Ivan Katchanovski: The EuroMaidan, the European Union and the future of Ukraine

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Jan. 15, 2014, 9:40 a.m. | Op-ed — by Ivan Katchanovski

People talk to riot police officers during a rally of the opposition at the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's well-protected country home, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) from Kiev on January 12, 2014. Few hundreds of Ukrainians on Sunday staged a major protest outside the private residence of the President which has become a symbol of alleged corruption by the elite. AFP PHOTO/ GENYA SAVILOV

Ivan Katchanovski

  Many politicians and media in Ukraine and in the West present the current mass protests in Ukraine as driven by a desire of Ukrainians to join the European Union (EU), “join Europe” or sign an association and free trade agreement with the EU. The mass protests started as a result of a decision by President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon his earlier plans to sign an association and free trade agreement with the EU. However, they reached a maximum of several dozen thousand demonstrators in Kyiv, and were dwindling. But a violent and brutal dispersal by the special police forces of a few hundred demonstrators in a pro-EU sit-in on November 30th fueled the numbers of the protestors to the scale of the “Orange Revolution,” when the rallies in downtown Kyiv on Dec. 1 and Dec. 8 attracted at their peaks an estimated 100,000 and 150,000 demonstrators. Now, the mass protests turned from pro-EU to mostly anti-government, with the EU remaining an important motivation. A poll of protesters conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and Democratic Initiatives showed that the main reason for participation of the absolute majority of them (70%) was the beating of protestors, while 54 percent were driven by the non-signing of the EU association agreement.

Ukraine has almost no real chance to become an EU member in the foreseeable future, because the EU refuses even to recognize a potential right of Ukraine as a European country to join this organization, even when other conditions of the membership, such as democracy, would be fulfilled. EU member countries, many of which recently faced economic crisis and mass protests, would be also unwilling to adopt this new member with a population of 45 million because of reluctance to offer a large
subsidy to Ukraine, whose economy became one of the poorest in Europe.

The EU specifically refused to include in the association agreement a recognition of the potential right of Ukraine to join. The Eurobarometer surveys several years ago showed that, majorities of the residents of
Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, and Sweden. In contrast, only minorities of residents of major Western European countries, such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, supported future EU membership of Ukraine. As a new German poll indicates, public support for EU membership of Ukraine has likely increased because of the media coverage of the mass protests, but radical change in the attitudes is unlikely. Many politicians and mass media in Ukraine and the West talk about Ukraine and Europe, as if Ukraine were not already a European country and Ukrainians were not Europeans by incorrectly equating Europe with the European Union. The 2005 TNS Sofres Survey showed that only 44%
of residents in the UK, 54% in Germany, and 63% in France considered Ukraine to be a part of Europe geographically, historically, and culturally, while 27% respondents in the UK, 39% in Germany, and 32% in
France considered Ukraine as non-European.

The EU association agreement without a potential right to join the EU would put Ukraine in the rank of such post-Soviet countries as Moldova and Georgia, which also initiated similar association agreements, and non-European countries, such as Tunisia, Israel, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Chile, which signed such association agreements. In the case of signing of the association agreement, Ukraine would lag in terms of European integration behind such countries as Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Turkey, whose right to join the EU or candidate member status was formally recognized by this organization. The free trade agreement with the EU offers a reduction and elimination of many tariffs,
but it is unlikely to provide a major boost to the Ukrainian economy, because the Ukrainian export would be limited in many cases by quotas, and other barriers, such as standards. Similarly, the association and free trade agreement does not automatically lead to a visa-free travel of Ukrainians, their right to legal work or acceptance of university degrees from Ukrainian universities in EU countries. The EU-Ukraine agreement would not bring radical changes in the level of economic development of Ukraine, rampant corruption, lack of the rule of law, or make Ukraine a liberal democracy.

The release of imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that was set by the EU as a political precondition of the agreement is another major reason for the Yanukovych reluctance to sign it. Yanukovych is unlikely to agree to release Tymoshenko not only because she faces other criminal charges but also because of a fear that she would become again his major political rival and a leader of the protests, and that he would be prosecuted if the opposition would come to power.

Polls show that Ukraine in recent years became deeply divided, primarily along regional lines, in terms of support for the EU integration and the Russia-led Customs Union. There are similar regional divides concerning the Euromaidan. The increasing prominence in the mass protests, in particular violent ones, of Svoboda and other radical and extremist far-right organizations and slogans and symbols of their historical predecessors from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists can only widen such divisions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 17 provided $15 billion financing and a substantial reduction in natural gas prices to Ukraine. In contrast, Ukraine currently has no real chance to receive similar money
from the EU. Instead of openly siding with mass protests, the West can help to settle the current conflict and create incentives for the EU integration and democratic development by offering Ukraine a formal
recognition of its potential right for a membership in the European Union.

Ivan Katchanovski teaches at the School of Political Studies and the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

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