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Eastern Partnership Summit still holds sway over Ukraine policy




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1The echoes of November 2013's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius may have long since faded but, with Ukraine on the brink, the results of this meeting continue to reverberate throughout Europe especially its eastern part. 

With EU diplomats meeting on 28 April to agree a broadening of sanctions over links to separatist actions in Ukraine,  the debate on the future of the  EU´s Eastern Partnership policy (ENP) has tended to be overshadowed in the unfolding crisis.

It is worth recalling that the ENP is a flagship EU multilateral programme aimed at development of regional cooperation with six former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The whole policy was thrown into confusion after ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a treaty on association and free trade with the EU at the EU summit in Vilnius in November 2013 and the subsequent dramatic events in Ukraine.

The alleged "illegitimate" regime in Kiev has been used by Russia as a defence of its current actions and, while presidential elections in Ukraine on 25 May offer fresh hope of a peaceful resolution, the crisis currently shows no signs of abating.

Observers say that, six months later, the fall-out from Vilnius is still being felt and that lessons must be learned from the perceived failure of Lithuania, which as holder of the EU presidency in the second half of 2013 was charged with the task of overseeing the signing of the trade deal with Ukraine.

Some even argue that Lithuania brought Europe to confrontation with Russia and also brought Ukraine to the precipice.


Moscow-based Justinas Valutis, an experienced commentator on EU-Russia affairs, agrees, saying, "There is no doubt that Ukraine's refusal to sign the free trade treaty with the EU in Vilnius was a major blow to EU's prestige. The event itself and its immediate aftermath also unmasked the sickening arrogance, the double standards and the limited political influence of the Brussels elite.

"During the run-up to the summit, the EU went to great lengths in order to swing public opinion in its favour, stating how good and generous this supranational organization will be for Ukraine and its people. But there was a problem of communication from the beginning. All those promised `good things to come´ were defined in a very abstract way, while Ukraine on the other hand was required to carry out very concrete steps if it sought to rub shoulders with the 'Brussels club'.

"But to tie the second largest country in the old continent to the EU with the help of discriminatory association treaty was never going to be an easy task."

Valutis is particularly scathing of Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite, a former MEP, who chaired the Vilnius summit and who, he says "released a tirade of bitter words as she joined the common condemnation of Yanukovich's decision not to sign the treaty.

"But the head of Lithuania, who likes to present her country as a role model to its Eastern neighbours should be the last person to lecture others on missed opportunities as she herself  rules a republic with ballooning government debt, a stagnant economy and mass emigration on such a scale that it´s become a threat to national security. Instead of using is unlimited energy and scarce resources to please the powerful ones in Brussels and stir emotions elsewhere, Lithuania should clean up the mess and revatalise the economy at home, just as its northern neighbours in Finland and  Estonia successfully do."

Another keen Kremlin-watcher, author Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, asks: "Who are the ones who have destabilized Ukraine? It was not Russia, it was those behind the putsch in Kiev in February. They forget that Yanukovich was democratically elected in 2010; they forget to mention the record of Yulia Timoshenko (who allegedly called for the murder of Russians in a recent telephone call) when she was Prime Minister; they forget that after the putsch the first draft law passed by the Ukrainian Rada (Parliament) was anti-Russian legislation.

"They forget that the call 'Death to Muscovite' rang round Maidan during the anti-Government protests orchestrated by political opportunists.They forget that the Jewish community was advised to leave Kiev during the disturbances because of calls to murder Russians and Jews.     "They forget that half the population in Ukraine speaks Russian as a mother language and forget that one third of Ukrainians consider themselves ethnically Russian."

Bancroft-Hinchey adds: "So let us not blame Russia, which was sitting back minding its own business. Let us not blame the Crimeans, who risked being the victims of allegedly planned legislation declaring all Russia supporters "non-citizens" and rendering them to the status of foreigners inside their own homes. This is what it is all about.

"Let us blame an EU association agreement which would have seen EU goods flood Ukraine but hindered the flow of Ukrainian goods the other way (Yanukovich was fighting against this) and which in turn would´ve seen Ukraine's industry, agriculture, fisheries and jobs all destroyed along with the future of its youth."

Concern about the role of extremists in the current unrest has been voiced by Human Rights Watch which has urged the EU and the US to "press the interim government in Kiev to ensure that efforts to disarm members of paramilitary groups holding illegal weapons include the extreme nationalist paramilitary group Right Sector."

Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said: "The government should hold Right Sector to account for all criminal acts attributable to its members."

UK Socialist MEP Richard Howitt, his party's foreign affairs spokesman in Brussels, said: "First and foremost, responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine is with the country's own former leadership, its levels of corruption, and the lack of conciliation between groups within its own population."

UKIP MEP Roger Helmer said:“The EU is starting to understand its folly in seeking to offer funding and EU membership to a country which is certainly regarded by Russia as its 'near abroad', and in some ways almost as part of Russia itself.  Now that Russia has responded, the EU finds itself acutely embarrassed, and unable to formulate an effective response.  It is even chided by President Obama for its pusillanimous reaction.   President Roosevelt’s advice was “to tread softly and carry a big stick”.  The EU failed to tread softly, and then found it had no stick at all.

"This is a lesson and a wake-up call to those who still pretend that the UK gains 'influence' by its membership of the EU.  In this situation, the EU has no influence at all."

Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister from 1998 to 2004 and president of the Russian International Affairs Council, said: "Unfortunately, it is obvious that Ukraine is now a tinderbox ready to explode, and the consequences will be serious for everyone."

Further comment came from the Brussels-based Michael Emerson, an associate senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. The  highly respected commentator says the EU should accept some responsibility for the Vilnius "fiasco" for having drafted agreements with an "inadequate balance between incentives and obligations". "It will require a major recalibration of policies to get the unstable new status quo back onto sound strategic lines."

This, he suggests, must include a "rebuilding the remnants of the EU’s neighbourhood policy" and "promoting a Greater Eurasia concept fit for the 21st century that would embrace the whole of the European and Asian landmass".

Emerson says the crisis may in fact have sounded the death knell for the ENP, adding: "From beginning of ENP in 2004, almost a decade ago, criticisms were made by many independent observers that the proposed ‘action plans’ saw an inadequate matching of incentives from the EU alongside the reform-oriented obligations that the partner states were expected to follow. This did not change as the years went by.

"The huge loading of EU legislation in the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine, which was the first text to be negotiated and served as template for the Armenian, Georgian and Moldovan texts, seems to be only a lightened version of what Norway accepts as part of its European Economic Area (EEA).

"The blame has to be shared by the political leaders of EU member states and the technocrats in the European Commission. The politicians are primarily to blame for being unable to overcome disagreement over whether the East Europeans should be granted ‘membership perspective’."

So, what of the future? While he does not absolve Russia of criticism, Emerson says the EU and Ukraine have created a "new strategic status quo which is a big mess".

He added: "The EU’s neighbourhood policy is in tatters. Ukraine is in a state of deep political and economic crisis, as well as having surrendered its independence.

"Relations between the EU and Russia descend to the most serious confrontation and distrust since the end of the Cold War, with the possible exception of the 2008 war in Georgia."

He went on: "But out of this ugly situation there should constructed a fresh start, and fresh strategic thinking on the side of the EU in particular. The general political context in the EU makes this opportune.

"With the economy recovering from the euro crisis, and a new political period about to begin with renewal of the European Parliament and the leadership of the Commission and European Council, with the drift towards Eurosceptic populism widespread, there is a political market for ideas for a major advance in EU foreign policy."

Martin Banks

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