The Eastern Partnership Vilnius-Summit and the Battle for Ukraine (11/20)     Print Email

By Caroline Larsson, European Institute

The upcoming summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, November 28-29, will be pivotal for the future of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative through which the EU has sought to engage with a number of former Soviet republics, who are not members of the EU. Action on the proposed EU association and trade agreements with Ukraine has become the touchstone.

The meeting has taken on a touch of drama because of a down-to-the-wire delay by the Ukrainian parliament on whether or not to allow former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now incarcerated, to travel to Germany for medical treatment. The EU has insisted that positive action be taken on Tymoshenko prior to finalizing the trade agreement and had set November 19, as a deadline for action. The Parliament missed that deadline, but parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak has said it will take up the issue on November 21, only seven days before the Summit.

Observers from the European Parliament, former EP president Pat Cox and Alexander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland, have been tasked to report on the Ukraine’s “selective justice”, which, when it is issued, will be crucial on whether the agreements with Ukraine will be signed in Vilnius.

The Vilnius “Summit” is designed to provide a foundation for new Association Agreements and Free Trade Agreements with the EU. The signing and initialing of agreements in November, if they are signed, will mark the beginning of a process that could evolve into an even closer association with the European Union. Failure to sign agreements would cast a cloud over the future of the Eastern Partnership. As Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius says, “If we wait we may lose everything.” The Vilnius meeting is the capstone of Lithuania’s current Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Launched in 2009, the EU’s Eastern Partnership seeks to bolster political and economic relations with the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

Russia is also seeking to tighten economic ties with its former Soviet republics through the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAU), scheduled to go into effect in 2015, currently called the Customs Union and consisting of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Armenia has recently indicated its intention to join the Russian initiative. The EU, however, hopes to initial draft agreements with Georgia and Moldova in Vilnius.

The race for influence in the resource rich, strategically vital, but politically fragile region is on, and the eventual outcome will have important implications for the region, for the EU, for Russia, and beyond.

At a recent meeting convened by the European Institute in Washington, D.C., Andrei Slepnev, Minister of Trade of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), the permanent supranational regulatory body of the Customs Union, discussed the developments and the rising rivalry, which has created a reprise of the 20th Century’s “great game” for control of the “frontier countries” of the Caucuses.

The situation is even more complicated because some member states of the EU insist on certain reforms prior to extending trade relations.

Ukraine provides a case in point. For some time Ukraine has been actively exploring closer ties to the European Union, both under now-jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and current President Viktor Yanukovich.

But the EU has insisted that Ukraine accomplish a list of reforms, including some action on Tymoshenko, before inking the new agreements at the November Vilnius meeting. The Ukrainians have contended that peremptory release of Tymoshenko would violate Ukrainian law. Several Member States of the EU, including Germany, call the imprisonment of Tymoshenko “selective justice,” the code words for politically-motivated punishment.

Observers, including Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, have asked whether the EU can relax its position on Tymoshenko in response to recent Russian efforts to buttress support for the Customs Union. Indeed, pressure from Russia has already forced the EU to adjust its strategy. Rather than having all 28 member states ratify the Association Agreement with Ukraine, Brussels will allow the free-trade benefits to be available immediately upon signing the agreement. (National approvals will eventually need to be secured).

Despite the rising pressure from Russia, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich speaking at the General Debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly stressed the importance of Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreements with the EU for the Ukraine. At the same time he reiterated the importance of maintaining ties with Russia. “Our relations with the EU will benefit the Customs Union,” stated Yanukovich.

As Minister Slepnev observed earlier this month, ultimately “it’s Ukraine’s decision. But there is a misalignment in the Ukraine between politics and economics,” he said. He explained that Russia and Ukraine are natural partners because they have “similar systems and similar standards.” If the Ukraine adopts EU standards this compatibility would be disrupted, he said.

Ukraine is particularly important because it is the largest of the former Soviet republics with 46 million people and a $330 billion economy that relies heavily on both the EU and Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that “special trading partnership with Ukraine, which has operated up until now, will end,” if Ukraine closes the EU deal, thereby, making it clear that Ukraine will have to choose.