe” (and the IMF) in their scandalous mistreatment of Cyprus. It is good that a Ukrainian leader is willing to be critical of “Europe” to the point of suggesting hypocrisy on its part. Realism about Europe is vital as Ukraine faces critical choices about its strategic orientation and prospects for economic growth and development.

In this regard, a recent article by US foreign policy expert Srdja Trifkovic in the pages of Chronicles magazine (March 22, 2013) gives a bracingly realist view of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” and its efforts to “promote ‘shared values’ – democracy, human rights and the rule of law’ – in six ex-Soviet states “deemed to be of ‘strategic importance’,” including Ukraine.

Trifkovic says EU technocrats have a vested financial interest (in the form of “sinecures, cushy jobs, and expense-padded missions”) in issuing “self-congratulatory” reports on the EU’s success in achieving its objectives. And yet, as there will be no further expansion of the European Union after Croatia is admitted next July, “without the realistic prospect of an eventual path to full membership, the EU lacks meaningful leverage over the political elites in the six eastern countries to make them change their ways.”

But this does not stop the EU from funneling billons of euros into what Trifkovic calls a “bottomless pit of post-Soviet corruption, graft and pork-barrel politics.” The deal is this: “We [the East European states] pretend to reform, and they [the EU] pretend we are doing a good job.” If Trifkovic is right about al this, one could imagine the EU, come May, finessing any shortcomings in Ukraine’s compliance with its pre-conditions for signing the Association Agreement, and actually signing the thing. Of course the agreement would still have to be ratified by the 27 individual member states; there the agreement could fall apart.

Be that as it may, the EU-IMF’s Cypriot deposit confiscation scheme reveals problems with “Europe” that far transcend garden variety corruption. Brussels ran roughshod over property rights, the rule of law and democracy in foisting its scheme on Cyprus rather than let Cyprus exit the Eurozone. Thus, Azarov is right to suggest hypocrisy on the EU’s part in suggesting it is only Ukraine that fails to meet European standards of morality and due process.

Although Kiev appears determined to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with Brussels (if Brussels deems it a suitable partner), it should look before it leaps, and not do anything to close the door on possible accession to Eurasian Customs Union, membership of which would offer a host of tangible benefits Ukraine needs in difficult economic times.

In this regard, Azarov’s realism about Europe is timely. As it happens, the Ukrainian public may be ahead of the curve:

According to an opinion survey conducted from February 23 to March 11, 2013 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 41% of Ukrainians believe Ukraine should enter the Eurasian Customs Union with 39% preferring signature of the Free Trade Agreement with the EU; 44% believe Ukrainian industry and agriculture would fare better in the Eurasian Customs Union while 32% believe they would do better under the European FTA.

In view of the preponderance of pro-EU reporting in the Ukrainian media, the edge the Eurasian Customs Union enjoys in public opinion is all the more noteworthy.