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EU-Ukraine relations hit snag

February 6, 2011

Although Ukraine’s entry into the European Union has always been regarded as a long-term prospect, there were hopes that the 2004 Orange Revolution might mark the beginning of a period of closer economic integration and dialogue. Those events, in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested electoral fraud by regime, led to the annulment of the victory by the pro-regime candidate in the presidential election. After a second, more transparent election was held, the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko emerged victorious. The election of Yushchenko and the appointment of his Orange Coalition ally Yulia Timoshenko were supposed to signal Ukraine’s embrace of the West and a decisive rejection of its authoritarian past.

Ukrainian officials have frequently voiced their desire to ultimately join the organization. Unlike the issue of joining NATO, which is deeply divisive in Ukraine and bitterly opposed by many citizens, Ukrainians have consistently expressed strong support for EU membership. Despite this, very little happened in the early days of the Yushchenko administration to concretely effect relations between the two sides. Ukraine, like several other post-Soviet countries, is a priority partner in the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy. In 2008, bilateral relations were formally enhanced with the signing of a new ‘Association on Agreement.’ The EU also supported Ukraine’s bid for membership in the WTO, which the country joined in 2008. Poland in particular has been a vocal advocate of Ukraine’s European ambitions.

Nevertheless, Ukraine made little substantive progress in its EU ambitions during the Yushchenko years for several reasons. Yushchenko’s administration was spectacularly unsuccessful at rooting out corruption; indeed, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine’s ratings saw no improvement. In addition, the two heroes of the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko and Timoshenko, soon had an acrimonious falling out, which hampered many of the reformist goals of the administration. By the end of his administration, Yushchenko’s popularity had fallen to catastrophically low levels. He was not a credible candidate in the 2010 presidential election, garnering less than 5% of the vote in the first round, and Timoshenko lost narrowly to the Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, whose 2004 election victory had been overturned by the Orange Revolution.

While this represented an obvious setback for the Orange coalition forces, Yanukovych’s victory was not met with complete alarm in the West. For one thing, the growing disillusionment with Yushchenko’s government had lowered Western expectations to the point where a potential Yanukovych presidency wasn’t seen as much worse. Moreover, Yanukovych had polished his image since in the intervening years. He maintained that Ukraine would seek to continue to prioritize tighter relations with and eventual membership in the EU and visited Brussels for talks with EU officials shortly after his election.

However, events in Ukraine over the past few months have soured relations with the West and made EU membership an even more dim possibility. The Yanukovych administration has been accused of stifling press freedoms, leading to a number of protests. A number of international figures, including EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton, criticized the conduct of the October 2010 local elections. More recently, a number of key figures in Yulia Timoshenko’s former government, and even Ms. Timoshenko herself, have been arrested on charges of corruption and mismanagement of government funds. Critics have deemed the charges political motivated. Ms. Timoshenko has been barred from leaving the country, forcing to her to cancel a scheduled visit to Brussels. The EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, in a recent visit to Ukraine pointedly warned Ukraine not to use the law for criminal ends and voiced concerns over diminishing media freedoms. It goes without saying that any evidence of democratic backtracking in Ukraine will further hinder closer cooperation with the EU. This, combined with enlargement fatigue and Ukraine’s continuing economic problems, make the prospect of membership all the more unlikely.

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