The Ukrainian government suspended preparations for signing the Association Agreement today after a vote in parliament failed to achieve a sufficient majority to pass legislation that would allow the jailed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko to receive medical treatment abroad. The EU considered Tymoshenko’s release essential for progress with the agreement, which was hoped to be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on November 28.
The vote in the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, was supported by opposition factions in parliament but failed because the governing Party of the Regions, and the Ukrainian Communist party, abstained from voting. The result was that the bill failed to achieve the necessary 226 votes to pass. Bills on improving legislation on pre-trial detention and prisoners’ human rights failed too.
Within a couple of hours, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine issued a decree suspending preparations for the signing of the Association Agreement. In the decree, the government also ordered the economic and industrial ministries to work in concert with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take measures to develop trade and cooperation with other former Soviet states for the sake of “economic stability.”
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich, meanwhile, buoyantly claims that Ukraine “will continue to pursue the path of European integration.” This belies the fact that the essential legislation failed to pass purely as a result of his refusal to whip his party into voting for it. By abstaining, Yanukovych blithely aims to appease both Moscow and Brussels. Furthermore, it has been reported that on Tuesday Yanukovych told Stefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement, that Ukraine would not sign the agreement at Vilnius. The diplomatic source for this news stated at the time that: “My conviction is that he is still bluffing. He’s increasing the price to get compensation and softer conditions.” However, stalling progress towards the agreement at such short notice, in conjunction with decrees to improve relations with other CIS states, (read Russia,) suggests that pressure from the Kremlin may have won out. The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, tweeted that the “Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”
Russia has been waging an aggressive campaign to prevent Ukraine from forming closer ties with the EU, while pushing for Kiev to join Moscow’s neo-Soviet Customs Union. Pressure has come in many forms, from punitive border inspections, embargoes on Ukrainian exports, and threats to cut off gas supplies if ever-higher prices are not met to threats of partition. Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Putin, warned that in the event of the signing of the EU Association Agreement, Russia would be “legally entitled to support” ethnic Russians in the East of the country who would, apparently, oppose integration with Europe. Russia has also been sponsoring a scare campaign in Ukraine, using homophobia to present the EU as a source of moral degeneracy.
The stakes are high, not only for Ukraine, but for Russia, whose Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol. Many in Russia refuse to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over the city. The former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has been an outspoken supporter of returning to Russian hands. In May 2008 Luzhkov declared that “Sevastopol was and should be a Russian city.” Ukrainian opposition to the presence of the fleet is strong. In 2010 a debate in the Rada, on the ratification of an extension of Russia’s lease of the naval base, degenerated into a chaotic brawl, complete with egg-throwing and smoke bombs. The extension was ratified, but by a slim 52% majority.
While Russia will, of course, be delighted at today’s turn of events, the popular mood in Ukraine may turn against Yanukovych as a result of his bungling attempts to placate the former overlords and avoid the release of a political threat. A recent poll showed far greater support for the EU association agreement than for the Customs Union. In fact, polls conducted over the last year show an increasing level of support for the EU, alongside lessening enthusiasm for Putin’s project. Furthermore, Yanukovych’s position may well be at stake sooner than the presidential election in 2015. Following the suspension of progress today, Arseniy Yatseniuk, leader of the Batkivschyna faction in parliament, called for the president to be impeached: “If Yanukovych refuses to sign the Association Agreement, this is not only high treason but also grounds for the president’s impeachment and the government’s dismissal.” He also demanded that the prime minister be summoned before the Rada, stating that: “The Cabinet of Ministers has just made an unlawful and unconstitutional decision on cancelling the European integration course. We demand that Azarov immediately appear at the parliament tomorrow in the morning.”
By refusing to make a decision with regards to Ukraine’s place in Europe, Yanukovych is risking everything.