Ukraine is leaving Russia for Europe. That’s what many observers see as the likely consequence of the Association Agreement that Ukraine and the European Union are expected to sign at a summit meeting in Vilnius at the end of this month. But those who expect Ukraine to embark on a fast transformation should not be complacent. Bitter disputes persist within the Ukraine-E.U.-Russia triangle, complicated conflicts that are about selfish interests, not universal values.
The breakup of the Soviet Union was not a single explosion. It remains a slow-motion, centrifugal process, with pieces of the Russian empire drifting farther and farther away from Moscow as others remain caught in the Kremlin’s orbit. The Baltic states were the first to jump on the E.U. and NATO bandwagons. Other Soviet republics stayed in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose association formed in place of the U.S.S.R., but are pulled westward or eastward, Europe and China being the magnets. The republic of Georgia is no longer part of any Russian-led bloc. Ukraine is expected to follow suit, and Moldova has also been invited to sign an E.U. accord.
Vladimir Putin may say that opening borders to European goods and services under the Association Agreement’s free-trade pact is Ukraine’s sovereign choice. But Russia’s president is a master at dissembling: He is widely believed to have promised his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovich, to inflict a lot of pain if the Association Agreement is signed.
The Russian energy monopoly Gazprom charges Kiev exorbitant amounts for natural gas, the highest in Europe, and Ukraine is behind in its payments. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev says there will be no “all-encompassing forgiveness of debt, no ‘gas communism’ in the future.” Sergei Glazyev, Mr. Putin’s point man on Ukraine, is even more blunt. “Signing this treaty will lead to political and social unrest. The living standard will decline dramatically.”
Some Ukrainian observers say Russian scare tactics have backfired, helping Kiev recruit more supporters for the E.U. accord. But this support is far from overwhelming. Roughly half of Ukrainians would like their country to integrate with the European Union. A little less than half say they support membership in the Customs Union, a regional association instituted by Russia.
Of all the post-Soviet Ukrainian leaders, Mr. Yanukovich would seem the least likely to champion integration with the West. He comes from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, and is said to have received the Kremlin’s help during his 2010 presidential race. Now, widely unpopular — even his own Party of Regions opposes the E.U. deal — and facing a tough fight for re-election in early 2015, he has decided to play a political trump card: snatching the pro-European, anti-Russian rhetoric that had been a preserve of the opposition.
The Ukrainian leader also has other cards to play. Yulia Tymoshenko, his main political rival, is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office. She is widely considered to be a political prisoner and Europe wants her freed. Mr. Yanukovich is apparently ready to oblige — as long as the Europeans make sure she stays away from Ukraine and its politics. An understanding is within reach.
Among other conditions, Brussels wants Ukraine to establish Western-style institutions, including a prosecutor’s office with limited authority, a citizen-friendly police service and an independent judiciary — all designed to end the system of payoffs and patronage that benefits the president’s family and friends. Mr. Yanukovich will likely offer his assurances that this will be so, while continuing to do his best to bend these institutions to his will.
Brussels asserts that under the Association Agreement, Ukraine will save €500 million a year in customs duties, and it is promising an aid package of €186 million to help Kiev begin to implement institutional reforms and another €610 million after they are in place.
But this comparatively small amount of European money won’t save the day. Ukraine’s economy is stagnating and the country stands to lose billions in trade if the Kremlin gets tough. Russia can close its borders to more Ukrainian goods. It also can introduce stringent visa requirements, demand advance payment for natural gas exports, or cut off supplies as it has done twice before.
Moreover, in the short term, the free-trade pact is likely to hurt. Introducing European industrial standards (which is part of the deal) will make most Ukrainian-manufactured goods uncompetitive, while European produce will flood into the country. And that’s on top of the likely losses in trade and credit from Russia. Moreover, an association agreement is not the same as E.U. accession.
Economic gains will certainly be years in coming. Still, new institutions, especially in law enforcement, are exactly what Ukraine needs and an association with Brussels is the best hope for moving in that direction.
Mr. Yanukovich is known as a crafty double-dealer, but he is in a tight spot. If he delays attempts to institute reform, as his critics suspect, Brussels will back away. If he angers Russia by going ahead with the deal, Mr. Putin’s vengeance will be harsh and swift, pushing Ukraine into economic crisis. Mr. Yanukovich may try to parry an attack by casting Ukraine as the victim of Russian aggression, pressing the West for support, but that might not come to much.
The Ukrainian leadership is motivated by a mixture of expediency and fear. But if it walks the walk toward E.U. integration, the change will become irreversible. Genuine reform will nurture a generation of political leaders for whom Western values won’t be just words.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti.