Ukraine reaches a turning point

When we last looked at Ukraine, a bit over a month ago, there was a sense of optimism around. It was expected that the European Union would sign a free trade and association agreement with Ukraine that would put it on the road to EU membership, and that this would be a feature of the EU summit being held next week in Vilnius, Lithuania.

But now nobody knows. The Ukrainian government says it wants to sign the deal, despite strong Russian opposition. But the EU has repeatedly made it clear that a precondition is the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko – who, ironically enough, was convicted of selling out Ukrainian interests to the Russians.

Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, seems to have been playing a double game here. He’s unwilling to pardon Tymoshenko, but says he supports legislation that would allow her to travel abroad for medical treatment. But his party has repeatedly blocked such legislation in parliament.

The most recent attempt, on Tuesday, was postponed until today. According to the Guardian, the parliamentary leader of the party “said there was only a 50% chance that the laws needed for the signing of the EU deal would be passed this week.”

As I said last month, closer relations with the EU are a no-brainer for Ukraine. But Russian pressure has been relentless, and is particularly hard to resist because it plays to Ukraine’s big socio-cultural fault line – the pro-Russian east of the country is Yanukovych’s power base.

Fundamentally, the goal of any Ukrainian government remains the same: to play the EU and Russia off against each other in the hope of getting the maximum benefit from both without antagonising either. It’s not easy, but it’s the only game in town.

It’s certainly left the EU up in the air. Le Monde referred on Monday to “une totale incertitude” about the agreement. No-one likes there to be surprises at this sort of summit; the business should all be bedded down days or weeks in advance, so that the national leaders can all enjoy the photo opportunity.

But Ukraine is a sufficiently large prize that EU leaders seem willing to leave things right up until the meeting itself if that’s what it takes. The Guardian’s reporter suggests that “if at a dinner during the summit next week Yanukovych gives his word that he will release [Tymoshenko] in the coming months, a last-minute compromise arrangement could be possible.”

There’s also a difference in approach depending on just which EU members one listens to. As Le Monde reports, those in the east of the continent (Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states) are more willing to cut Ukraine some slack – they understand what having Russia as a neighbor is like.

Western powers like Germany and Spain are more insistent on the EU’s criteria being met, while those in the middle “want to take account of the departure of Ms Tymoshenko, but put it in the balance with the strategic interest of a rapprochement with Kiev.”

The issue of Ukraine and its European destiny – and of course, behind that, the even more tangled question of Russia-EU relations – isn’t going to go away. Whatever happens, it will outlast next week’s summit. But it does seem as if events in Vilnius, one way or another, could come to be seen as a major turning point.

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