As Poland’s first EU Presidency draws to a close, ‘Ukraine’ is on everyone’s lips – but for the wrong reasons. At this moment, when Tymoshenko’s arrest has made the future of EU-Ukrainian relations especially vulnerable, engaging with Ukraine beyond the political establishment is of critical importance. Here, Poland – Ukraine’s leading advocate within the EU – can make a unique contribution.
Over the last few months, the arrest and trial of Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine has been causing the European Union (EU) a headache. In the springtime, EU-Ukrainian relations were looking relatively bright, as the next EU-Ukraine summit, originally scheduled for 19 December 2011, approached. But the Tymoshenko affair has triggered a crisis in EU-Ukrainian relations, leading to the indefinite ‘delay’ of the planned summit. Although the negotiation of Ukraine’s DCFTA was successfully concluded in Kyiv last month despite this crisis, the future of the Association Agreement is still uncertain. The EU remains divided about how to respond.
This raises important questions for Poland, as Ukraine’s leading advocate within the EU. Since it joined the EU in 2004, Poland has drawn upon its own rich Eastern policy and pushed for closer EU engagement in its Eastern neighbourhood. This has brought tangible results, notably the Eastern Partnership (EaP, founded in 2009) after a joint initiative by Poland and Sweden. This year, during Poland’s first EU Presidency, relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood were given a prominent and highly symbolic position. Even though urgent practical issues like the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone have dominated the agenda, symbolic events like the Eastern Partnership Summit have been a success. In sum, Poland has supplemented its own bilateral relations with specific Eastern neighbours with EU-wide ones, and through the EaP, an increasingly multilateral approach.
Contrary to certain allegations, Poland remains committed to its Eastern Neighbour. Continuity has characterised Poland’s Eastern policy since the early 1990s, based on the aims of fostering its neighbours’ democratisation and EU-integration. The Eastern policy of Radek Sikorski, the Foreign Minister since 2007, has retained these aims, albeit pursuing them in a more ‘pragmatic’ manner (including a more cooperative policy towards Russia). This has revived Poland’s longstanding debate between ‘romantic’ and interest-based approaches to its Eastern policy. Yet despite these polemics, there remains a consensus among Polish political elites concerning Ukraine, which has retained its significance as Poland’s ‘strategic partner’, developed in the 1990.
Eastern policy dilemmas
But right now, we are acutely reminded of the ‘horrible divergence’ between Poland and Ukraine’s trajectories since the fall of Communism. Poland has been largely resilient to the financial crisis, enjoys political stability and is just concluding a successful EU Presidency that has undoubtedly strengthened its position within the EU. In Ukraine, on the other hand, Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidency (since January 2010) has become synonymous with the demise of democracy, of which the Tymoshenko trial is merely the clearest signal. The hopes raised in Ukraine – and not least in Poland – by the Orange Revolution of winter 2004-2005 now seem strangely naive. In a revenge of fate, Kyiv City Administration has just banned the commemoration of the Orange Revolution’s seventh anniversary, planned to take place on the capital’s Independence Square this December.
Both Poland and the EU face a dilemma here. The Tymoshenko affair demands a tough response, but it is the authorities that must be punished, rather than Ukrainian society. In fact, these dilemmas towards Ukraine are becoming reminiscent of those that the EU faces in dealing with Lukashenka’s regime in Belarus. In attempts to promote democracy in Belarus, neither political isolation nor insouciant engagement appears to provide a satisfactory approach. Nobody wants ‘another Belarus’ as a neighbour; hence, the EU’s response to Tymoshenko’s arrest is a real test of its credibility in foreign affairs. Here, for all its talk on democracy promotion and role in the Arab Spring earlier this year, the EU shows an embarrassing weakness and double standards. Whatever immediate decision is reached concerning the December EU-Ukraine summit, these dilemmas are likely to remain unsolved for a long time.
Here, the fear is not that Poland will somehow ‘abandon’ Ukraine. The re-election of the Civic Platform in October 2011 (with Sikorski staying on a Foreign Minister) means that Poland’s remarkable continuity in its Eastern policy is set to endure. Instead, the problem lies in the emerging paralysis of high-level diplomatic relations with Ukraine. Both Ukraine’s domestic and international politics impede constructive dialogue with the EU. But there are numerous constraints on the part of the EU and its member states, too, which have their own priorities. Even in the case of Poland’s EU Presidency, one has to remain realistic; it was never going to culminate in the ‘promise of EU membership’ for Ukraine, as some optimists hoped. These limits on high-level diplomacy mean that a different focus becomes all the more timely: on Ukrainian civil society.
As in Belarus, Yanukovych’s Presidency in Ukraine is only one facet of that country; it is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the political establishment, wider society faces its own hopes and indeed its own challenges. At this moment when EU-Ukrainian relations are particularly vulnerable, civil society contacts are more promising than high-level diplomacy. Fortunately, the EU has finally developed the necessary tools for this: the EaP’s significant innovation is its engagement with partner countries beyond high-level politics. The EaP’s still-embryonic Civil Society Forum is deliberately designed for this purpose. Engaging with civil society will ensure that, however long this stalemate in EU-Ukraine diplomatic relations lasts, democracy in Ukraine will continue to be strengthened at a grass-roots level. Indeed, this could even lead to a reaction against Yanukovych’s unacceptable vendetta against his former political rival, Tymoshenko.
In this context, Poland can make a unique contribution, as the home of an unrivalled range of organisations specialising in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood. In addition to numerous NGOs, Poland has such think-tanks as the Centre for Eastern Studies and dynamic publications that include Nowa Europa Wschodnia (which launched a full English language publication this autumn, see here). Polish experts have the specialized experience, the language skills and the contacts to really engage with developments in Ukraine and beyond. They are both observers and actors in these events, through the organisation of conferences, training sessions and funding opportunities in the region.
The challenge is therefore to visualise Poland’s contribution to EU-Ukrainian relations in a long-term perspective. As Poland’s Presidency draws to a close and the conclusion of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU remains uncertain, Poland’s real influence on the Eastern Neighbourhood lies in its non-governmental sector and in contacts beyond high-level diplomacy. Apart from their promise for the future of EU-Ukrainian relations, these are surely good in themselves, as horizontal contacts between Polish and Ukrainian society remain undeveloped – to the detriment of both.
Annabelle Chapman won the 2nd place in Eastbook contest for article on Eastern Partnership.
Postgraduate student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University, Scholar on the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom. Born in a newly reunited Europe, but one that faces new divisions in the 21st Century. She enjoys old cinema and train journeys