November 20, 2012

EU-Ukraine Relations after the Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections

A new "Plan B" for Brussels' policies toward Kiev

After the manipulated elections to Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada in October 2012, Brussels' relations with Kiev are deadlocked. Ukraine is not fulfilling the signing conditions for the pre-initialed Association Agreement with the EU. Here an eight-point outline of further and alternative actions for the European Union.


This summer, Ukraine and the European Union finally initialed a far-reaching Association Agreement. Apart from paving the way for a close political association between Kiev and Brussels, this unique treaty includes extensive provisions for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. If signed, ratified, and implemented, the Association Agreement – the EU's most extensive treaty with a non-member state – would make Ukraine part and parcel of the European integration process. The Agreement would put the relations between Kiev and Brussels on entirely new ground and provide for a comprehensive "Europeanization" of Ukraine's economy, political system, and public administration. It could one day be seen as the first step toward Ukraine’s full membership in the EU.

However, in view of the results of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on October 28, 2012, the prospect of signing the Association Agreement anytime soon look dim. After the EU-Ukraine Summit in December 2011, Brussels had repeatedly made clear that the quality of these elections would be decisive for the future of the EU-Ukraine relationship. Two further conditions, namely ending selective prosecution against political opposition leaders and implementing reform priorities – above all, legal reforms – were expressed in the bilateral Association Agenda. Nevertheless, the language used during the communication of these conditions was decidedly vague, using conspicuously tentative phrasing, indicating that the EU also wanted to leave some room for maneuver, in case all conditions were not fully met. Unfortunately, extensive manipulations took place both before election day and during the counting and tabulation of votes, leading the deputy head of Ukraine's Central Electoral Commission Zhanna Usenko-Chernaia to admit that the October election was the "dirtiest [parliamentary] election in the history of independent Ukraine." This leaves Brussels little freedom of action ahead of the foreign ministers' meeting, where the fate of the Association Agreement and future of the EU policy toward Ukraine will be discussed.

What should the European Union do, now that the Association Agreement seems off the table? We present a list of concrete steps that the EU should consider undertaking promptly. The common calls for support for civil society initiatives, closer people-to-people relations, or the intensification of academic exchange are not included in our list. These suggestions remain clearly valid, but are familiar and rather obvious, and also show results in the mid- to long-term. Instead, we need quick steps to re-intensify EU-Ukraine relations in the short run. We therefore suggest:

1. The EU should set out, in a single and clearly formulated written document, the conditions Ukraine has to fulfill for the EU to sign the Association Agreement. So far, there has been a cacophony of EU representatives' statements on this issue, only some of which were in writing. As a result, it is unclear what Brussels specifically expects from Kiev in order to make association and free trade between EU and Ukraine feasible.

The exact formulation and mode of communication of these conditions are important. Such a document should reiterate the the Union’s commitment to association and outline priority reform areas that should be the short-term focus. These could be human rights and fundamental freedoms, the functioning of the judiciary and public procurement procedures, as well as economic reforms. Those are areas which have seen significant deterioration, but in which acts of political goodwill could also bring swifter progress. The issue of politically motivated prosecution is more sensitive and requires special attention. On the one hand, the EU cannot simply ignore the fact that political opposition leaders are still in prison. On the other hand, this condition might never be fulfilled and EU-Ukraine relations would be stuck indefinitely. We suggest that the EU mention in the document that Ukraine should ensure that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are implemented (the relevant cases are under the ECHR consideration) without further specifications and continue pressuring Ukraine’s authorities on the issue via diplomatic channels. The EU's statement has to be made public and be presented as an appeal to the greater society as much as to the political elite. In this way, such a document could become a common reference point and instrument of domestic advocacy for various civic and political actors in Ukraine.

2. The EU should leak the text of the Association Agreement – preferably in Ukrainian – to the public. So far, the EU's offer has been a pig in a poke: There is much talk about the treaty, yet very few people can testify to having seen it. To be sure, the Agreement's text is reportedly very long, heavy, and technocratic. It is highly improbable that millions of Ukrainians will examine the text when it is publicized. Regardless, once released, journalists, politicians, business people, lawyers, and academics will be able to read and analyze those sections relevant to them. Although the Agreement might only be fully studied by a small number of Ukrainian experts, the public text of the Agreement may substantially change Ukrainian public discourse about European integration and Ukraine's role in it by providing a common reference point.

3. The EU should sign and ratify Association Agreements with Moldova and Georgia once negotiations are concluded, without waiting for Ukraine. This way, the EU would kill two birds with one stone: First, Brussels will show that its announced More-for-More Principle does indeed apply, which should strengthen the credibility of its Eastern Partnership policy. Second, an EU association with Moldova and Georgia will disgrace the current Ukrainian leadership in the eyes of Ukraine's pro-European elites, if not parts of the population at-large. Ukraine had, under President Yushchenko, been the first country to start Association negotiations with the EU in 2007. If now, however, Moldova and Georgia get Agreements that have been modeled on the Ukrainian one and start implementing as well as benefiting from them, this would further undermine the legitimacy of Yanukovych's erratic foreign and domestic policies. Naturally, in the case of Georgia, signing the Association Agreement should be made dependent on the Ivanishvili government's continuation of democratic reform policies and strict observation of the rule of law.

