For quite a long time Ukraine has been experiencing a difficult situation. It has to make a geopolitical or – one could even say – a civilizational choice. The choice itself lies between two options: the European Union and the Eurasian Union, headed by Russia. In both cases there has to be the first step made in order to demonstrate which way Ukraine will choose. Those steps may take the shape of either the European Union’s Association Agreement (AA) or an agreement with the Customs Union and Russia. Which way to choose and what action to make – these questions currently dominate the agenda of Ukraine’s political establishment.
Currently Ukraine goes through one of the most important stages in its modern history. It is clearly observable when we analyze the most recent events, such as: the imprisonment of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko, working on language, pension and referendum law, and parliamentary elections of 2012. All of them – directly and indirectly – affect the future of Ukraine. Though, the main question remains open: does Ukraine tend to move toward integration with the European Union or a closer cooperation with Russia and its allies in the framework of a project presently called the Customs Union? The following choice will impact the life of every Ukrainian citizen and the impact will be felt for many years to come.
European Union’s Association Agreement
Without any doubt, the European path is more challenging and demanding. It requires a lot of efforts on behalf of Ukraine, but at the same time it might bring significant benefits in a long-term perspective. A path toward the European integration may be quite a long process. The European Union’s Association Agreement is only a small step on the long way. It is quite upsetting that even this step seems to be a very challenging one for the contemporary Ukraine.
In order to sign the Association Agreement, the Ukrainian government has to take some decisive actions on its behalf such as: terminate selective justice, liberate Tymoshenko (following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights) and reform its electoral law as well as its judicial system. These are the most significant obstacles that the Ukrainian government faces today. There are also other reforms and improvements, which have to be conducted in political, economic, and social areas. Accomplishing all of these will require a significant portion of courage from the current political elite of Ukraine, since many of these reforms will affect them in a direct manner.
Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan
In comparison to the European organization, the option of Customs Union is a much simpler choice. No conditions or demands of conducting any kind of reform are formulated and, in addition to it, Russia already welcomes the Ukraine with “open arms”, contrasting with the EU’s strict conditionality approach. Russia vividly demonstrated and emphasized what kind of direct benefits the Ukrainian economy would have if it joined the Customs Union. Among other benefits – which are currently emphasized by Russia – are: low gas and oil prices, access to the three states’ internal markets and full economic integration with the members of the Customs Union. Russia also promises to assist Ukraine with modernization of its industry. It is important to mention that membership in the Customs Unions with Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan will entitle Ukraine to a right of becoming a full-fledged member of the future Eurasian Union, which is to be established in 2015. The Eurasian Union is presented as Russia’s alternative to the European Union.
Which way to choose?
Costs and benefits of both decisions do vary significantly. But the choice has to be made as soon as possible because time is playing against Ukraine. The European Union is expecting from Kyiv a demonstration of some vivid improvements by the end of May, since the Agreement is planned to be signed in Autumn 2013. On the other hand, Russia claims that it will be the final decision for Ukraine and if it will choose to go along with the EU, the doors for the Customs Union with Russia will be closed forever.
The main difference lies in long-term and short-term perspectives as well as qualitative and quantitative gains. In a long run, the European path would be much more beneficial, from both perspectives. It will give access to the European markets, advanced technologies and encourage the government to reform the state faster and more efficiently. It will also provide Ukraine with a chance to finally gain confidence on the path toward the European integration. This will lead to reforms, tighter cooperation with the EU and presumably more work with Ukrainian citizenry as such (especially in terms of education about human rights, democratic and European values).
However, on the other hand, the AA does not guarantee a full EU membership for Ukraine in the future. Ukraine has to stand strong on its choice, because the process will seemingly require a lot of effort, serious improvements and challenges on its behalf. There is also a possibility that at some point, both the citizens and government of Ukraine as a candidate-state could give up their aspirations because the task would be too challenging.
Thirdly, even if Ukraine will go through this hard way and accomplish all the requirements, there is still a possibility that most of the EU member-states would not like to see Ukraine as a new member-state, for various reasons.
Customs Union wins the argument in a sense that it will bring fast benefits in a short-run. Enormous gas discounts will provide revenues for the Ukrainian economy – if it would not go straight to the pockets of oligarchs and corrupt politicians. However, in a long run the results will be dreadful. In fact, the doors to the European Union will be closed for decades to go, Ukrainian sovereignty will be put under serious threat and a comeback of authoritarianism is most probable. Such a new role of Ukraine would be very much similar to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s role in the Soviet Union. No political, economic and military independence…
Ukraine has to make a choice between two partnerships: the hard but certain one or the easy but unpredictable – brighter perspectives in a far future or quick capital inflow, meaning a huge step back for Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy. A decision has to be made as soon as possible and it is better to be a correct one this time.