The EU should build carefully on popular support in Ukraine for EU association

The impact of EU policy towards Ukraine must be encouraging to EU policy makers. While inside the EU those wanting to leave the EU and/or the euro are still in minorities, the enthusiasm of the public in present circumstances is distinctly lacklustre, and it is hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of people encamped in EU capitals to demonstrate in favour of the EU as is happening in Kiev in favour of only an association agreement with the EU which does not yet offer a clear path to EU membership. What will happen in Ukraine remains unknown and the latest development is an agreement between Ukraine’s Yanukovych regime and Putin’s regime in Russia to buy Ukrainian bond and provisionally reduce prices of Russian gas — a respite from previous demands for higher prices backed by threats of cutting off supplies–provided that the Yanukovych regime remains in place and does not bow to popular demands to go ahead with the proposed EU association. However Yanukovych has alienated many of those who voted for him as well facing increasingly determined opposition from those who have always opposed him. Russia’s record of bullying appears to have reduced the percentage of the Ukrainian population who want to be closer to mother Russia and even Yanukovych himself who has always represented the eastward looking segment of the population has at times been hesitant about putting all his eggs in the Russian basket. The latest agreement does not include the Russian aim to establish a customs’ union together with a number of other ex-Soviet republics.

The EU has rightly not tried to present the struggles taking place in Ukraine as a proxy power competition between Russia and the EU for influence, although that is how it has sometimes been interpreted by the press. The whole purpose of the EU would be contradicted by participating in an old fashioned competition of great powers. The EU’s enlightened self-interest lies in achieving friendly relations with Ukraine and Ukraine, both of which are neighbours, without sacrificing its core values to do so. Doing so requires careful choices. On balance, the line of refusing an association agreement with Ukraine as long as Yulia Tyomoshenko, the former prime minister, is held in prison for evidently political reasons thinly disguised by a politically influenced legal process is right but so is the willingness under this condition to sign an agreement with Yanukovych government despite the likelihood ¬†that it has corruptly used political power to advance the personal economic interests of Yanukovych and his family. As regards Russia, it should not have the right of veto of a Ukraine-EU association agreement, but it should be acknowledged that Russia has a legitimate interest in ¬†aspects of such an agreement which would affect the close trading relations between Ukraine and Russia should be discussed and, in so far as possible, Russian concerns should be accommodated. The EU should wherever possible break down trading barriers and should do everything possible to avoid building new ones.

It is ironic that the release by Russia of Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, members of the Pussy Riot band and Greenpeace protestors in December indicates that the Putin regime is at present more concerned at its image at home and abroad that the Yanukovych regime. But there is reason to hope that ultimately Yanukovych will have to take note of the feelings of what is probably now a majority of the Ukrainian population that his policies are not serving their aspirations.