The crisis in EU/Ukraine relations surrounding Tymoshenko

On April 25, a report appeared on the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung’s website stating that Joachim Gauck, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, had cancelled his visit to Ukraine. His decision not to participate in the 11-12 May summit of presidents of Central European countries in Yalta was apparently taken after consultation with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and is a protest against the proceedings by the Ukrainian government against the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The press release brought forth a flurry of reactions of politicians from both Germany and other EU countries and institutions. Subsequently the presidents of the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Albania and Latvia gave notice that they would not take part in the summit in Yalta, and the EU Commissioners announced a boycott of the Ukrainian part of the European Football Championship Euro 2012. However, Germany and other EU countries’ growing criticism of the Ukrainian government has not yet led to a breakthrough in Kiev’s position on the Tymoshenko case.

The emerging authoritarian tendencies in Ukraine, which in EU public opinion have culminated in the Tymoshenko affair, have caused a crisis in EU/Ukrainian relations, and Germany’s attitude has played a key role in the EU’s growing criticism of Ukraine. Yet Berlin’s actions are the result of a deeper change in how Ukraine is viewed, and more broadly, a change to the EU's eastern policy as a whole. The stakes in the political conflict between the EU and Ukraine over Yulia Tymoshenko are the future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), and thus the whole of the EU’s eastern dimension as a tool for the progressive, sectoral integration of the EaP states with the Union.



An escalation of declarations


The statements concerning the former Prime Minister of Ukraine’s treatment have been dominated by the voices of German politicians. On 25 April, the spokespersons of the Federal Government, the Federal Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry issued a joint statement in which they urged Ukraine to ensure that Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently imprisoned in a penal colony, will receive appropriate conditions of treatment, and to allow her to be transferred to the Charité clinic in Berlin. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in turn that Germany and other European countries agree that the Association Agreement with Ukraine cannot be ratified until the rule of law has been restored in Ukraine. Federal Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he expected not only a resolution to the Tymoshenko situation from Kiev, but also the normalisation of relations between the government and the opposition. The environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, has been the only member of the German government to officially call for a boycott of the football championship. In a statement to the Bild daily on 29 April, he said that the championship cannot be exploited by Ukraine to improve the image of "the dictatorship ruling in that country." Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and her press spokesman stressed that her decision to attend the tournament is of secondary importance and will be taken shortly before the competition, and that the Chancellor is primarily concerned about the rule of law in Ukraine.



Germany’s harsh reaction


The harsh reaction from German politicians to the reports of Yulia Tymoshenko’s brutal treatment was influenced by real concern for her health, as well as by lobbying from her supporters among EU politicians. However, the conflict with the former prime minister in the main role has been a part of Ukrainian/EU relations since 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych became president. Since the beginning of his presidency, the German media have accused him of the absolute destruction of "the gains of the ‘Orange Revolution’", of introducing authoritarian methods of government, and the dismantling of democracy. In June 2010, in an analysis summarising the first 100 days of Yanukovych's presidency, Nico Lange, head of the Kiev branch of the Adenauer Foundation (which is the CDU’s party foundation) warned of "authoritarian tendencies" and of the country joining the Russian sphere of influence. Shortly afterwards, the author was detained at Kiev airport and admitted to Ukraine only after intervention from the Federal Chancellery; the case sparked a diplomatic scandal between Ukraine and Germany. At the same time, politicians in Germany have accused Yanukovych of restricting media freedom. In August 2010, during a meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin, the Ukrainian President denied accusations by the Chancellor that censorship had been introduced. Since the start of the trials of the former prime minister and other opposition politicians, Germany has called them an act of political revenge. Germany was one of the group of countries which blocked the initialling of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in late 2011. Yet it should be emphasised that, although it was Germany that set the tone for criticising the Ukrainian government, a similar attitude towards Yanukovych’s actions has been heard from other European capitals and EU institutions.


The escalation of the German reaction leading to the exacerbation of the conflict, and the point at which it appeared, show that the motivations for Germany’s actions have deeper roots. For German politicians, who are focused on tackling the crisis of the Euro area and the transformations within the EU, countries such as Ukraine are becoming increasingly irrelevant. In the perception of Germany, which has been disappointed by the lack of real progress in the modernisation and democratisation of the Eastern Partnership countries, the present stage of political and economic cooperation between Ukraine and the EU integration is at the appropriate level right now, and there is no need to deepen it any further at this time. The more so as the interests of Russia, which is still regarded as Germany’s main partner in the region, have proved to be contrary to the interests of the EU, as the latter aims to introduce EU standards concerning various political and economic areas in the area of the former USSR.



