Ukraine casts its lot with Russia

Kremlin sways Kiev to halt EU trade talks

By Dale R. Herspring

Ukraine, am eastern European country that is often below our radar, is playing an increasingly important role between Russia and the rest of Europe.

For hundreds of years, Ukraine was part of Russia and later of the Soviet Union. In may ways it is very different from its neighbors. Except for Russia, most of these countries are more or less ethnically pure. That is not the case with Ukraine. Russians inhabit its eastern parts and speak Russian, while Ukrainians live in the west and speak Ukrainian, a Slavic language between Russian and Polish. As recent events have indicated, there is considerable animosity between those who are pro-West and those who favor Russia.

When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine gained its independence. Like Russia, Ukraine had little experience with Western-style political institutions or legal, political, economic or other structures. A person being considered innocent until proven guilty or democratically elected politicians who are responsive to the will of the people were truly foreign notions. Corruption in Ukraine, as in Russia, is widespread.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, both Russia and Western Europe have wooed Ukraine. For awhile, there was much talk about Ukraine (and Georgia) joining NATO. Such talk infuriated Russia. Moscow has always felt that its sphere of interest includes areas that once belonged to Russia. though it has largely conceded the independence of the Baltic nations. However, Ukraine is different. It was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. When Sergei Khrushchev was in Kansas, he commented how much it looked like Ukraine, where he had been raised.

In recent years, politics in Ukraine have become internationalized, with the country determined to join both NATO and the European Union. Most Ukrainians have given up on joining NATO, but the desire to join the EU has remained strong. As recently as Sept. 25, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said his country intended to sign a free-trade pact with the EU. This would give Ukraine tariff-free access to the European market. He also carefully balanced his comments by noting that Kiev also intended to retain the option of joining Moscow’s Customs Union. Moscow made clear that if Ukraine joined the EU, it would not be welcome in the Customs Union. Russians further said that given the poor quality of Ukrainian goods, they would not find a market for them in the EU (but that Russia would be happy to purchase such commodities).

There is another factor. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison term for overstepping her authority.  The EU considers Tymoshenko a political prisoner.  Ukraine’s parliament refused to pass a bill that would have permitted her to go to Germany for treatment of back pain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that unless Ukraine develops a democratic judicial system, it would stand little chance of getting into the EU. And if Ukraine wants EU recognition, it should send Tymoshenko to Germany.

Meanwhile, Russia was in-creasing pressure on Kiev.  This led the Ukrainian government to issue a decree Nov. 21 halting talks on trade agreement with the EU. Technically, the talks were suspended, not canceled.  The statement added that the decision was taken to “ensure the national security of Ukraine” and “restore lost trade” with the Russian Federation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the EU had been trying to pressure Ukraine and welcomed Kiev’s decision to rekindle trade ties with Moscow.  Putin also said that he was not opposed to Ukraine’s ties to the EU, and argued for trilateral talks involving Ukraine, Russia and the EU. These talks, Putin emphasized, should take place before Ukraine signs an agreement with the EU, and Russia would have veto authority over Ukraine’s ties with the EU. Said Putin.  “This is in a way a test of how serious our European partners’ intentions are.  It’s a test of how ready our European friends are to conduct negotiations on an equal base, or the absence of such readiness.”

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