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A Defining Moment in EU-Ukraine Relations

The trial of Yulia Tymoshenko (centre) has been widely criticized in the EU.
Life for Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, is far from a bed of roses these days.

One the one hand, he is under unprecedented pressure from the West to release former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who remains incarcerated on charges of abuse of power while in office.

On the other hand, the Russians have been far from amused by Ukraine’s “European Choice” and recent rejection of their Customs Union.

This was not meant to happen. Following his election in February 2010, Yanukovych made EU integration a priority.

Reforms were launched, and while they may have been somewhat patchy, they nevertheless represented a significant step forward in terms of what the EU had been demanding for years.

The year 2011 was supposed to be a ground-breaking one in EU-Ukraine relations with steps toward visa liberalization well under way, and a revolutionary Association Agreement, including a far-reaching Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) due to be completed by year’s end.

Ukraine was set to take a massive leap towards its dream of one day becoming an EU member.

Relationship Soured By Tymoshenko 'Soap Opera'

Now, all these efforts are in jeopardy because of the ongoing Tymoshenko court case, which is labeled as politically motivated.

The verdict, originally expected by the end of September, has been adjourned until October 11.

For those that do not want to see Ukraine advance on its path towards the EU, the Tymoshenko case has been a gift.
The Prosecutor has asked for Tymoshenko to receive seven years' imprisonment while Tymoshenko’s defense has requested her immediate release and the EU has called on Yanukovych to amend Ukraine’s ancient Criminal Code so that she can be freed.

While Yanukovych initially seemed ready to do this, he has since made it conditional on Tymoshenko repaying the money Ukraine lost as a result of the gas deal she signed with Moscow in 2009.

Tymoshenko has refused and the soap opera continues.

If Tymoshenko is not released and allowed to return to political activity, it seems Ukraine will pay a price in its relations with the EU.

This has been made abundantly clear, even from the likes of Poland, a traditional ally of Kyiv.

However, while at the Warsaw Eastern Partnership Summit on 29-30 September, EU President Herman Van Rompuy stated that the EU remains concerned over the Tymoshenko trial; the bloc still expects to finalize the Association Agreement by the end of the year.

Nonetheless, if Tymoshenko remains in jail, there seems little chance of ratification taking place by a number of member states including, and perhaps not surprisingly, France and Germany, who have never really supported Ukraine’s European integration.

Chicken And Egg Situation

Indeed for those that do not want to see Ukraine advance on its path towards the EU, the Tymoshenko case has been a gift.

Now the EU finds itself in a chicken and egg situation. On the one hand it wants Ukraine to strengthen standards of democracy and the rule of law but at the same time they are threatening to take away the very tools that should help achieve this

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (centre) in Brussels with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (left).
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (centre) in Brussels with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (left).
While the West is right to be concerned about the prosecution of any political leader, in the former Soviet sphere or elsewhere, if the agreements remain unratified, Ukraine’s momentum may disappear, which will do nothing to improve the rule of law nor will it be of benefit to either Ukraine or the EU.

The Association Agreement and the DCFTA will not only further deepen cooperation between the EU and Ukraine, but they will serve to bring about reforms in numerous different areas, including the fight against Ukraine’s pandemic corruption and crucial judicial reform.

If Ukraine is to move away from its Soviet will require greater engagement from the EU.
While it is clear that Ukraine’s leadership have made some mistakes, with the exception of Moldova, the majority of other countries in the Eastern Partnership are leagues behind Ukraine in terms of democracy, freedoms, and respect for basic human rights.

Of course this does not excuse Ukrainian backsliding on democracy.

But it does question exactly what sort of strategy the EU has for this region when they threaten to cool relations with Kyiv while eagerly opening new Association Agreements and DCFTAs with countries that rank below Ukraine’s democratic standards.

Furthermore, while the EU is deliberating and its eastern policy is faltering, Russia is cooking up new initiatives to strengthen its hand in the region.

Putin’s new foreign policy brainwave -- a “Eurasian Union” aims to encompass all the ex-Soviet states, thereby openly competing with the EU, China and, to a degree, Turkey.

Unfortunately the future of Ukraine’s relations with the EU seems set to be determined by the Tymoshenko court case.

However, the EU would do well to think carefully before it dishes out Ukraine’s “punishment” because it will also have consequences for the EU and its entire Eastern Partnership.

If Ukraine is to move away from its Soviet legacy, win the battle against corruption and improve its rule of law, it will require greater engagement from the EU.

Isolating Ukraine serves no purpose other than to increase instability and uncertainty in this region.

Amanda Paul is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.