The reactions of the Ukrainian government


Despite increasing pressure from the West, there is no signal that the government in Kiev is inclined to make any significant concessions regarding Tymoshenko. All major Ukrainian politicians except President Yanukovych, who has so far remained silent, have criticised the announcement of a boycott of the Ukrainian part of Euro 2012. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov says that the decision to boycott the championships will mean "the humiliation of the country and the people, and not of the Ukrainian government." The vice-chairman of the ruling Party of Regions, Leonid Kozhara, warned Germany of the negative effects of such a boycott on economic relations between the two countries, and accused some politicians in the West of a "personal approach" to the Tymoshenko case. Boris Kolesnikov, the deputy prime minister responsible for Euro 2012, said in turn that the tournament has been organised for spectators and sportsmen, not politicians. A similar position was taken by the deputy chairman of the Party of Regions’ parliamentary group, Vadim Kolesniczenko; he acknowledged that a possible boycott would hurt Ukraine's image, but it would not rebound on the tournament itself or on ordinary Ukrainians, because foreign fans would still come to the games in Ukraine anyway. In its official commentary, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the possibility of a boycott “a return to the methods of the Cold War” and a "destructive attempt to politicise a sporting event." Moreover, some commentators sympathetic to the government have criticised Berlin for its willingness to impose its will on other European countries.



The strategy of Yulia Tymoshenko's camp


The growing interest in Tymoshenko’s case in the West is largely the result of efforts by the former Prime Minister and her political camp, which are based on playing up the question of her health. The aim is to maintain international interest around Tymoshenko, to get Western politicians actively involved in the political process in Ukraine, and thus to incite criticism of the government in Kiev from EU countries. Evidence of this includes a letter from Kharkiv prison (7 May), in which the former Prime Minister did not refer to the possible boycott of the championship by Western politicians, but did thank them for "defending the country against Yanukovych's authoritarian regime." A possible consequence of Tymoshenko’s attitude may be a challenge by the West to the results of the parliamentary elections set for October this year, which will be held without the participation of the former Prime Minister – regardless of the final results. Nevertheless, neither the poll ratings nor the mixed electoral system offer her party Batkivshchyna much hope of winning a parliamentary majority; according to the Razumkov Centre in Kiev poll from April 4th, Batkivshchyna was supported by just 13.5% of voters, compared to 19.5% for the Party of Regions. The actions of Tymoshenko and her supporters have had the effect she desired, though, not least because the Ukrainian government has not been able to present its own interpretation of the events to the West effectively.



Implications for the EU's eastern policy


The escalating criticism of the Ukrainian government has led to political isolation for President Yanukovych and the government in Kiev. The summit of Central European states in Yalta was cancelled as 14 of the 19 presidents refused to participate; also, a succession of European leaders have announced their boycott of the Ukrainian part of Euro 2012. These symbolic gestures confirm Ukraine’s decreasing importance in the policy of European countries, which are no longer interested in improving dialogue with the government in Kiev.


At the same time, there has been a slowdown in the process of Ukraine’s European integration; the EU is in no hurry to sign and ratify the Association Agreement or the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area agreement (DCFTA). The deterioration of relations between Ukraine and the EU may also have a negative effect on other areas of cooperation, including visa liberalisation (where in addition to having to meet the technical conditions, a political decision by the EU countries is necessary), and on sectoral cooperation, for example on energy issues.


In the event that the parliamentary elections in Ukraine (28 October this year) do not meet democratic standards, we can expect the process for adopting the Association Agreement to be suspended, and perhaps even that a project to introduce limited political sanctions will be put forward.


The breakdown of relations with Ukraine will limit the importance of the eastern neighbourhood and the Eastern Partnership in EU policy. In a situation where relations with Belarus are frozen, and progress in reforms in Moldova and the countries of the Caucasus has been slight, EU involvement in the region will fall away. The principle of ‘more for more’ announced in the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2011 (that is, more resources and preferences from the EU in return for more progress in integration and reforms from Eastern Partnership countries) may lead to a de facto reduction in EU funding for the eastern partners. The Eastern neighbourhood has also become less important in the face of internal problems in the Union (such as the Euro zone crisis, and changes in the EU’s decision-making process). This is particularly important as within the currently ongoing debate on the EU's new financial perspective, some countries (including Germany) favour reducing expenses, while southern EU states (such as France and Spain) are more interested in strengthening EU involvement in the southern neighbourhood. At the same time, the marginalisation of Ukraine and other eastern neighbourhood countries in EU policy has weakened their position in their relations with Russia, and will lead to a rise in Russian pressure in the region.