By Oleg Varfolomeyev
Ukraine is making strides toward signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Chances are high that it will be signed in Vilnius in November as scheduled even if former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is not allowed to receive medical treatment in Germany, as she and the EU wants—let alone being freed from prison, where she has been kept for two years. The recent last-ditch efforts made by Russia to derail the Ukraine-EU deal have produced the opposite effect (see EDM, September 3, August 15). A blockade of Ukrainian imports by Russia in the middle of August pushed President Viktor Yanukovych to order his party in parliament to hurry and pass the bills needed for integration into the EU. Ukraine has, thus far, been behind schedule in this, raising doubts within the EU as to Ukraine’s determination to qualify for the association deal.
Around August 13–15, the Russian customs service nearly paralyzed Ukrainian exports to Russia with overzealous customs checks. Russia accounts for about a quarter of Ukrainian exports, so exporting companies immediately complained to the government, which protested to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s advisor Sergei Glazyev explained the situation on August 18, saying that the checks were only “prophylactic,” to show what would happen if Ukraine signed the free trade agreement with the EU (Interfax, August 18). He elaborated in an interview later that Russia would step up customs, veterinary and sanitary controls, as well as revise joint projects in the defense, nuclear and aerospace industries, and possibly also terminate its own free trade agreement with Ukraine. If Ukraine opted out of integration with the EU, it would enjoy cheap gas and oil from Russia as well as billions in investment, he said (Vesti, August 21).
Putin, speaking in Rostov-on-Don on August 22, confirmed that protective measures against Ukraine would be stepped up if it proceeded with integration into the EU because, he said, Ukrainian goods would be squeezed from the Ukrainian market by cheap goods from Europe and flow to Russia (Interfax, August 22). The “prophylactic” checks by the Russian customs lasted for about a week. Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov flew to Moscow on August 26 to try to persuade Russia to change its tone. He met with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, but no compromise was apparently found. Medvedev’s deputy, Igor Shuvalov, insisted that Russia would have to protect its market if Ukraine signed the deal with the EU (UNIAN, August 27).
Russia’s threats must have scared and angered Yanukovych, but the effect was the opposite to that intended. Yanukovych told national TV on August 29 that Ukraine would meet all the EU conditions to sign the association agreement. The EU, for its part, visibly warmed to Ukraine after the customs spat. After a meeting between Ukraine’s opposition leaders and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, the business daily Kommersant-Ukraine reported on August 30 that the EU no longer insisted on the adoption of new election laws. The EU wants Ukraine to release Tymoshenko from prison, but this is not a must-do. Brussels also warned Moscow against threatening Ukraine (UNIAN, August 23).
On September 4, Yanukovych gathered lawmakers from his Party of Regions (PRU), who control a comfortable majority in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament, and instructed them to approve all the bills that the EU deemed necessary for the signing of the agreement in November. He reportedly made it clear that dissenters would be expelled (Ukrainska Pravda, September 5, 6; Zerkalo Nedeli, September 7). On September 5, parliament approved all five bills needed for EU integration that were on the agenda. These included amendments to laws on the enforcement of court decisions and to the criminal procedure code, bills to amend the customs tariff and increase the independence of judges, as well as the decision to hold on December 15 repeat elections in the five constituencies where parliamentary election results were invalidated last year due to violations. Several more bills need to be passed by November, yet the September 5 voting showed that there is consensus in the Ukrainian legislature on the need to comply with EU conditions despite the Russian threats.