Unexpectedly, the Vilnius summit turned out to be a historic landmark in revealing the true state of EU-Russia relations, and in shaking up Ukrainian politics.
At first disparaged by hurried observers as a defeat of the European Union and a ‘victory’ for Vladimir Putin, the 28-29 November Vilnius summit appears today as a salutary moment of truth, a ‘Reality Check’, the title of the conference hosted by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaité alongside the official event. Four days after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pitiful performance at the EU-Eastern Partnership gathering, 186 deputies voted for the resignation of the Ukrainian government, 40 ballots short of the two-thirds majority needed to vote the government out. And street protests continue.
It is an infrequent occurrence to hear so many European politicians, together with EU top officials, share the same critical assessment of Russian and Ukrainian ruling elites. EU Commissioner Stefan Füle, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, among others, reasserted European engagement with the economies and societies of the Eastern Partnership, and clearly pointed to Moscow as the main spoiler. In their comments after the summit, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose-Manuel Barroso denounced Russia’s ‘veto’ over its neighbours’ decisions.
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski and former European Parliament President Pat Cox, both representatives of the European Parliament, did not hide their irritation at Yanukovych’s deceptive behaviour. In the course of their 18-month mission of ‘good offices’ to reach an association agreement, they paid 25 visits to Ukraine, had 18 face-to-face meetings with the president and as many with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. The stumbling block was Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment − ‘selective justice’, they emphasized − not a Ukrainian claim for huge economic ‘compensation’. And then suddenly, in November, Yanukovych claimed he needed the Russian money and stepped back from his initial engagement of March 2012.
Ukrainian opposition leaders expressed their determination to bring down the current regime. Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok and Petro Poroshenko represent different political families, but they agree on the anti-corruption and pro-European fight to pull their country out of economic slump.
In just a few days, the Ukrainian president irretrievably lost credibility. Elected in early 2010, his presidential legitimacy has been waning since, and is now rapidly falling. He displays no personal qualities or charisma that may help him regain authority and respect in his own country and abroad; 29 November was a Black Friday for him. In the morning, he was still being courted by a few European leaders, hoping for him to make a more positive declaration about future progress. At lunch time, the same leaders publicly expressed their disappointment, while his key opponents were on stage getting a warm reception. By late afternoon, the Kiev police had violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration, many were wounded and the president had to apologize (and say he will fire Kiev’s chief of police). The next day, street protests resumed.
A discomfited Yanukovych epitomizes the unstable and unreliable nature of a semi-oligarchic, fully clientelist regime. His attitude also sheds crude light on his relationship to Vladimir Putin, and on Putin’s own ruling methods. On 9 November, the two presidents held a meeting where Putin reportedly threatened Yanukovych with economic retaliation, and maybe more, if he went ahead with the EU agreement. Putin also reportedly promised economic aid and favours, which would come in very handy if the Ukrainian president wishes to run again in 2015 and needs ‘campaign sweeteners’. Such promises are volatile, but make the ‘obliged’ hostage.
In actual fact, Russia’s pressures are not a new phenomenon. The most striking episodes were the successive ‘gas wars’ after the Orange revolution of 2004. Putin stopped the delivery of natural gas to Ukraine, a main transit country, and several EU states were deprived of heating. Last summer, Ukraine suffered a selective embargo from Russia and lost a significant part of its export revenues. This is when the EU should have understood that Yanukovych no longer was his own master, and would play a phoney game with Brussels.
Putin’s blackmail has exposed his methods. He now looks more worried, uncooperative and anxious to contain European attraction in what he claims to be Russia’s natural ‘sphere of privileged interests’. He is repeating the same mistakes again.
In 2004, he was in Ukraine on the eve of the presidential election and harangued Ukrainian voters on television to vote for his candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. He got the opposite result. Nine years later, he has bluntly interfered in Ukraine’s policies and pushed people to the streets. As he continues to exert pressure and threatens protesters with more punitive economic measures, it becomes clearer and clearer to Europeans, Russians and Ukrainians alike that Vladimir Putin fears free competition, rule of law and open societies.
The Vilnius crisis was a tough lesson for the EU, but it can learn from it and leave the door open. It is a tougher challenge for Ukraine; the path is narrow. A big responsibility now falls on the Ukrainian opposition and civil society, as well as Georgia and Moldova, which in Vilnius formally initialled their processes toward an Association Agreement with the EU. These two small countries, weakened by Moscow-supported internal territorial disputes, have now become front-liners in the Eastern Partnership enterprise.
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