Yanukovych vs. Ukraine’s European Integration
The European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit—scheduled for November 28–29 in Vilnius, Lithuania—is rapidly approaching. But in recent days, the prospects that Ukraine would sign a much-anticipated Association Agreement and trade pact with the EU have collapsed. The parliament, dominated by the president’s allies, repeatedly refused to pass required legislation that would have allowed jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment in Germany, in effect releasing her from politically motivated incarceration. Finally, earlier today, the government suspended preparations for signing the EU agreement. Opposition forces accuse President Viktor Yanukovych of sacrificing his country’s future in order to keep his political rival behind bars.
The chronology of Ukraine’s preparation for the upcoming summit had seemed promising. On November 13, however, a monitoring mission led by former European Parliament president Pat Cox and former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski returned to Brussels with no good news to report, and the EU gave Kyiv another deadline extension to meet the outstanding requirements for the Association Agreement, up until the very day of the summit.
Yanukovych’s decision not to go forward could have origins in Moscow, which has been warning leaders across the region not to go through with the planned agreements in Vilnius, and to join a Russian-led Customs Union instead. On October 27, Yanukovych met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi, and the topic of the visit remained a secret. A few days later, the Ukrainian parliament failed to pass the law on medical travel for prisoners. Yanukovych met with Putin again on an unofficial visit on November 9, and the subject matter of their conversation, released days later, was vaguely described as “economic cooperation.” But it can be assumed that as he conveyed other threats and inducements, Putin wished to personally explain how signing the Association Agreement and free-trade deal with the EU, which would brighten Ukraine’s economic prospects, could also bring down gloomy repercussions on Yanukovych himself.
The effect of the November 9 meeting is evident in the maneuverings of the two governments’ energy arms. On November 8, Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz stated that it would stop buying natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom, as it had enough stored underground for the year and could also rely on imports from Slovakia and Hungary. However, on November 14, Gazprom chief executive Aleksey Miller announced that Naftogaz had agreed to continue buying Russian gas under the existing contract. After an apparent attempt to break away from Russia’s grasp, Yanukovych appears to have had second thoughts.
Since winning the presidency in 2010, Yanukovych has concentrated enormous economic and political power in his own hands and those of his inner circle, known as the Family. Naturally, he and his associates are desperate to ensure that he wins the next presidential election in 2015. They apparently believe that he is likely to succeed under current political conditions. The major opposition parties have recently pulled together to form a united front, and there are at least two clear candidates for their presidential nominee—Vitaliy Klichko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk. But the administration is already devising ways to undermine their chances.
Yanukovych seems less confident that he could deal with an unfettered Yulia Tymoshenko. She is known for her loyal base of supporters and harsh oratory against the current president, and her politicized imprisonment has only increased her standing among many international observers. In a notable flourish, she has urged EU officials not to punish Ukraine on her account.
The fear of facing this opponent in 2015 may have had even more impact on Yanukovych than Russia’s economic pressure. While it is possible that he would prefer European integration over Russian domination in the abstract, he simply cannot afford to lose the election. The massive wealth corruptly accumulated by his “Family” is protected by his tight grip on the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of power. If he were pushed out of office, his successor could subject this wealth to honest investigation, or simply follow the precedent set by Yanukovych himself when he had Tymoshenko jailed on trumped-up charges.
It is important to emphasize that the requirement imposed by Brussels is not just about Tymoshenko. Signing the Association Agreement would oblige Ukraine to undergo important structural changes aimed at achieving European standards for democratic governance, electoral freedom, and the rule of law. Resolving the Tymoshenko case would demonstrate Ukraine’s commitment to future reforms and cooperation with the EU. Ultimately, it is those reforms that would pose the greatest threat to Yanukovych’s authoritarian practices.
As of today, both Kyiv and Brussels say they may sign an agreement in the future, but it is increasingly apparent that Yanukovych has indeed chosen his personal interests over those of 46 million Ukrainians.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.