In 1998, while serving as the American ambassador to Ukraine, I hosted a dinner and at one point asked, “What is the greatest threat to Ukraine’s security?” After a pause, one Ukrainian guest answered, “Ukrainians.” That prompted a round of laughter, followed by a serious discussion to the effect that Ukraine’s biggest challenge was the inability of its leadership to set a strategic objective and then follow through by making the difficult decisions needed to attain the goal.
There is no better demonstration of this problem than President Victor Yanukovych’s failure — and the failure was his — to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) at the November 29th Vilnius Summit. He has left his country stuck between Europe and Russia, on a “way going nowhere,” as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė put it. His decision to unleash the police against demonstrators in Kyiv on November 30th only mires him more deeply on that path to nowhere.
Immediately after becoming president in early 2010, Mr. Yanukovych set about improving Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. At the same time, senior officials said his foreign policy sought a balance in the country’s relations between East and West. Indeed, Mr. Yanukovych soon stated that he attached high priority to integrating his country with the EU.
EU and Ukrainian negotiators labored over an Association Agreement, which lays out reforms that would bring Ukraine into conformance with EU norms and standards, and includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. The negotiators initialed the document in 2012, but EU leaders held off on signing out of concern over the democratic regression that has taken place during Mr. Yanukovych’s presidency.
At a meeting in Brussels in February this year, EU leaders set out for the Ukrainian president the key criteria that would affect their decision on whether to sign the Association Agreement: an end to selective justice, electoral reform and implementation of the association agenda reforms. Linked to the issue of selective justice, a number of EU states called for the release from prison of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In September, an energized Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) began enacting legislation to meet the EU’s criteria. The opposition offered its support, and pro-Europe laws passed with overwhelming majorities. Ms. Tymoshenko’s fate seemed to remain the principal obstacle. On November 21st, the Rada considered six bills, each of which might have allowed her to travel abroad for medical treatment. Each bill fell short because Mr. Yanukovych’s party withheld its votes. He thus failed to follow through and take the one step that would have ensured that EU leaders would agree to sign the Association Agreement.
Whether, in the end, the EU might have signed even with Ms. Tymoshenko still in prison remains unclear. There was never a chance to find out. Shortly after the Rada votes, Mr. Yanukovych’s cabinet announced that it would “suspend” preparations to sign the agreement. That set up what was, by all appearances, a frosty November 29th meeting between Mr. Yanukovych and EU leaders in Vilnius, preceded by an equally cool dinner the night before.
Mr. Yanukovych, his prime minister and other senior officials attributed Kyiv’s last-minute reversal to concern about the economy and Ukraine’s need for financing. They have reason to worry — due to their own failures. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Mr. Yanukovych’s government agreed to a large loan program in 2010. Ukraine received a first tranche of IMF funds … and then stopped meeting the program’s conditionalities. Since the Ukrainian government chose not to follow through and implement the agreed reform program, the IMF very predictably stopped loaning Kyiv money.
Russian pressure has compounded the economic problem. In a display of hardball tactics that Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt described as “brutal,” Russia blocked Ukrainian imports this summer in an effort to dissuade Kyiv from its course toward Europe. The Kremlin badly wants Ukraine in the Moscow-led Customs Union.
Russian experts warned of further negative consequences for Ukraine’s economy if Kyiv entered the EU’s free trade area. To be sure, some Ukrainian industries would face dislocation as a result of the free trade arrangement in the short term. The long-term result, however, would be more efficient industries, capable of competing and holding their own in European and global markets. That was the experience of the Central European states that joined the EU in the last decade.
Unfortunately, Mr. Yanukovych appears to weigh mainly short-term considerations. He claimed Ukraine needed 20 billion Euros per year to bring its economy up to European standards and asked EU leaders in Vilnius for more funding. Asking to be paid off in order to take reform steps that are in Ukraine’s own interest was unlikely to prove a winning argument with his EU counterparts, especially given his track record of failing to follow through on previous reform and other commitments.
Where does this leave Ukraine? The country continues to suffer from a leadership incapable of setting a strategic goal and taking the actions needed to achieve that goal. Moreover, many believe Mr. Yanukovych does not give priority to what is good for his country but focuses on his own political power and family wealth. They may very well be right. But even then, his ability to pursue his personal goals will suffer as he mires his country between Europe and Russia.
Mr. Yanukovych’s unfortunate decision to use force to clear Independence Square on November 30th opens a new and uncertain chapter. It almost certainly will repel EU leaders, whose goodwill toward him has already run thin. Many no doubt are glad that they did not sign the Association Agreement.
Meanwhile, the use of force has generated a popular backlash within Ukraine. The situation now is fraught with danger — not least for the political prospects of Mr. Yanukovych, whose failure to implement his claimed goal of joining Europe has already alienated so many Ukrainians.