Dialogue of the deaf

As the European Union and Ukraine prepare for their delayed summit in Brussels on Feb. 25, many are wondering why the two sides are meeting at all. Nobody expects any decisive breakthrough, even though this is the highest level meeting between the two entities, taking place on a yearly basis.  

As the European Union and Ukraine prepare for their delayed summit in Brussels on Feb. 25, many are wondering why the two sides are meeting at all. Nobody expects any decisive breakthrough, even though this is the highest level meeting between the two entities, taking place on a yearly basis.

The real decision-making timetable is different.  Relations have been off track ever since ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sent to prison in 2011 on an abuse-of-office conviction.The EU Foreign Affairs Council made some progress towards better defining its conditionality towards Ukraine last December, when it listed three key areas: “progress in addressing the issue of selective justice;”fairer elections; and“implementation of reforms defined in the jointly agreed association agenda.”

 The EU’s Neighbourhood Commissioner Stefan Fuele and others have recently tried to firm up the idea of an ultimate deadline this coming November – either Ukraine finally gets the Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, or it will be kicked into the long grass for several years. Opinions may already begin to harden when the European Commission publishes its annual report on integration progress in May. So any rabbits pulled out of the hat before or during next week’s summit seem likely to be pretty small.

Ukraine has a new foreign minister in Leonid Kozhara, who is now being closely monitored for signs of progress within such a tight timetable. But whatever signals he is intent on sending out, such as a new approach on discrimination legislation, are undermined by Ukraine’s crass habit of taking its biggest steps backward on the eve of important meetings – in this case with the allegations connecting Tymoshenko to the murder of Yevhen Shcherban back in 1996. It’s almost as if someone didn’t want the relationship back on track.

Ukraine’s only rational calculation must be that the beleaguered EU needs a success story for the European Partnership summit, and that the other options are disappearing fast. Armenia has just held its least competitive election ever. Opinions are cooling on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgia. It seems premature to talk of “Ukrainianization” in Tbilisi – meaning the persecution of political opponents in President Mikheil Saakashvili’s camp. But the fact that people use the term makes the problem clear. The uncertain future of Georgia’s economic model – its ultra-liberal deregulation policy, its anti-corruption and public sector reforms – ironically also highlights the fact that Moldova may have been a little over-praised in recent years. It hasn’t done as much to overhaul how its basic economy works, and there is a growing sense that reform is blocked by business interests. Even tiny Moldova has oligarchs.

So why not give something to Ukraine? The question answers itself. Undermining conditionality would not rescue the Eastern Partnership project but destroy it. As it currently operates, the Eastern Partnership was designed to square a series of difficult circles: it is not in itself the promise of membership in the EU, but doesn’t close off the possibility of the eventual promise of membership; it does not promise harmonization through the full adoption of the EU’s rule book, the acquis communautaire; but “convergence” by adopting a good part of it.

There are two alternatives. One would be to forget about the acquis and use the Eastern Partnership as a soft holding area for its six states. Proposals to integrate with Russia’s Customs Union or Eurasian Union could then be more easily rebuffed, because the six could say they were doing something really important with the EU. But they would effectively be on the substitution players’ bench until real regime change finally transformed them internally after however many years.

Or the Eastern Partnership could be a tool of realpolitik. At various times and in varying degrees, most of the Eastern Partnership six have sought to play a “neo-Titoist” balancing game between Russia and the West. So the EU could help them. Again, the underlying premise would be that it was worth preserving the statehood of the likes of Ukraine and Belarus until such a time as they were finally willing to do the hard work of internal reform.

But Josip Tito (1892-1980) of Yugoslavia was worth supporting, because “non-alignment” changed the dynamics of the Cold War. The reality of modern neo-Titoism would just mean that the EU was constantly getting stiffed by the likes of Ukraine. Contemporary foreign policy “balancing” has a completely different modus operandi. Ukraine’s policy of “balance” under President Viktor Yanukovych is not aimed at the survival and eventual strengthening of the state, as it arguably was under former President Leonid Kuchma, but at leveraging resources from either side, at increasing the flow of rent for the elite, and at preserving a space where hard choices can be indefinitely avoided, as it also was too often under Kuchma. 

So engaging in a game of balance would only make things worse. And it’s not how the EU works, anyway. Yanukovych may assume that the EU’s talk of conditionality and human rights is just sugar-coating for realpolitik, and that all politics is ultimately realpolitik. But it isn’t. The EU has no alternative to conditionality and continuing the dialogue of the deaf in the hope of small improvements. If it did anything else, it wouldn’t work. So don’t expect too much from the Feb. 25 summit.

The article first appeared in the Kyiv Post

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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