After the storm: next steps for the EU and Ukraine

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The last five days have probably been the most dramatic in Ukraine’s post-cold war history. A stand-off between the regime and large segments of society which started in November suddenly escalated on Tuesday, got worse on Thursday and found a dramatic solution – amounting to, effectively, regime change - on Friday. By Saturday, Kyiv had fallen to protesters and regime had fled the capital. 

Both domestic developments and EU action contributed to the outcome. Violence shattered the fragile stalemate at home and caused the regime to crumble by Thursday evening. First, the chief of the armed forces refused to use force against the people and was replaced; later, some pro-regime deputies changed sides meaning parliament was then in a position  to adopt a law ending the state of emergency. The Foreign Ministry came out with a statement in support of the Association Agreement with the EU. Then there were reports of military units refusing orders, security services and other power ministries burning papers, and the sky filling up with private jets belonging to pro-regime elites fleeing Kyiv.

These domestic developments must probably be seen as decisive in forcing President Yanukovych to enter into more serious negotiations than ever before. The decision by the EU to use sanctions against those guilty of ordering or using violence may have helped to change the calculations of some elites. And the perfectly-timed mission of the three EU foreign ministers was crucial in bringing about a surprisingly good agreement.  The EU may have managed to provide a framework for  a controlled collapse to what would otherwise have been a dangerously uncontrolled collapse of the regime. 

Most clauses of the deal reached on Friday morning – return to the parliamentary constitution of 2004, appointment of a government of national unity in ten days, adoption of a new constitution by November, new elections no later than December and a proper investigation into the violence – make perfect sense and can really be solid constituent parts of a credible solution. Some of these clauses have already been fulfilled: the Ukrainian Parliament promptly restored the old constitution on Friday and is busy filling government positions on Saturday.  

The deal’s only weak point is that it has left Yanukovych in the post of president until early elections by the end of the year. This is something that protesters might probably grudgingly have accepted as late as Monday, but do not accept after the bloodshed of the last week.  In their eyes, Yanukovych is a criminal and should be treated as such.  

Yanukovych seems to use the deal – and “Western garantees” – to fight for his position. He  announced that he won’t resign and called the events in Kyiv a coup. It remains to be seen if will obey the impeachment passed by the Parliament a few hours later. It is possible that he may try to assemble a power base in Eastern regions and thereby contribute to already quite dangerous regional frictions.  Lack of strong political power in post-revolution  Kyiv, fragmentation of the overall political landscape, potential messy infighting during the transition – all these things can  provide him with openings for mischief. 

 Ukraine now deserves a fresh start as a political nation. It should try to bring over as little as possible of the previous, failed and discredited regimes’ legacy. Most of this transition needs to be executed by the Ukrainians themselves, but there are some important ways in which the EU can help.

What the EU should do

·         Do everything possible to make sure that the deal signed on Friday morning holds. Be prepared to address the issue of Yanukovych’s future, should that become necessary. If parliament passes the impeachment bill, then the EU’s policy choice in this question should be obvious.

·         If/when mediating, keep in mind that the West should not be party to a deal that preserves too much of the old regime – this is where Ukraine went wrong after the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Push for a fresh start, if at all possible; avoid importing elements and arrangements of the old settlement into the future. Exceptions may be justified to avoid more violence.

·         Urgently address the threat of fragmentation of Ukraine. The secessionist mood in Crimea is serious and likely to be further fuelled by visitors from Moscow. Leaderships of Eastern regions – such as Harkiv - have declared self-rule “until law and order have been restored.” This does not amount to secessionism yet and may, under the circumstances of power vacuum,  even be a practical temporary move. However, situation is tense and may develop either way. The policy-making elite in Moscow is likely to have some influence on the events - and in this context it is worth mentioning that the “federalisation of Ukraine” has for quite a while been a frequent topic of discussion among those close to policymakers in Moscow. The EU should have a firm dialogue with Moscow, making it clear that the EU wants to see Moscow’s constructive influence on developments in Ukraine and that what happens now in Ukraine will have repercussions for the future EU-Russia relationship. The EU should also use its soft power measures to address regional views and issues through creative public diplomacy initiatives in eastern Ukraine, for example.  

·       Provide humanitarian aid to those wounded. Medical supplies and assistance are still badly needed. Some families of the wounded need money to pay for surgery. Practical organization of these things can be dealt with by the local charities, but donations from EU member states would be of huge help.

·      Offer help in dealing with the urgent issues of the day: investigation of crimes, collection of illegal weapons, conduct of elections. The EU and its member states can assist with all of that, either under their EU hats, or via organisations such as the Council of Europe and OSCE.  

·       The threat of sanctions came late, but has done the trick. Now the EU should follow up on it and penalize those guilty of violence and corrupt practices.

·       The issue of financial assistance is now back on the table and burning. There was no possibility of throwing money at the corrupt outgoing regime, but any new political configuration will be in desperate need of financial support. The country is effectively broke and now it cannot count on Russia’s assistance either.  As soon as a reasonably competent caretaker government is in place, the EU should liberalise the top five trade sectors with Ukraine and mobilise the IMF and other donors.

·       What Ukraine needs most is a fresh and responsible political elite. While this should emerge from inside the country itself, the EU can help by linking up with what is clearly a very mobilised civil society in Ukraine, socialising any would-be leaders into Western circles,   providing tips on political self-organisation, party practices.

·       In the context of the elites, the upcoming release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko should definitely be welcome. It is good and healthy that this takes place via a vote in the Ukrainian parliament, rather than as a result of Western pressure. However, the EU should not focus on her as a potential future leader. Tymoshenko bears great responsibility for the sour outcome of the Orange Revolution, and Ukrainians correctly hold it against her. 

·       In the long-term, the EU should offer Ukraine a clear, if distant, prospect of EU membership.

·       The EU should also send a message beyond Ukraine. Events have been closely followed in Moldova and Georgia, where many people wonder whether the EU would be ready to help to defend their European choice, should the need arise. By its last-minute intervention in Ukraine the EU may just have saved some credibility and should use it to help address the specific vulnerabilities that these countries have vis-à-vis Russia.

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