Both Russia and Ukraine consider themselves European nations, part of Western civilization, and in both countries pluralities favor membership in the European Union. So how did the European Union manage to turn such a favorable situation against itself?
By pitting both nations against each other, and then attempting to force Ukraine to choose Europe over Russia. Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.
First, they rejected Ukraine’s suggestion — to which Russia initially had no objection — that accession to the European Union could be compatible with membership in the Customs Union, the precursor to a Eurasian Union linking former Soviet states. Now they have apparently also rejected President Viktor Yanukovich’s proposal to resolve the remaining issues (the main one being the very real possibility of European goods being dumped into Russia through Ukraine) through a three-way format that would include efforts to curb cross-border smuggling — something one would think would also concern Brussels.
Second, instead of highlighting those values that would have honored Ukraine’s Slavic European identity, the European Union actively promoted the notion that accession was a “civilizational choice” between Russia and Europe. Since the majority of Ukrainians traditionally regard Russia as their closest and friendliest neighbor, is it any wonder that they balked at such a choice?
Finally, European negotiators made the strategic error of ignoring substantial differences in traditional and religious values. The fear among a significant part of Ukraine’s Christian population is that the European Union would impose a very liberal moral agenda on the Ukrainian legal and educational system, including nontraditional family values that many here categorically reject. Spokesmen for the European Union made no effort to assuage these concerns, and their condescension on this matter has placed a ticking bomb under European integration efforts throughout the entire region. In sum, instead of approaching these negotiations as a partnership, the European Union behaved more like the owner of a country club which, while it might consider allowing Ukraine to caddy, would never consider granting it club membership. No wonder Mr. Yanukovich called the entire process “humiliating” for his country.
The most important lesson to be drawn from the European Union’s failure is the urgent need to alter the confrontational mind-set that drives the Eastern Partnership initiative. The response of Union officials to Ukraine’s decision to defer this agreement reveals what many already suspected, that at its core the initiative is nothing more than an attempt to push Russia out of Europe by drawing its boundaries further to the East. But since Ukraine and Russia already see themselves as part of Europe, we can expect both countries to reject what they see as the pointlessly confrontational choice the European Union is placing before them: that being European means turning one’s back on Russia.
Indeed, this false choice only builds momentum for the Eurasian Union. For one thing, this group respects the common cultural heritage left from Soviet times, which still holds significant appeal throughout the region. Second, in an effort to bolster ties, Russia already provides economic assistance to the region that is an order of magnitude greater than anything the European Union is even considering. Meanwhile, the final objective of both the European and Eurasian Unions is the same — the formation of a free trade zone that extends from Dublin to Vladivostok. The only real difference is that, because of its size, the Eurasian Union will be able to negotiate an agreement with the European Union on terms that are much more advantageous than those that individual states can extract.
Critics of the Eurasian Union, however, make two additional points. One is that, because Russia will dominate such a union, it must sooner or later turn into a new incarnation of the old U.S.S.R. The other is that mutual trade benefits negotiated among former Soviet states must inevitably lead to economic stagnation.
As the region’s largest economy, Russia will always be the driving force of the Eurasian Union, though less so as more nations join. But the notion that Russia will be able to restore the former Soviet Union through closer economic and trade ties is simply ludicrous. For one thing, state sovereignty is the cornerstone of the Eurasian Union. And, in any case, European Union mandates are already far more intrusive than anything being contemplated by the Eurasian Union. Therefore, if any group should be suspect of harboring aspirations that undermine national sovereignty, it is the European Union.
The economic stagnation argument is similarly miscast, for it typically contrasts the entire European Union to Russia alone, rather than the entire Eurasian Union. Moreover, Russia is already part of the BRICS coalition (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which analysts say will be among the world’s dominant economies by 2050. Are critics really suggesting that it is in Ukraine’s interest to shun the opportunity to gain access to these rising economic powerhouses simply because it also happens to expand Ukraine’s relationship with Russia? Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!
Advocates for the Eurasian Union also make other key points. First, the Eurasian Union is already adopting many standards based on those of the European Union, but it seeks to introduce them gradually, so as not to impoverish the local population, a point that is especially relevant given Ukraine’s fragile social and political balance. Second, they point out that European Union rules are very narrowly tailored to the needs of member states, which may not be optimal when competing for access to other markets.
The contrast could not be sharper. The European Union proposes abandoning a common heritage and adopting unpopular liberal alternatives. It proposes weakening national economic and legal autonomy in exchange for the ephemeral prospect of membership, which will be decades in coming, if it comes at all. Meanwhile, many Ukrainian industries will be ruined by the removal of tariffs on European Union goods.
The Eurasian Union proposes rallying around an existing common heritage. It proposes building economic partnerships to expand markets and establish new, globally competitive industries. Finally, it seeks to integrate these into the larger global economy on the basis of collective market strength. In the meantime, the Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is willing and able to offer significant financial subsidies to countries that wish to build such a transcontinental common market.
In retrospect, the sensible question to ask is not why Ukraine failed to sign the association agreement, but what possessed its leaders to think that doing so would be a good idea in the first place?
Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, is currently a Fulbright research scholar in Ukraine.