Recently, Ukraine endorsed the Association Agreement with the EU, but Brussels was eager to remind that there were still conditions to be met (first and foremost, the release of Yulia Tymoshenko). This brings more uncertainty about the upcoming decision for Ukraine. September and October is a decisive period for Ukraine’s officials that will determine the outcome of the Vilnius Summit in November 2013: whether the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine will be signed or not. Today, we clearly see three major players in this high-stake political game: the EU, Ukraine, and Russia. However, there are two other participants behind the scenes – Lithuania and the United States.
Lithuania, which currently holds the presidency on the EU chair, is the strongest supporter among EU member states of Ukraine’s integration with Brussels, and, therefore, of signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius in November.
Mindaugas Žičkus, advisor to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, has noted that Lithuania is going to ask for the United States’ support in convincing Ukraine to adhere to Brussels’ conditions, which should lead to successful Vilnius Summit. It is possible that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, might attend the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Vilnius in September.
Lithuania’s motive to bring Ukraine on board is clear – losing such a powerful ally would be a significant blow to Russian authorities. On the other hand, failure to sign an association agreement with Ukraine would be a sign of weakness for the EU’s Eastern Partnership efforts to closely cooperate with eastern neighbours.
The European Union has set the list of conditions that Ukraine has to complete in order for the Association Agreement to be signed in Vilnius, and it seems as if Brussels strongly wishes for Kyiv to do so. Arguably, the most important requirement is the release of Julia Tymoshenko from jail. However, Ukraine seems quite neutral about the EU’s requirement for democratic reforms and even signing the agreement. This neutrality can be explained by what comes after the Association Agreement – a move toward real democracy, freedom and transparency of the state apparatus, – all of which are not attractive to the Yanukovich government.
However, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment puts an authoritarian stain on Victor Yanukovich’s reputation in the West, especially after the numerous demands by Brussels to release the contentious political prisoner. Yanukovich needs to realize that releasing Tymoshenko is a wise political decision. This move could inspire positive reactions from Brussels regarding fulfilling the Association Agreement prerequisites and distract the EU’s attention from other democratic changes outstanding in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, let us not forget about the role of Russia during this crucial time. The Kremlin has put considerable effort in promoting the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Moscow has been attempting to entice Kyiv to join the Union and has offered various benefits (with not many preliminary conditions) from their cooperation. Ultimately, Ukraine was not excited about the deal and has since been standing between Brussels and Moscow.
Putin, not wishing to ‘lose’ Ukraine in case of the Association Agreement signing, initiated a trade war with Yanukovych. Russian President has warned Kyiv multiple times that if an agreement is signed with Brussels, Ukraine will be overflowed with cheaper and better quality European products. Therefore, Russia will have to close its border to protect its market.
Consequently, the Kremlin’s aggression towards Kyiv turned Ukraine from a weak favorer of cooperation with Brussels into the one giving the agreement more consideration. In this regards, we can observe a change in Ukraine’s attitude towards the upcoming Vilnius Summit from neutral to supportive. Presidential elections in Ukraine are to be held in 2015 and it looks like nothing and specifically no one can come in way of Yanukovich winning it. Thus, there is a chance that Tymoshenko will be released soon, as she is considered in Ukraine to be unable to exercise as much influence in the country’s opposition as she did before.
Mindaugas Žičkus noted that Brussels was ready to accept Ukraine. Lithuania fully supports the effort to bring Ukraine on board, and the US can help Vilnius with this task. However, as Žičkus and other experts note, the final decision is to be made in Kyiv, and, particularly, President Yanukovich can change the future of the country.
This article was originally posted on Beyond the EU on 23 September 2013.
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