Yanukovych's Self Defeat in Vilnius

Op-ed in Central Europe Digest. Reposted with permission.

December 3, 2013

“ Viktor Yanukovych departed from history.”

That was how Ukrainskaya Pravda summarized the European Union (EU) Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on November 28-29th. In the end, the EU and Ukraine signed no document, while important Association Agreements were initialed with Moldova and Georgia.

Because of his peculiar behavior throughout the negotiation process, Yanukovych himself will bear the blame for the disappointment in Vilnius. The last year has been a tale of his reckless irresponsibility. The very latest — ordering riot police to clean Kyiv’s Independence Square from peaceful demonstrators the night after the Summit merely underlines Yanukovych’s lawless nature.

The EU and Ukraine completed their negotiations on the Association Agreement (which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement) already in November 2011. This deal would have given Ukraine a unique access to the European market, reformed the country’s state apparatus, and attracted vast foreign direct investment. Yanukovych’s problem was that the Association Agreement was not only a trade agreement, but also a broad political and legal accord, based on the key European values of democracy and the rule of law. Accordingly, in December 2012, the European Council of foreign ministers formulated eleven conditions of largely legal and political nature that Kyiv had to fulfill if the EU was to sign the Association Agreement in November 2013.

Up until September of this year, Yanukovych ignored these conditions. Then, all of a sudden, he adopted a legislative plan to enact all of them by the November deadline. Yanukovych’s actions were sufficiently convincing to persuade Ukraine’s three democratic opposition parties to join him in the effort. Presumably, Yanukovych was prompted into action by the trade war initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in August, which blocked exports from key Ukrainian industries. Russia and the EU each account for one-quarter of Ukraine’s exports, and so far this year exports to Russia have fallen by at least twenty five percent. The Kremlin also insists on maintaining prohibitively high prices for its gas exports to Ukraine. At the Yalta European Strategy conference in September, Putin’s personal advisor Sergey Glazyev even publicly threatened that Russia would put Ukraine in default, should Kyiv go through with the EU Association Agreement.

Putin clearly frightened Yanukovych, not least because his own disastrous economic policies have made the Ukrainian economy highly vulnerable. While Kyiv has accrued large budget and current account deficits, the President’s main preoccupation seems to be ensuring that a group of young businessmen — the “Yanukovych family” — acquires as many companies as possible. Yanukovych’s control over the courts and law enforcement has facilitated this process. In fact, Ukraine’s legal standards have deteriorated so much that Western-style banking is no longer feasible. Half of the West European banks in Ukraine have been sold in fire sales, and those remaining are currently on the market.

It seemed nothing short of peculiar that such a robber regime adopted a score of good European laws on democracy and law enforcement. Yet, Yanukovych knew his limit. All but two of the laws demanded by the EU have been adopted, but these two are the critical ones. The first is the draft law on the prosecutor’s office. As it stands, the prosecutor remains superior to the judge (a remnant of the old Soviet order), so without a new law, none of the changes in the law enforcement system really matter. The second law was to allow former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to travel abroad for medical treatment. After Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko with a slight margin in the February 2010 presidential election, he had her sentenced to seven years in prison in a purely politicallymotivated proceeding. It appeared that Yanukovych had decided to go to Vilnius without fulfilling these final two conditions, hoping to be allowed to sign the agreement in any case.