Is Yushchenko's Ukraine embracing or turning its back on Russia? (file photo)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kyiv on 21 February to remind the new, pro-Western government of President Viktor Yushchenko that it has some important obligations in the "eastern direction" left to it by its predecessor.
In September 2003, then-President Leonid Kuchma signed an accord on the CIS Single Economic Space uniting Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan
"Under the present conditions, when the European markets are closed for us,... it's better to have a real bird in the hand than two in the bush," Kuchma commented at that time. But the situation has since changed.
The same day that Lavrov was visiting Kyiv, Ukraine and the EU signed a three-year Action Plan envisaging EU support for Kyiv's bid to obtain market economy status in the coming months, to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU. Moreover, President Yushchenko was to leave the same day for Brussels to take part in a Ukraine-NATO Commission session, where he reiterated Ukraine's commitment to closer rapprochement with NATO. Lavrov's trip to Kyiv thus appeared to be primarily a check of Kyiv's true intentions under the Yushchenko presidency, who has recently set Ukraine's priorities as remaining in an "eternal strategic partnership" with Russia and seeking vigorous Euro-Atlantic integration at the same time.
"Russia is Ukraine's eternal strategic partner," Yushchenko reportedly told Lavrov in Kyiv, which might have been expected. But subsequently, perhaps having remembered how nasty Moscow behaved toward him during the Ukrainian election campaign, Yushchenko went on in a less suave mood: "But I would not like to comment on all the pages of our bilateral relations. If we are friends, we should turn these pages." Additionally, Yushchenko told Lavrov what the latter was predictably prepared in advance to hear: "But it is important that our relations with the East do not block our path to Europe."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk appears to have been equally noncommittal and smooth with Lavrov. "We face the need to develop a strategic partnership under agreements reached by our presidents," Lavrov told Tarasyuk. To which Tarasyuk responded: "If we are talking about a free-trade zone [within the CIS Single Economic Space], in principle this would not cause any problems in terms of our integration with the European Union or our membership in the World Trade Organization. If we are talking about a deeper level of integration [within the CIS Single Economic Space], there could be problems."
It might sound peculiar, but both Yushchenko and Tarasyuk might still be less than fully aware of the level of integration -- or problems, for that matter -- stipulated by the accord on the Single Economic Space. The text of that accord has never been made public in either Ukraine or any other signatory country, and Yushchenko's legal experts are now reportedly studying it to advise him as to what the document actually commits Kyiv to doing. Judging by earlier press reports, the agreement calls for the formation of a free-trade zone and a customs union of the four states, as well as a high level of political coordination of their economic and financial policies. Kuchma reportedly signed the accord with a reservation saying that Ukraine would commit itself only to those provisions that did not contradict its constitution.
The Verkhovna Rada ratified the agreement on the creation of the Single Economic Space comprising Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in April 2004, also reportedly unaware of its verbatim provisions. Opponents of the agreement, who at the time included Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party, argued that its full implementation would deprive Ukraine of any prospect of joining the European Union.
Space For Optimism
Only Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko appeared to have unambiguously lifted Lavrov's spirits during the visit. According to Lavrov, Tymoshenko "clearly confirmed" to him that Ukraine is interested in the further development of the Single Economic Space. But Lavrov should know that Tymoshenko's pledges or ideas are not always in line with those of Yushchenko. For example, last month Tymoshenko suggested that Ukraine might seek NATO membership jointly with Russia. "My personal view is that Ukraine and Russia cannot find themselves in qualitatively different, let alone mutually hostile, defense [alliances]," Tymoshenko wrote in a Russian newspaper in January. Prudently, Yushchenko has remained silent on this idea in Brussels this week, while promising to develop strategic partnerships with both the EU and Russia.
Russian press comments on Lavrov's trip to Kyiv can be aptly summarized by a subhead in "Kommersant-Daily" that reads: "Sergei Lavrov was given a warm, indifferent reception [in Kyiv]." Russian reporters underscored the fact that Lavrov's visit was primarily an exercise in diplomatic verbosity and has brought no practical results in bilateral relations. At the same time, most Russian press comments admitted that in the current situation, Kyiv has no apparent reason to be especially eager for integration with Russia, in particular, or with the Single Economic Space in general. Even if both Kyiv and Brussels carefully avoid mentioning any prospects or time frames for Ukraine's EU or NATO membership, Russian commentators now appear to realize that such integration options for Kyiv have become considerably less fantastic than they were just several months ago.