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Time for a gesture to Ukraine

Article by Dick Leonard

January 26, 2009

It is true that EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs went out of his way to say last week, when he met Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, that EU-Ukrainian relations would not be damaged by the dispute. The fact that he needed to say this, however, was evidence enough that the relationship was under strain.

The timing is highly unfortunate as delicate negotiations are currently under way to conclude an association agreement with Ukraine, as well as to forge a new ‘Eastern partnership’, along the lines of the Swedish-Polish initiative, adopted by the European Commission last December.

The issues at stake are ably spelled out in a new pamphlet from the Centre for European Reform (CER), entitled Why Ukraine matters to Europe. The author is Thomas Valasek, a former senior official in the Slovak Ministry of Defence.

An unabashed supporter of Ukraine’s ambition for EU membership, Valasek makes no bones about the fact that Ukraine’s “messy politics”, and “exceptionally unstable” governments are largely responsible for the cooling of fervour on the EU’s side. He is particularly critical of the failure of the two pro-Western parties, led respectively by President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to co-operate in a coherent way.

Their competing ambitions for the next presidential election, due late this or early next year, led to the breakup of the governing coalition last September, and the threat of premature parliamentary elections. In the face of the economic crisis, the government was put together again just before Christmas, with the addition of a smaller party, led by Volodymys Lytvin, the former (and recently re-appointed) Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament. This gave it a rather more comfortable majority against Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions and the Communist Party of the Ukraine.

Yet the internecine strife continues, with Yushchenko attacking the gas agreement which Tymoshenko concluded with Putin, while the Prime Minister last week openly speculated that Yushchenko, together with his chief of staff Viktor Baloha, was planning to declare the economy in default, and imposing a state of emergency that would preclude the presidential election (in which he is given little chance) from taking place.

The split in the pro ‘Orange Revolution’ forces has undoubtedly been a major element in preventing Ukraine from making steady progress towards becoming a viable candidate for EU membership. The achievements, however, have been far from negligible. Ukraine has a free media, and the last two elections have been open and free. Membership of the WTO was achieved last year and economic growth in recent years has been impressive, ranging between 6 and 9 per cent.

Ukraine, however, has been hit hard by the economic downturn, with demand slumping for its export products, notably steel, and its currency under attack. This led it to throw itself at the mercy of the IMF, which granted a loan of $16.4 billion in November.

Valasek lists corruption, the failure to depoliticise the administration and the law courts, and the excessive influence of oligarchs in all political parties, as factors inhibiting the introduction of necessary reforms. Yet he also blames the EU, which, he maintains has offered too little encouragement and support.

The successful transformation of the ten former Communist states, which joined the Union in 2004 and 2007, was driven by the perspective of eventual membership, which the EU has persistently refused to offer to Ukraine. Most recently at last September’s EU-Ukraine summit, when several countries, notably Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, resisted strong pressure for the gesture to be made.

Valasek concedes that Ukraine is nowhere near to meeting membership criteria at present, but points out that the same is true of five Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – which have been designated as ‘potential candidates’.

In the face of continuing Russian pressure, the least the EU should do in showing solidarity with the reform forces is to make the same commitment It will then be for the Ukrainians themselves to put their house in order.

Dick Leonard, who recently visited Ukraine, is author of ‘The Economist Guide to the European Union.’

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