Europe Loses Face

December 4, 2013

This editorial was published by the deputy editor-in-chief of the pro-Kremlin Izvestia. It is a good example of the Russian government’s position on Ukrainian integration into the EU. It contains several clear pieces of spin. For example, the claim is made that Putin has ignored the crisis to focus on domestic issues, which is an interesting claim since last week he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and made some very controversial statements about Ukraine while in Armenia. Other dubious claims — that the American media has been ignoring the story (they have not) and that the United States is interfering in the process (no evidence for this claim is given). – Ed.

I will admit: at first, in its battle against the Vilnius agreements of the EU with Ukraine, Russia looked like an excessively hard player. That is, the arguments on our side were on the whole understandable, fair, and grounded, but after the magnificent move with the Syrian chemical weaponry that enabled the USA to avoid war and begin “détente” with Iran, something just as effective on the European front was wanted from Putin. Not just arguments of economic intelligence, not just retaliatory customs and tariff measures, but something else from the realm of “soft power” which would have given us the opportunity to feel that the proposed “Eurasian” association was a real full-fledged civilizational alternative to the EU, and in fact an attractive alternative.

But it must be said outright that all of that sense of awkwardness from the one-sided pragmatic approach of our government somehow disappeared on the evening of 28 November, when both parts of Europe, with vigilant attention, followed the action of a stunning play titled “Triumphant Europe.” That is, understandably, the play had to be called this by intention of its directors – in the end, however, they didn’t get the heroic drama with the happy ending but a tragi-farce like Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide or Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. The suicide against universal European rejoicing was supposed to be Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was supposed to put his signature under an agreement that was absolutely suicidal for him and his country, after which he was supposed to be received with thunderous applause both in Vilnius and in Kiev’s Maidan.

To be honest, I thought that Yanukovych simply wouldn’t hold out against such dramaturgical pressure, but, thank God, as a practical person he turned out to be indifferent to theatrical effects. And when it became clear that the president of Ukraine, to put it mildly, wasn’t a theater-lover, the political elite of Europe, particularly the Vilnius overflow, simply lost face. All hell broke loose. They were openly rude and mean to Yanukovych, literally threatening him; they said that if you don’t sign, you will be overthrown, if not today, then tomorrow, and if not in 2013, then in 2015. The speaker of the Lithuanian Sejm [parliament] simply decided to direct the Kiev Maidan live, so to speak. Almost all responsible persons, except the Prime Minister of Sweden, who preserved some remnants of common sense, instantly forgot about the fate of the unfortunate Yuliya Timoshenko, because she herself asked for this. The president of Poland found nothing better to do than refer to the request of the prisoner not to pay attention to her, for the sake of signing the agreement right on 29 November and not a day later. The former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, apparently realizing that his career as a negotiator was ending, began literally to beg Yanukovych to change his mind about signing the agreement almost over dinner, assuring the press that all was not yet lost.

I think the value of the European choice now looks rather problematic. What sort of choice is it that you have to be begged to make? Especially because the president of Ukraine hardly was rejecting it, but simply asking for more time to discuss details. Why were the Europeans so obsessed with signing this agreement right on the 29th of November? Why was Yanukovych given to understand that after that date, some door would slam for Ukraine forever – and what was that door, anyway?

Yanukovych comported himself in this situation quite decently, not falling for provocations and trying not to react to the increasingly quite undiplomatic attacks from partners and even demonstrating a total imperturbability. He let it be known that Ukraine would not permit crude pressure on itself from Europe and would resolve its own problems, since it considered it possible under these circumstances. Interestingly, in fact, Putin was occupied entirely during these days primarily with domestic Russian problems, inspecting Olympic construction, and holding a conference on increasing the country’s defense capability. He didn’t comment on the situation in Vilnius and Kiev. Putin’s silence contrasted well with the hubbub around the figure of Yanukovych, which was taking place at that time at a minimum in three European capitals.

The answer to the first question was completely obvious, and it does no honor to the European Union. There was no other reason for this agreement except the effort to frustrate Russia, its integrationist plans in the Eurasian space, and specifically Vladimir Putin. Putin could not be allowed to grow even stronger after the exit from the Syrian dead-end and especially after the catastrophic weakening of the Obama Administration, caused above all by internal American budget quarrels. I was amazed at how little attention America gave to this entire upheaval over the Vilnius agreement – Brzezinski was just about the only one who followed the position of the Ukrainian prime minister attentively – along with a few other professional Russophobes. The leading columnists of the leading newspapers didn’t address the topic of Ukraine. That didn’t mean that the USA wasn’t interfering in the situation; Warsaw, of course, was acting in accordance with recommendations from Washington. But if Washington had been in good form, and the State Department hadn’t been distracted with Asian affairs, it possibly may not have let Warsaw and Vilnius play out this entire play so clumsily. And the Euro-integrators would not feel a nearly physical fear for their cause and not strive with all their might to ruin the mood of the Russian leader, who, I think, now surveys all these travails with legitimate contempt.

So what, then, was at stake anyway, that Ukraine lost on 29 November? In fact, it lost nothing, since in the event it had signed the agreement, Ukraine would not have obtained anything except a semi-mythological $20 billion loan, which Kwaśniewski promised to Ukraine out of complete desperation. Ukraine would have to open up its borders for European goods, including for light and food industries which were still relatively competitive on the European market. It would have to abolish the government subsidies for many branches of manufacturing, lower the government support of the social sector to the level acceptable by the EU, and also introduce technical regulations for many industries in accordance with European standards — which would hardly have been painless for Ukraine’s domestic economy.

Under the agreement, the reformed armed forces of Ukraine would be obliged to take part in the EU’s peace-keeping operations, and that would mean that the country would lose sovereign control over the process of reforming its own army. Finally, it was quite doubtful that the association with the EU would find even a legally non-contradictory coexistence with the free trade zone which Ukraine has with Russia. A many-thousands strong army of unemployed would arise which would have to compete with the “Polish plumbers” in the cities of Western Europe, intensifying the already bad feelings of the natives toward immigrants of Slavic heritage. And all of this in exchange for the super-honorific status of “signatory” of an agreement about association which many countries of the Maghreb have, for example, Tunisia and Morocco. In the hope of some day in the far future joining Turkey as an “associated member” of the EU.

Thus, this entire commotion is for the sake of the ephemeral “European choice.” Now, however, we must renounce all feelings and soberly understand the reasons why European “soft power” so brutally failed; on what in this specific instance was it resting? Here, I think, it is important to take into account and understand one circumstance: the desire of major business to protect its property from forcible re-distribution. Here there is something for Russia to contemplate as well in the context of all future plans of Eurasian re-integration; they must work it so that the property owners don’t try to race to Europe with all their might and understand that all their property problems – of course, within reason – can be resolved by Eurasia as well. As for Europe as an idea, then in order to enter into such an ideal Europe, there is no need to sign shackling trade agreements or sign anything at all. For this, there is no need to get hysterical, to bustle about, and in the final analysis, to lose your human face.

Russia and Putin have won on the points in their first bout with a difficult opponent. Now the results of this victory have to be strengthened.