How Ukraine Might Blow Its Historic Opportunity

Kiev has a chance to move toward the European Union, but its political closure could prevent that.

After five years of intense negotiations, Ukraine and the European Union are on the verge of taking their relations to a new level.

In March 2012, Kiev and the EU initialed an elaborate association agreement providing for close political cooperation, as well as a deep and comprehensive free-trade area. Now, Kiev is merely a small step away from the treaty’s signing, which is scheduled to take place at the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. The agreement would, if confirmed, be the largest international pact that Ukraine has ever concluded. This exceptionally large accord—its 906-page main text is now freely available on the websites of the Kiev Post and Kiev Weekly—would also be the biggest contract that the EU has ever entered into with a nonmember state.

Should it be signed, ratified and implemented, the agreement would largely integrate Ukraine into the EU market, as well as politically bind Kiev to Brussels. It is more than an ordinary treaty: The Association Agreement constitutes a detailed plan for a deep restructuring—or “Europeanization”—of the Ukrainian economy, society and state. Once fully realized, it would put Ukraine’s relations to the EU on an entirely different footing.

Moreover, the new reality the agreement would eventually create will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Brussels to continue withholding an explicit EU membership prospect for Ukraine. Today, the Union is purposefully avoiding discussions of a possible future entry of Ukraine, and keeps repeating that, for European countries like Ukraine, “the door is neither open nor closed.”

Yet Brussels will hardly be able to carry on with this vague stance once major provisions of the agreement have been fulfilled. At that stage, Ukraine’s economy will be already part and parcel of the EU economy, and her legislation partially adapted to EU standards. Once all aspects of the new association take full force, it will become illegitimate for Brussels, to further postpone the start of accession negotiations. Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union states that “any European state which respects the principles [of the EU] may apply to become a member of the Union.” In the moment in which Ukraine demonstrates such respect, Kiev can and, presumably, will apply. As a result, eventually, Europe’s largest country may become a full member of the European community.

The Association Agreement is thus the best chance that the Ukrainians ever had to become a nation fully taking part in the European unification process. Apart from far-reaching political, geopolitical and socioeconomic implications, the Agreement has a historical dimension. Once ratified, it will become Ukraine’s primary means of settling her international position, defining her identity as a European nation, and thus determining her future. To be sure, the gradual execution of the agreement will by itself not be a panacea for all of Ukraine’s many problems. But once signed, the Agreement would provide a yardstick for Ukraine’s reforms, an agenda for immediate action, as well as a compass for her development. It could provide the Ukrainian nation with what it may need most today—a clear direction, a sense of purpose, and an attractive future.

Yet while Kiev is today only a stride away from starting this process, the agreement may never be signed. As is well-known to Eastern Europe watchers, Ukraine’s political development took a U-turn three years ago. Since his inauguration in February 2010, Ukraine’s current president, Viktor Yanukovich, has led his country back into to grey zone of domestic semiauthoritarianism and international nonalignment. To be sure, before Yanukovich’s assumption of power in 2010, Ukraine’s post-Soviet development had been proceeding with many zigzags. However, the recent regressions in both domestic and foreign policies go beyond the meanderings of Ukraine’s previous presidents, and constitute a full-scale abolition of many of the democratic gains made since the country gained independence in 1991 and renewed its democratic commitment during the Orange Revolution of 2004. As a result, Brussels had to put the signing of the already initialed Association Agreement on hold. That happened in spite of the fact that there is, across many political camps and countries of the EU, substantial interest in getting the agreement concluded, as it would stabilize its eastern border.

Alas, the Union has had, in order not to lose its face as a community of democratic states, to put forward a number of conditions to be fulfilled by Ukraine before conclusion of the agreement. These include, above all, certain changes in Ukraine’s legal system (e.g. electoral and procurement legislation) as well as a stop of the misuse of courts for persecuting political-opposition leaders. For months now, dozens of representatives of the EU and its member countries have been appealing, on a weekly basis, to Yanukovich and his government to observe at least some elementary rules of law and basic democratic standards in order to make Brussels’ signature on the agreement legitimate.