4. The EU should consider giving Moldova, and possibly Georgia, a conditional and long-term, yet nevertheless unambiguous, EU membership perspective. This offer must be formulated in a way that clearly states that in neither case is the decision compelled by outside forces: in the case of Moldova, unrelated to Romanian pressure; and in the case of Georgia, not dependent upon US demands. Further, the EU should indicate that such offers may be made to other Eastern Partnership countries that respect common values and show sufficient political goodwill in the future. This way, Ukraine's elite and the greater society may finally understand that there is a real chance of joining the EU one day – if and only if Ukraine starts implementing substantial reforms. Today, there are many people, even Ukrainian experts, who do not believe that Brussels will ever give Ukraine a serious chance at entering the EU. Explicit future accession prospects for Moldova and/or Georgia, however, will be seen as an implicit membership perspective for Ukraine, too – without binding Brussels in any way.

5. The EU must accelerate the visa liberalization process as much as possible. As a first step, the European Parliament should, sooner rather than later, ratify the amendments to the agreed-upon Visa Facilitation Agreement. Second, the EU member states’ consulates should become more customer-oriented. The EU's current restrictive visa policies hurt ordinary Ukrainians. These policies are often arbitrarily implemented in many consulates across Ukraine, and have already heavily discredited the European Union in the eyes of tens of thousands of Ukrainians. The EU consulates' complicated visa application rules, heavy processing fees, and sometimes inconsistent, if not ridiculous, decision making procedures on travel or work permits contrast sharply with Russia's liberal migration regime with Ukraine. Oddly, the EU consulates' policies frequently slow down and sometimes even hinder Ukrainian-EU cooperation which aims to promote those reforms Brussels hopes to accelerate. Third, the EU should reiterate that entirely visa-free travel will become a reality once Ukraine has implemented the reform program outlined in the Visa Liberalization Action Plan.

6. The EU must support Ukraine’s approximation efforts in those sectors that are important for the future Association Agreement and where no resistance from specific interests already exists. Down-to-earth technical standards will nevertheless have to be implemented at some point. If it is possible to move forward at once without the official framework of the Association Agreement, the opportunity to achieve instant progress should be seized. Energy cooperation requires special attention. Eastern European energy security, diversification, and savings as well as modernization of Ukraine’s gas transportation system should be the EU’s particular focus in the coming years. Concurrently, implementation of the Russian South Stream project in the Black Sea – aimed at undermining Ukrainian sovereignty – should be prevented.

7. The EU should engage more actively with some of Ukraine's so-called "oligarchs." Politics in Ukraine is, like in other post-Soviet states, a two-tiered game: What is happening in the public domain is only the tip of the iceberg. Often, important decisions in Ukraine are predetermined behind the scenes by actors who may not hold any significant official posts, but who control significant sectors of Ukraine's GDP. These "oligarchs" include a variety of personalities – some of whom are more dubious, and some less so. With a select circle of the latter, the EU should seek a dialogue concerning EU demands on the Ukrainian government and the benefits of the Association Agreement for Ukraine's economy. More communication with some of Ukraine's gray cardinals could facilitate closer relations in the official realm. Yet, the EU needs to make sure that such communication is not perceived as an attempt on the part of the EU to support non-transparent structures in Ukraine. We only suggest diversifying channels of communication with Ukraine to include actors who might be interested in bringing Ukraine closer to the EU.

8. The EU must create an Ukrainian research and information center, providing competent political, economic, social, and legal consulting on current Ukrainian affairs. This center could publish a weekly or monthly analytical bulletin or, at the very least, a bimonthly specialized journal on Ukrainian politics, business, history, society, etc. Such a center may also hold annual conventions, monthly expert round-tables, irregular public conferences, or occasional press conferences, bringing together academic researchers, policy analysts, journalists, social activists, and decision makers dealing with Ukraine.

Much of what went wrong in the EU's policies towards Ukraine over the last twenty years has to do with the shockingly scant knowledge across Europe about Ukraine, Europe's largest country by size. Even high-level bureaucrats in European foreign ministries, chief administrators in major international organizations, influential journalists in leading media outlets, and policy experts in top notch think-tanks often operate with common misconceptions and stereotypes when it comes to Ukraine. No European country has a center equivalent to the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in Massachusetts, or the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies in Alberta. Europe needs at least one analytical center that regularly produces and publishes themed investigations and in-depth research on contemporary Ukraine. While such a center may also be partially or fully financed by the Ukrainian side, it should be guaranteed that its scholarly competence, professional reputation, distance to special interests, and position above politics are beyond all doubt.

If implemented swiftly and simultaneously, these measures could produce tangible results in EU-Ukraine relations within a relatively short period of time, e.g. within the next three to five years. They would not cost an extravagant amount, but could intensify domestic pressure in Ukraine on current authorities that resist reforms, improve mutual perception between the EU and Ukraine, and consequently change the atmosphere in relations between Kiev and Brussels. Ukraine is a pivotal country in the creation of a new transatlantic security structure. If Ukraine's transformations are successful, this will have positive effects across the post-Soviet space and in the Black Sea area. Alternatively, the repercussions, should the Ukrainian state-building process fail, would be felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders alone.

An excerpt of an earlier version of this text appeared in EUObserver and New Europe.

IRYNA SOLONENKO is a DAAD/OSF researcher of EU Eastern policies at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder, Germany, and project leader of the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries.

ANDREAS UMLAND is a DAAD lecturer in European Studies at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”