Kyiv Post | 17Feb2013 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Yanukovych’s ace in Brussels

The Ukraine-European Union summit, to be held in Brussels on Feb. 25, 2013, is an historic crossing for Ukraine.  Both sides would benefit from the signing of an Association Agreement this year to strengthen trade and political ties, but the obstacles to progress are still in place.

What does Europe want?

Certainly, it wants Ukraine to be a part of the democratic European family.  Ukraine is attractive as a major market, supplier of goods -- steel, grain -- and a buffer against Russia.

The EU wants Ukraine’s regime to move on three issues.

 First, end the terror of selective justice and free ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko,  ex-Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and others.

Second, given the questionable handling and results of its elections, more reform is needed in electoral laws.

And third, show momentum on the long-promised reform agenda.

In turn, Ukraine considers European integration to be so vital that it has chosen to withstand Russia’s considerable pressures to join its Customs Union where Belarus and Kazakhstan are already members. 

Ukraine’s absence weakens the union and Russia means to get its way.

Lately it has demanded the repayment of unconsumed energy costs claiming some $7 billion is owing. Russia promises to reconsider the debt should Ukraine join.  But Ukraine says it won’t pay and has retaliated with further diversification from Russia’s energy dependency.  It is negotiating an attractive natural gas agreement with Turkmenistan.  Given these tensions, it does not surprise that recent talks in Moscow were cancelled. 

Russia will continue squeezing Ukraine into agreeing to join its Customs Union rather than the EU’s free trade agreement but President Viktor Yanukovych has an ace in his hand: if he frees the political prisoners, European integration will become real.    

All this drama, with historic consequences, makes the February EU-Ukraine Summit pivotal for Ukraine and its president.

He needs respond favorably to demands from the West -- the EU, the United States and Canada -- or it might be too late.   EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said that “we cannot wait.”  In turn, Yanukovych showed some flexibility by responding that something must be done in face of constant criticism.

It is clear that the West must continue convincing Ukraine’s president that by freeing the incarcerated leaders he will free himself from a most difficult Gordian knot. 

Others have done this.  Last year, Myanmar released opposition leader San Sui Kyi, and others, and is moving forward.  However, this came about because the democratic world maintained sustained pressure on the regime.  It surprises, therefore, that some influential diaspora organizations would have the EU sign the Agreement without the release of the incarcerated leaders.

An EU agreement, without a quid pro quo from the president, is seriously out of step with the democratic world.   It removes the motivation from Ukraine’s regime to act lawfully now and in the future.  It encourages rogue behavior and is simply wrong.  The EU has given Ukraine until November to comply or it will be compelled to wait for another seven years before the next opportunity comes around.  Should the president fail in this, Ukraine’s isolation  from the West will increase.  The immediate casualties will be the regime’s leaders.  Already there are clear messages that U.S. President Barack Obama is not interested in meeting Yanukovych if he continues to take Ukraine on the road of becoming another Belarus while the U.S. Senate is considering sanctions against Ukraine’s officials.

The government of Canada has also been clear, since the arrests of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko some two years ago, that Ukraine must respect the rule of law and refrain from selective justice.  Writing to Canada’s Minster of Foreign Affairs earlier this week, the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine stressed that  Canada, once again, “ makes diplomatic demarches to the key parties; supporting the great value of the Association Agreement and the need for Ukraine to meet the EU’s conditions.”  A joint statement with the United States supporting EU’s conditions might persuade Yanukovych to use his ace keeping in mind that he game ends on Feb 25, 2013.     

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is columnist and member of the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine.