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Questions abound over Ukraine's European future

Ukraine is currently negotiating visa-free travel with the EU as part of a wide-ranging association agreement, as some of the country's politicians express hopes for a clearer "European perspective". EurActiv outlines various scenarios for Ukraine's expected rocky path towards closer EU integration.

Many politicians in Ukraine wish to see their country enter the EU through the main entrance. The reality, however, is that the process will likely result in entry via a side door after hanging around in several waiting rooms in the meantime, experts in Brussels and Kyiv told EurActiv.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Commission officials said they had to rein in attempts to develop a more visionary approach for Ukraine due to opposition from key member states, including Germany.

As for the timing of accession, Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine's vice-prime minister for European integration, told EurActiv that 2020 had been mentioned as a possible accession date in one enlargement scenario.

Hryhoriy Nemyria Nemyria nevertheless said "realism" prevails in Kiev regarding possible enlargement dates, adding that the country attaches more importance to the quality of its integration than the pace.

The economic and financial crisis has severely hit Ukraine's unreformed economy, with a huge metallurgy sector inherited from the Soviet Union. Any changes are therefore likely to be painful and take time. This is why Ukraine needs incentives for change in the medium term, according to sources familiar with the matter.

One important such step is the lifting of the visa requirement for Ukrainian citizens to travel to the EU's Schengen area, a move which was recently been envisaged for several Western Balkan countries.

Visa-free travel does not imply work permits, although some EU countries fear an increase in illegal work. On the other hand, some Ukrainians fear that lifting visa barriers with the EU would create a similar barrier with Russia, which does not exist at present.
  

 

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One important target for Ukraine to achieve is visa-free travel ahead of the 2012 European Football Championships, which the country is jointly hosting along with Poland. However, the economic crisis has brought with it delays in preparing for this landmark sports event, prompting other countries to mull stepping in to host the event.

The clearer leadership the country needs could come after presidential elections scheduled for 17 January 2010. Leading experts believe Ukraine most urgently requires constitutional reform to ensure convergence between its political bodies.
 
 
Election gamble

Europe, NATO and Russia could be among the topics distinguishing candidates in the January presidential elections. Commentators believe that the cross-cutting issue might underpin the campaign of Viktor Yanukovitch, a former prime minister supported by many Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and current leader of the Party of the Regions.

His former opponent and current president Viktor Yushenko is strongly pro-Western, and counts on old independence bodies like the prestigious Roukh, but is languishing low in opinion polls.

The other hero of the orange revolution, Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, has a pro-Western image but is deemed essentially pragmatic regarding relations with Russia.
Yatsenyuk
Outside this 'group of three grandees', Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, is seen as a liberal moderniser, but others describe him as pragmatic as well. Interestingly, most other candidates confess that Yatsenyuk could become prime minister. He is currently running a massive poster campaign of his own.
 
 
 

Security aspects, relations with Russia

Security and institutional aspects raise a number of other important issues. In the case of the EU's recent enlargement, East European countries tended first to join NATO as a clear geopolitical demarcation.

In the case of Ukraine, the situation is likely to be different, as the country's relations with Russia are likely to remain strong. Russia sees Kyiv as the cradle of its civilisation. Many families there are bi-national and a lot of Ukrainians still prefer the Russian language to Ukrainian.

Overall, Ukrainian public opinion does not seem to be particularly aware of the country's approaching fundamental choices and seems strongly in favour of joining the EU. However, they are worried about raising new barriers with Russia, and a majority are opposed to NATO membership.
 
 
Frozen conflicts

Many Ukrainians fear that Moscow covets Ukraine's strategic Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea, which is home to an ethnic Russian majority and is the site of a Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol.

The 'frozen conflict' of Transnistria, on Moldovan territory bordering Ukraine, is another hotbed of tension. Although internationally, Transnistria is part of Moldova, the region is de facto controlled by Russia. With such problems still unresolved, it is unrealistic to discuss deeper EU integration, said officials in both Kyiv and Brussels.

On a more optimistic note, policy analysts said that Ukraine’s relations with Russia should not necessarily collide because of the country’s EU rapprochement. They pointed out that Russia also has an agenda for stronger, closer and better structured relations with the Union, although of a different kind, since Moscow does not seek accession.

