The dramatic endgame has begun in Ukraine. As the Russian and Ukrainian presidents were meeting in Donetsk, the EU withdrew its invitation to Viktor Yanukovych to visit Brussels. The Ukrainian president has hardened his stance on jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; the EU is unsure about signing a free trade agreement with Ukraine in December; and Dmitry Medvedev has said that it’s not all about gas – there are also other values at stake. But in all this complexity, some clarity has been achieved.
At the very least, we know now that we are witnessing genuine and intense competition for Kiev, which has a choice between signing a free trade and association agreement with the EU and joining the three-nation Customs Union led by Russia, which has aspirations of expanding it into a Eurasian Union. Like it or not, Ukraine now finds itself in a zero-sum game.
The rivalry over Kiev has escalated quite unexpectedly due to the insistent desire of the Ukrainian authorities – or rather its industrial and energy lobbies – to review the price of Russian gas. Kiev’s position is neither consistent nor well thought-out, but rather a chaotic sequence of threats and promises that suggests the absence of a clear policy. Its goal, however, is clear, and the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, who signed gas contracts with Russia as prime minister, is the means of achieving it. The harsh sentence she received has not only complicated Ukraine’s relations with Moscow and Brussels, it has created a situation in which the impossible has become possible.
The European Union is gripped by indecision. According to the values, rights and liberties it claims to uphold, it should cool relations with Ukraine. And indeed, the EU responded harshly to Tymoshenko’s sentence. But considering Russia’s integration ambitions, which Vladimir Putin has reaffirmed in his article on a Eurasian Union, Brussels fears that Kiev may turn east.
Ukraine is consciously stoking these fears. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko has said openly that Ukraine will turn its attention elsewhere if Europe does not show it respect. Such statements should not be taken seriously, as the situation is far more complicated than that, but the fact that we are hearing such things from Ukrainian officials is surprising enough; usually Ukraine is trying to scare Russia with the prospect of its integration with the West.
European officials, when asked why this glaring violation of democratic norms – an opposition leader sentenced to seven years in prison – has not stopped Europe from cooperating with Ukraine, they roll their eyes and say something along the lines of “you cannot punish the nation for the mistakes of its leaders.” But some admit that the EU is driven by a desire to prevent Russia from benefitting from any deterioration in EU-Ukraine relations. This stance conflicts with the ideology of united Europe, but clearly this is of secondary importance at the moment.
Moscow saw an anti-Russian subtext in the Tymoshenko trial and initially criticized the verdict. But in Donetsk, President Medvedev was pointedly neutral and avoided saying anything concrete. After all, Russia stands to gain if the Tymoshenko trial, whatever its objective, drives a wedge between Ukraine and the EU. The Kremlin is doing its best not to lose this slim chance.
But can the Ukrainian authorities make a final decision? The answer was “no” until recently. Irrespective of the leadership’s desire, Ukrainian society is objectively divided and sharp turns invariably provoke an outcry in one part of the nation or the other. Psychologically, Ukraine has become accustomed to being “the eternal bride” who is in no hurry to take the wedding vows. Even the election of a seemingly pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was no guarantee that Russian-Ukrainian relations would improve dramatically. Furthermore, Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs have completely different financial and industrial interests. For these reasons, it is widely believed that joining a Russia-led association would provoke a political crisis in Ukraine.
But the logic of Ukrainian politics has added several new elements to this picture. Yanukovych decided to go for broke, disregarding taboos of Ukrainian and post-Soviet politics.
The Ukrainian taboos are rooted in the country’s political culture, according to which confrontation should never reach its logical conclusion, with the sides retreating to their initial positions in order to start bargaining. But this was not the case with Tymoshenko.
According to unspoken post-Soviet taboos, no political leaders have been tried or, worse still, imprisoned, although some have been toppled and forced into an exile. (Tymoshenko’s mentor, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, was imprisoned, but in the United States.) Tymoshenko’s trial has created a precedent that does not please post-Soviet leaders one bit.
By going for broke, Yanukovych has blocked his own escape route. He must either convince the nation that the rules of the game have changed, and they are dictated by the current authorities, or push back against the powerful internal resistance, which, combined with external factors, could lead to destructive results.
In other words, the question is whether the second most important post-Soviet state can establish the same political system found in most post-Soviet states, i.e. authoritarian and centralized. It seemed until recently that this was impossible due to the high degree of diversity of Ukrainian society. But Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has rather easily taken the political reins in the less than two years of its rule, encountering only weak resistance. Opposition forces have only their own leaders to blame: the slapstick comedy in which Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko starred when they were in power has all but extinguished Ukrainians’ desire to be politically active.
We will know the outcome of this complex game between Kiev, Moscow and Brussels quite soon, and it will determine a great many things in Greater Europe.