Ahead of the Vilnius Summit (November 28-29, 2013) EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton promised that the high-level meeting would “open a new chapter” in the relationship between the EU and its eastern neighbours. What came out of the Summit, however, resembles discovering to read an old chapter with Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement (AA) being the unexpected bitter surprise for Brussels. Three factors determined this outcome: illusions, the process of making foreign policy choices in the common EU-Russia neighbourhood and zero-sum game logic. The case of Ukraine is an expression of all of them.
The first factor refers mainly to the illusion on the part of the EU that its Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy is effective and can accomplish its goals (although a positive sign, the initialing of the AAs with Georgia and Moldova per se does not guarantee an exclusive EU foreign policy orientation for those two states). So far, the EaP has failed but certainly not due to Ukraine’s last minute sudden turn. The deficiencies of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and of the EaP (first and foremost, the incompatibility between EU and single partner countries’ expectations and level of willingness to commit) have been long criticised by scholars but the EU politicians seemed somewhat reluctant to recognise them and to re-think strategically this policy. The Vilnius Summit and Ukraine’s move exposed this problem and forced in a way Brussels to acknowledge it. Such a development has obvious negative impacts on the EU image as an attractive regional player and model of integration. The EaP failed to make the region united. Rather it is Russia and its political means and assertive reactions that provoke similar responses in these countries. In other words, Russia’s assertive trade or energy politics and pressure have had greater impact on these countries and their policies than the EU mild sanctions and recommendations. This is the case with pro-EU protests in Kyiv following the Summit. It is abundantly clear that Ukraine as well as the other post-Soviet countries construct their foreign policy in pragmatic (costs-benefits) terms and much less (if at all) in a value-driven fashion. Furthermore, the EU idea of having a country in the region whose pace of the reform process could be identified as a model to be emulated by other EaP partners (such as Ukraine was considered to be until very recently), also came to an end (it would be naïve for the EU to see the signing of the AA with Ukraine as Kyiv’s final decision about its foreign policy orientation given the country’s cyclical oscillation between Western and Russian regional structures). From now onwards, the EU will have to deal with each partner on a case-by-case way. What complicates further the EaP agenda is the illusion that the EU can speak with one voice regarding its eastern neighbourhood.
Illusions can be found also in the Ukrainian political leadership’s approach according to which Kyiv can decide the future of the country without facing opposition neither by the EU nor by Russia. Yanukovich’s initial foreign policy concept of transforming Ukraine into a “bridge between the EU and Russia” has failed because Ukraine alone is not in a position to choose autonomously its regional stance or to determine regional integration initiatives. In other words, it is an illusion that the sovereignty of the country is immune from EU’s or Russia’s political pressure and that the country will succeed to keep its independence from both regional poles. Tymoshenko’s imprisonment and the way her prosecution was dealt with can be seen as a moment of weakening of Ukraine’s sovereignty allowing external actors to influence domestic political developments (for example, the EU linked her release from prison as a pre-condition for signing the AA). However, the sovereignty is also likely to be undermined from within, i.e. by pro-EU political factions leading to even greater political and social turbulence (see street manifestations after the summit and violence episodes).
The second factor, tightly linked to the first one, is about making foreign policy choices. The Vilnius Summit was about officially declaring the foreign policy choices of the concerned countries, including Ukraine. Kyiv’s elite opted for the minor political loss and harm to its power in the short-term both domestically and in the foreign policy domain. To some extent, Moscow’s pressure offered the opportunity to Kyiv to escape the burden of EU “selective justice” conditionality in view of the 2015 presidential elections. Now it remains to be seen how Yanukovich will manage to comply with Russia’s conditionality while convincing Ukrainians of the rightfulness of this choice. Very shortly this may become a major concern for him.
The last factor is the return to zero-sum game logic in regional policies in the common neighbourhood which mainly concerns the unsolved bilateral relationship and regional rivalry between the EU and Russia. The months preceding the Summit as well as its results have been analysed in terms of winners and losers, of Ukraine’s “strategic long-term political error”, of Russia’s triumph and questions how to regain the initiative from Moscow. Both the EU and Russia emphasized that the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area is incompatible with Russia’s customs union project and that Ukraine had to make a choice. Both of them “lectured” Kyiv what is convenient and what is not for its economy and politics exacerbating further the country’s peculiar social division between pro-EU and pro-Russia oriented citizens. It is quite obvious then why in such conditions the most pragmatic and short-term approach prevailed.
Wrapping up, Ukraine’s choice is an indication of the delicate equilibrium of dynamics in the entire post-Soviet region as well as of the bitter illusion that those countries’ political fluidity and economic instability are easy to tackle and that Russia’s regional influence can be diminished relying only on the attractiveness of the EU image. In order to open a “new chapter on the region” during the next EaP Summit it is necessary that the EU and Russia find a suitable format of co-management of the area so as to avoid new illusions.
Tomislava Penkova, is a Research Fellow at ISPI Programme on Russia and EU Eastern Neighbours