"The trick is to find the right mix for both approaches," a Commission official said.

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Positions

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyria, responsible for European integration, acknowledged the problems created by the economic crisis.

"We take consistent steps towards full-fledged EU membership. However, the global financial crisis has slowed the process down, but it did not bring it to a halt. We elaborated a governmental anti-crisis programme with a range of measures to overcome the crisis and continue on the path of European integration," he told in a recent interview.

Nemyria also stressed the importance of the forthcoming presidential elections: "True, the reforms are not being pursued as quickly as we expected, but we hope that the forthcoming presidential elections, held openly and transparently in accordance with European and international democratic principles, will be further evidence that Ukraine corresponds to [the] political criteria of candidate countries. It would pave the way towards [the] acceleration of necessary reforms.”

Stanislas Chum, chairman of the business daily Delo, told: "There is a lack of communication from the government and from the EU on what to expect from European integration. Ukrainians, even business people, do not really understand the consequences of economic changes to be brought by the association agreement. I am not suggesting old-style propaganda, or just advertising and conferences, but working more closely with the media, that is editorially interested in European issues."

Brian Bonner, chief editor of the English language Kyiv Post, told this website:

"Ukrainians are realistic and pragmatic regarding Europe. They first want better government at home and the right to travel freely. 'Joining Europe' is a long term perspective, and may mean different things. In the meantime, Russia has gone back to strongman politics and Putin scares people into a Western orientation”.

A group of former Central European leaders including Lech Wałęsa and Vaclav Havel, recently published a joint letter calling on the new US administration not to fall victim to appeasing an ever-more assertive Russia.

"Russia is back as a revisionist power, pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods. At a global level, Russia has become, on most issues, a status-quo power. But at a regional level and vis-à-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one […] The danger is that Russia's creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralisation of the region," the leaders wrote.

EurActiv spoke with three think tanks in Kyiv, and summarises some positions here:

Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the Centre for European and Transatlantic Studies, a think-tank in Kyiv, told that his country's EU association and subsequent deeper relations should be mutually beneficial, focusing on market access. For him, people are not confused between EU and NATO. He said the Kremlin will try to block his country's European and Euro-Atlantic integration, not in Brussels but through EU countries' capitals. One should avoid giving Russia the impression that it has a veto right, and that Europe follows an appeasement strategy, Poloniets said.

Oleksander Suschko, director of the European Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, another think-tank in Kyiv, said that Ukrainian citizens need to be given a strong signal "that Western orientation is worth it". He advocated a faster lifting of the visa barrier. For him, it is important for Ukrainians to feel like Europeans in terms of values like freedom and a vision for the future. This does not necessarily mean applying soon to join the EU: its soft power is influential already, he added.

Mihail Pagrisbinsky Mihail Pagrisbinsky, director of the Centre for Political Research and Conflictology, another think-tank, claimed that Ukraine and Europe should first win back trust in Russia, as Ukraine "cannot be anti-Russian". Asked about relations between Europe and Russia, said he would advocate a "spaghetti scenario", made up of numerous sector-specific agreements without aiming for an overarching institutional framework. He advocates another scenario for Ukraine, under which it would not join the EU's foreign and security policy, and rather be a balance or "bridge" between the EU and Russia.

Background:

Ukraine, a country of 46 million people wedged between the EU and Russia, has broken with its Soviet and totalitarian past, but its democracy is still young and fragile.

While enlargement to Ukraine is not officially on the table and is widely seen as premature, the option is supported by Central European countries and many Ukrainian politicians. On the other hand, the EU's readiness to absorb large countries like Turkey or Ukraine is currently limited.

Ukraine's record has been shaky since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Orange Revolution in 2004, notably due to government instability, fights between the prime minister and the president, and numerous scandals.

In parallel, Ukraine is negotiating an association agreement with the EU, which would essentially see the two open their markets to one another, like any free trade agreement, but one step short of the customs union in force with Turkey. Creating visa-free travel with Ukraine could also be an important step in its EU rapprochement.

Ukrainian membership of NATO was rejected at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, at the same time as Georgia's was turned down. According to some analysts, the decision facilitated the latter's invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia four months later.
 
 
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