Yanukovych, Russia and the EU: Why we saw this one coming

europeonthestrand |

Kiev, 1048.Yaroslav The Wise, the Kiev-Rus leader, was caught in strife with the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empire when a French envoy from King Henry I arrived to request the hand of Yaroslav’s daughter in marriage. As a powerful ally in the West would have made a useful strategic alliance, the Kiev-Rus leader’s response was unequivocal: only if his daughter was to be the new queen of France. The marriage of Anne and Henry signaled the first alliance between Kiev and the European mainland.

Viktor Yanukovych stood before a less romantic, but equally important decision on November 21 2013, when he was about to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. Whilst this pact would further strengthen the political ties between the EU and Ukraine, it would also signal an historic shift away from Russia. Under pressure from his Eastern neighbor, Yanukovych decided to abandon the plans to sign the Association Agreement. Not only does this represent a huge blow to the Ukrainian relations with the EU; it also led to protestations and rallies from thousands of Ukrainians, who supported a landmark EU-deal over closer ties with Moscow. These demonstrations have intensified over the past few weeks with attacks on opposition protesters by the police and the promulgation of anti-protest laws. The past week has shown a significant deterioration of the situation, as the demonstrations have become less a matter of Europe and more an issue of getting rid of a president clinging on to his power in the face of mass public opposition. Among the activists are there also now groups that are more radical and right wing.

Given the severity of the crisis that has emerged in Ukraine since the decision in November, there has been little attention given to the deeper causes of Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU. While this is understandable, it is important to understand that the current events are the results of a longer and more complicated power struggle over Ukraine. Was it all that surprising that Yanukovych decided to forego the EU deal? In the following I attempt to reconstruct the European approach to Ukraine, in order to better understand the current events and to highlights where improvements can and should be made.


Back in time

Motivated by strategic objectives to do with the size and geopolitical significance of Ukraine, the EU opened a political dialogue with Ukraine through the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (pdf) in June 1994.This political dialogue was tied to conditionality clauses relating to political and economic reform, but Ukraine’s government nevertheless felt confident that EU membership would soon be an actual prospect.

It came as a surprise for Ukraine, therefore, that instead of a warm recognition of Ukraine’s membership aspirations at the Helsinki European Council in December 1999, the EU merely “acknowledged” Ukraine’s European choice while adopting a Common Strategy on the country. This Common Strategy would foster EU-Ukraine relations but kept Ukraine unwillingly at the gates of Europe with the status of an outsider.


A sense of belonging

The Ukrainian sense of belonging to Europe has not entirely been met with actual institutional manifestations of “being European” – respecting norms and values such as democracy and rule of law. Over the years it became clear that economic and political reforms were lagging behind European hopes for the country and Ukraine became known for its inconsistent governmental policies, its unreformed economy, and opaque rules. The incomplete democratic reforms were the main stumbling block for solid EU-Ukraine relations and the EU tempered its enthusiasm towards Ukraine. This was in part caused by what scholars such as Paul Kubicek called the substantial disconnect between the rhetoric of Ukraine’s ‘European choice’ and the authoritarian trends in the country’ (£). The response of the EU to Ukraine’s lack of implementation of democratic reforms has been to keep the country at bay.


When one door closes…

In December 2004 the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was agreed, which officially denied Ukraine’s membership aspirations for the foreseeable future. Largely because of the strong expression of commitment to reform made by Viktor Yushchenko and the hopeful Orange Revolution, however, the EU decided to continue an agenda aimed at increased cooperation.

On the Ukrainian side, however, the then Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, stated that the country ‘had been humiliated by the EU’s unwillingness to acknowledge its membership aspirations‘ and that ‘it would no longer seek an early promise of membership prospects from the EU, but would focus on limited short-term agreements’, illustrating the Ukraine’s perception of ENP status as a painful rejection by the EU. In the ENP Ukraine is grouped with countries such as Morocco that will never be considered potential EU members, and therefore does not seem to recognize Ukraine’s European aspirations. Ukraine also accused the EU of having double standards as it set up prospects for future membership for the Eastern European and Baltic countries, while it equally urged reform in Ukraine without offering the same incentives.

The Ukraine has met some of its Action Plan commitments as they were agreed in 2005 by, amongst others things, holding free and fair elections in 2004 (at the second attempt) and adjusting some of its legislation to the EU norms. Reform is still urgently needed, however, in the areas of administrative, economic and judicial reform, and the fight against corruption. In response to this, in 2009 the EU opened the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda (pdf),with the aim of replacing the Action Plan for Ukraine with a more extensive agreement, which – according to the European Commission – ‘will significantly deepen Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU’. The recently collapsed Association Agreement represented this more extensive plan..


New European policies towards Ukraine: old wine in new wineskins?

Looked at in detail, it seems like the Agreement demonstrates many of the same pitfalls of previous EU policy towards Ukraine, including:

(1)   their failure to mobilize pro-European politicians and to generate political will to actually pursue reforms;

(2)   insufficient attention for informal power structures governing Ukraine;

(3)   insufficient attention for Ukraine’s complicated relationship with Russia, as well as

(4)   the absence of clear incentives and an unfortunate disharmony between long-term rewards and short-term costs.

This final point is crucial, as the most influential actors in the Ukrainian domestic bargaining process tend to favor short-term policies that benefit their own power-positions. This helps explain why Ukraine’s ‘declarative integration’ with the EU has not been followed by actual policy reform in the democratic and economic realms: for most of the influential domestic actors, the sustained process of painful reforms that is required for closer EU integration is too high a sacrifice.


The way forward?

History shows that Yanukovych’s “no” has roots that go deep into the institutional relationship of Ukraine and the EU. While democratic reforms in Ukraine are imperative, clearer procedures and goals from the EU could help overcome the tension between the short-term pragmatic focus in Ukraine and the EU’s long-term ambitions. A clearer incentive structure that pays attention to both short-term and long-term benefits could offer Ukraine a greater motivation to actually implement the reforms needed for EU integration, possibly tilting the balance in the EU’s favor.


About the author

Nikki Ikani is a PhD student in the department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.


Note: this post gives the views of the author and not the position of Europe on the Strand nor King’s College London.