Only a little over a month before the much awaited Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit, the fate of Ukraine still hangs in the balance. The country of 46 million is expected to sign an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, but several obstacles remain, notably Europe’s insistence that the government free former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who hopes to entice Ukraine into his own customs union, is desperately trying to sway the country from signing the agreement with Europe.
Ukraine’s signature of the Association Agreement and free trade deal marks the culmination of a political push to improve relations with Europe’s Eastern neighbors within the EUs Eastern Partnership (EaP). The summit is also expected to mark the beginning of formal negotiations with a number of other countries in the region, including Moldova and Georgia. The EaP was launched by Poland in 2008 as a venue for discussions of trade, economic, visa, and other issues between the EU and its eastern neighbors.
The small Baltic state of Lithuania, which assumed the rotating presidency of the European Council in July, has placed the issue, along with energy security, at the center of its political agenda for its six months at the reins of the body tasked with defining high-level political orientations. For Russia, this push is perceived as a threat to its own political and economic projects in the region. The country is the midst of creating its own Eurasian Union, which currently counts among its members Belarus, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, although leader of the historically pro-Russian Party of Regions, has publicly affirmed his intention to sign a trade deal with the EU. Russia has said that a free trade deal with Europe would preclude membership in its on trade bloc and has employed a series of carrots and sticks to try and persuade political leaders in Ukraine from pursuing closer cooperation with the EU.
In mid-August 2013, Russia suspended nearly all cross-border flows from Ukraine. Sergei Glazyev, top trade advisor to Vladimir Putin, left little room for doubt as to the motives behind the move, saying, “We are preparing to tighten customs procedures if Ukraine makes this suicidal step of signing the EU Association Agreement.” Lately, however, Russia has privileged a softer approach after heavy handed tactics appeared to be pushing Ukraine closer to the EU. This month, the Russian state-owned giant Gazprom offered a ‘gas discount’ of 35% to the country.
Russia has used similar tactics with other countries in the region. The small country of Moldova saw itself slapped with a ban on its wine exports to Russia. A Russian public health official said that the ban had been imposed because, “Moldova had consistently failed to act to improve the quality of its produce”. Lithuania has also been targeted for its highly visible role on the issue with its dairy exports to Russia blocked this month. European Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht says he has no doubt that the trade restrictions are “politically inspired.”
While Ukraine maintains it is ready to sign with Europe, several EU Member States, most notably Germany, have expressed concerns about political and judicial problems in the country and have demanded concessions from Ukraine prior to the signing of a DCFTA. Specifically, European leaders have said they will not budge on the release of Yulia Tymoshenko. The former Prime Minister of Ukraine was convicted of abuse of power and handed a seven-year sentence in 2009 a conviction some see as politically motivated.
President Yanukovych signaled last week that he is willing to release Tymoshenko, but the modalities remain to be settled. Serhiy Hrynevetsky, a member of the presidential commission on pardons, has said that there are currently no political or legal grounds to pardon Tymoshenko, meaning that her release would likely be on medical grounds. Several proposals are currently being debated in the [[w:Ukrainian parliament that would change the country’s penal code and allow for the ex-prime minister’s release for medical treatment in Germany.
It remains unclear, however, if Ukrainian parliamentarians will be able to strike a deal. Tymoshenko’s supporters in the Batkivshchyna party, led by Arseniy Yatseniuk, are demanding nothing short of a pardon. If she is released on medical grounds, it also remains to be seen if European leaders will accept this compromise. If Ukraine is to sign the agreements at the Summit in late November, these details will need to be worked out by the next meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers on November 18th.