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Published on July 15th, 2013 | by Katharina Obermeier
Image © padwilks 2004

A Troubled Courtship: The EU and Ukraine

Kiev, November 2004: Hundreds of thousands of protesters throng the streets of Ukraine’s capital city, decrying the election-rigging which had brought victory to Viktor Yanukovych and the widespread corruption in the government. Following mass protests, the regime is forced to resign and governance is handed over to the new President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, key figures of what will come to be known as the Orange Revolution. International observers hail what they view as the beginning of a new era for Ukraine, and an opportunity to move away from the oligarchs’ dominance of political life towards greater transparency and democracy.

Nearly a decade later, however, the situation looks very different from the one envisioned by the protesters: Yanukovych has been in power since narrowly winning the 2010 elections after Ukrainians became increasingly disillusioned with the Orange Revolution victors’ governance. Under his administration, the country has moved back towards authoritarianism, with greater power being transferred from the parliament to the President, media censorship, and abuse of the judiciary. The latter manifested itself most notably in the jailing of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. While she proved to be a divisive figure while in office, there is little doubt that her arrest was politically motived, as Yanukovych sees her as a threat to his position. Tymoshenko is now facing serious health problems and her trial for tax evasion and embezzlement has been postponed several times.

The international community has expressed alarm over the deteriorating quality of democracy in the country, but few have followed the developments as closely or been as concerned as the European Union. The EU first completed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Ukraine in 1998, as it did with other post-Soviet countries in a bid to establish closer relations with them, overcome past hostilities and extend its democratising influence eastwards. Since 2008, it has been negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement as part of a future Association Agreement, a first step towards EU membership. The EU has also been involved in a financial and technical cooperation programme for Ukraine, funding a number of projects, many of which are aimed at promoting democracy and assisting with the reform process. One could therefore argue that the EU is heavily invested in its relationship with Ukraine.

This is why the negative trend in the country has caused particular concern in the Union: Members of the European Parliament have passed several resolutions calling on Yanukovych’s administration to release political detainees, the European Court of Human Rights (which is not associated with the EU but can influence policymaking in the Union) has ruled that Tymoshenko’s pre-trial detention is arbitrary and unlawful, and the German government has repeatedly offered to allow Tymoshenko to come to a clinic in Germany to receive proper medical treatment, which her supporters say she is being denied in Ukraine. Most significantly, the free trade agreement has been initialled but will not be signed until EU officials find that key reforms on governance and the judiciary have been implemented in the country.

Will the stick of international condemnation and the carrot of improved trade relations convince the Ukrainian government to reform and make concessions? Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unlikely. Ukraine is looking into receiving observer status at the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union, Putin’s attempt at economic integration which has been criticised as a means for Russia to gain greater influence in the region. Yanukovych has been toying with seeking membership in this Union, which EU officials have indicated would be incompatible with a future Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. According to recent polls, a slightly higher percentage of Ukrainians are in favour of joining the Eurasian Customs Union than seeking closer relations with the EU. From Yanukovych’s point of view, it is easy to see why this might be the preferred course: membership in the Eurasian Customs Union would give Ukraine cheaper access to Russian gas, which has been a source of conflict in the past, and its fellow members Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, none of which are beacons of democracy or respect for human rights, would be unlikely to demand domestic reforms as a condition of membership.

While it is understandable for EU leaders to want to prevent Ukraine from drifting away from European integration towards Russia, it would be wrong for them to give up their demands for reforms as a pre-condition for the signing of an Association Agreement. By all accounts, Yanukovych is relatively ambivalent towards closer relations with the EU, making him unlikely to respond to the stick-and-carrot approach with meaningful changes. But if the EU relented on its conditions now, it would essentially be condoning the government’s crimes, and Yanukovych could keep threatening to join the Eurasian Customs Union, thereby counteracting any pressure the EU could hope to exert on his

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Katharina Obermeier

Katharina considers herself a German-Canadian hybrid. She grew up in Germany and completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Politics, especially in relation to concepts of nationality, have always fascinated her, and she is particularly interested in international political economy. During her studies, she was an avid participant at Model United Nations conferences, and helped welcome international exchange students to her university. She is currently completing an internship at a Brussels-based trade association and hopes to work in European affairs in the future. In her political writing, Katharina marries social democratic principles with a keen interest in the European Union and its implications for European politics and identity. She writes to counteract simplistic ideas about politics and economics, continuously attempting to expose the nuances and complexities involved in these subjects.

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