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Ukraine postpones EU association agreement; prospects look vague

November 22, 2013, 16:23 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
© EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

MOSCOW, November 22. /ITAR-TASS/. Ukraine’s decision to suspend negotiations over the EU association agreement which the West is so emotional about is generally seen in Russia as Moscow’s indisputable victory. However, many experts warn against getting too enthusiastic. Ukraine, some say, is an unreliable ally. It has made no final decision yet, but just postponed it. Much will depend on the political environment within the country, which Russia should bear in mind while considering economic aid for Ukraine.

Ukraine and the EU were due to sign an association agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in a week’s time. The agreement stipulates a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU, which, Russia believes, would shatter prospects of Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan), where its current status is that of an observer. The Russian government had warned it would toughen customs control over Ukrainian imports, if Ukraine concluded a free trade zone agreement with the EU.

Ukraine’s announcement came on Thursday. The Foreign Ministry, Ministry of the Economy and Ministry of Industrial Policy were instructed to resume an active cooperation dialogue with Russia, the Customs Union and the CIS. There are plans for a trilateral Ukrainian-Russian-EU commission that might try to improve trade conditions.

 “The move was impressive, no denying that. It’s like abducting the bride from the wedding,” the Russian daily Vedomosti quotes a Russian official as saying. “This is President Vladimir Putin’s another victory in the international arena.”

Indeed, in August - September high-ranking Ukrainian officials dismissed the slightest possibility of any revision of the EU integration plans. Everything changed following a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich held on November 9. The Ukrainian Parliament refused to adopt in the second reading a package of bills demanded by the EU, in particular, an act that might allow the medical treatment of convicts abroad. This would be tantamount to the release of Ukraine’s ex-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, Yanukovich’s arch political rival, from jail - one of the EU’s preconditions for the association agreement.

Furthermore, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has agreed to a rescheduling of the Naftogaz Ukrainy’s debt for gas supplies ($1.3 billion) and pledged not to demand advance payments. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said trade sanctions against Ukraine were now off the agenda.

Having learnt about Ukraine’s decision to freeze preparations for EU integration, Ukrainian and Russian entrepreneurs heaved a sigh of relief. The former did not conceal their concerns about the risks integration posed to the economy and suggested at a meeting with Yanukovich the agreement be postponed for a year.

Meanwhile, the decision has aggravated the political situation in the country. The opposition described the government’s decision as an act of treason, threatened Yanukovich with impeachment and the Cabinet, with dismissal. The supporters of integration with Europe took to the streets of the capital Kiev on Thursday. A rally in the Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), dubbed Euromaidan, gathered a crowd of 1,000 to 2,000. The demonstrators have declared the intention to gather regularly up to the crucial summit in Vilnius on November 28-29.

“The presidential election race has already started. By not signing the agreement Yanukovich has split Ukraine in two,” leader of the opposition party Batkivshchyna Arseny Yatsenyuk said.

Russian experts are warning against premature optimism.

“Geopolitically, the decision may be deemed as Russia’s victory, but I would not hurry to celebrate it, as Ukraine is a dubious ally, and we’ll have quite a few problems with it,” the director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, Aleksey Kortunov, told Itar-Tass.

The main question is, he believes, how active the Ukrainian opposition will prove after suffering such a heavy blow.

“Second, in 2015 Ukraine will vote to elect its president,” he says. “And this decision will inevitably polarize political forces. And if Ukraine does not reap obvious political and economic dividends from cooperation with Russia, Yanukovich’s opponents will have additional counter arguments.”

Political scientist Aleksey Makarkin, from the Center for Political Technologies shares this view. Russian victory may prove a Pyrrhic one in the future, he says.

“Yanukovich will surely ask for more, he will constantly exert pressures on Russia threatening to turn back to the West,” Makarkin told Itar-Tass. “He needs to win the 2015 presidential election and he wants Russia to provide financial the resources for his victory.” Makarkin believes Ukraine is “not a very comfortable ally.”

“The Ukrainian authorities have pondered for a while and decided that what the EU had on offer for them would be disastrous politically and economically,” the chairman of Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, told Itar-Tass. “The EU feels offended and angry, while Russia may be gloating - just a little bit.” But the expert is sure this does not mean Ukraine has unambiguously opted for the Customs Union and relations with Russia.

“It’s the other way round. Ukraine has refused to make a choice at this point. We should remember that Ukraine has just postponed the decision amid the outstanding difficulties,” he said.

Lukyanov believes that Russia should build up economic relations with Ukraine but “by no means should it offer considerable advance bonuses, let alone entice Ukraine with money.”

“So far, Ukraine has not proclaimed it is determined to join the Customs Union,” Russian permanent representative at the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said on Friday. “We’ll wait and see how trading relations will be developing between Russia and Ukraine. The Cabinet’s decision indicates it is planning to step up negotiations over economic cooperation with Russia and the Customs Union.

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