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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

James SHERR: If Ukraine sees its future in the EU, it should change the relations between capital and the government

21 April, 2011 - 00:00

Leading foreign and Ukrainian diplomats, political analysts and scholars recently took part in the conference “Model Ukraine: Quo Vadis?” in Oxford, organized by the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program and the Oxford University Ukrainian Society. The participants of the conference analyzed Ukraine’s foreign policy, discussed the challenges Ukraine faces today, and gave a critical assessment of the changes our country should implement in both domestic and foreign policy. The Day managed to discuss these and other questions in an exclusive interview with one of the participants of the conference, James SHERR, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Royal Institute of International Relations in London, and one of the top-10 lobbyists of Ukraine worldwide according to a ranking made by the Institute of World Politics.

What changes do you think Ukrainian foreign policy underwent since Yanukovych became president, and are these changes positive or negative in general?

“I think that the foreign policy steps he took, of which the Kharkiv accords were the most dramatic, were taken primarily for an internal reason, because upon arriving to power Yanukovych quickly wished to deal with this issue for the sake of the Ukrainian economy, for the sake of public opinion in Ukraine, by securing a major discount in energy prices. And he understood perfectly well that most of the Ukrainian electorate was not interested at that particular point, after all the disillusionment of the Orange Revolution, with the effects of having the Black Sea Fleet based in Ukraine. But, I think that broadly speaking, in Europe and in Ukraine, there were some worries, though most governments were somewhat reconciled with what he did. He moved faster, more radically than was expected. But since the EU and NATO had already tacitly and unofficially come to the conclusion that for the foreseeable period further enlargement was politically impossible, they were willing to accept this and to accept at face value that his real priority was gradual integration with the EU.”

For me it seems a bit illogical that Yushchenko was a pro-European candidate, but the attitude of Europe towards his policy, at least after 2005, became quite cold. Yet Yanukovych is perceived, both in Ukraine and abroad, as pro-Russian candidate, but in that one year of 2010 he managed to make quite a few steps. What is the difference in the EU attitudes towards both presidents? Why is European policy so illogical?

“First, let me disagree with your characterization. The attitude towards Yushchenko in 2005 was extremely warm, extremely enthusiastic. Even by the end of 2006, in NATO itself, it was regarded as absolutely certain, at the Riga summit held at the end of 2006, that Ukraine will be offered a Membership Action Plan to NATO. The only thing that derailed this was that Yanukovych, as prime minister, arrived at the NATO headquarters and said ‘NO. We need a pause.’ The real disillusionment with Yushchenko set in much later and it was not of course simply with Yushchenko, it was with the whole system, with the tandem of leadership. And there was complete exasperation with the inability of Ukraine to organize itself, to provide coherent, consistent answers and actions in response to Ukraine’s own objectives.

“So by the time Yushchenko and Tymoshenko left office, the notion that a president would at least be able to consolidate power and be a coherent actor was reassuring to many in Europe. Bear in mind that after the Russian-Georgian war, and in view of the other problems that the West faced — major priorities, increasing difficulties in Afghanistan — that the West was privately interested in slowing down with regard to Ukraine. And add one more factor. Yanukovych’s diplomatic and public relations machine was very effective. They told Western governments exactly what they wanted to hear: that Yanukovych was a conciliator, that he would unite the country, that he was a pragmatist, that he wished and sought pragmatic ways to come closer to the EU, that he was not going to bring about radical changes of any kind, that he respected the rules of democracy, that the Orange Revolution had changed him for the better. All of these messages were received by the people who wanted to hear these messages at that time.”

Is it possible for Ukraine to join the EU without becoming a NATO member?

“Certainly. There has never been such a linkage.”

Because there was always a dispute in Ukraine that, at least in Yushchenko’s view, Ukraine has to become a NATO member and even during your presentation today you mentioned that it is impossible to be a neutral state today while being a part of the Union.

“The term neutrality in the European context has been losing its meaning because the European Union has acquired more and more of a security profile, and it has done a lot of this in ways that are compatible with NATO. After all, with very few exceptions, they have the same members. So there is no linkage of this kind. The issue is not whether Ukraine has to join NATO first. The question is whether Ukraine today is capable of meeting the basic criteria and conditions for joining either organization. And the EU today, much more so than it was a year ago, is very critical about both the understanding and performance of the current authorities, and very pessimistic, increasingly pessimistic, about whether even the association and deep free trade area agreements will be concluded.”

Do you see Ukraine as a part of the European Common Security and Defense Program? It may be an alternative to NATO, so as not to irritate the electorate in the south and east of Ukraine with NATO membership, in order for Ukraine not to be a neutral state and have its security assured. Maybe it is better for Ukraine to enter the security and defense program.

“It might be. But this is not what the government has done. And the law on the non-block status raises some very serious questions. There are also some fundamental questions about Ukraine’s capacity to actually contribute to European security, given the deterioration, and in some ways reversal, of the very significant steps that were taken in defense reform in the early years of Yushchenko’s presidency, and to some extent even under Kuchma. And the lack of resources, the lack of any seriousness at present about defense and the security policy, and what everyone can see is the progressive degradation of the caliber and purpose of Ukrainian basic security organization, which seems increasingly to be directed less to serving the national interest than the interest of the people in power and the business groups close to them.”

How do you see Ukraine’s relations with the EU and Russia? Is it possible to strike a balance? For example, recently there was a talk about European integration remaining the strategic aim of Ukraine, but still some politicians in Ukraine speculate about the Customs Union. Is it possible to combine both?

“It is absolutely impossible because they are organized on different principles. Maybe if Ukraine were China, it would have the resources to reconcile both of these principles and conduct business in two totally dissimilar ways. Ukraine does not have the capacity to do this. If Ukraine wants to increase its room for maneuvers, the key is true today as it was 20 years ago — it requires deep profound long-term and sustained changes in internal policy, not in external policy. If Ukraine is to have a future in Europe, it has to change the way its institutions work, it has to change the relationship between money and power, it has to change the relationship between business and the state.”

Recently there were quite a few aggressive remarks on the part of Russia about the idea of Ukraine’s European integration. There was an aggressive demand that Ukraine join the Customs Union. What strategies may Russia use to promote this Customs Union with regard to Ukraine, and how can Ukraine resist those strategies and protect itself from such pressure?

“Russia is less concerned and attaches less significance to Ukraine’s joining the Customs Union than it does to Ukraine’s not joining the Deep [and Comprehensive] Free Trade Area with the EU. If it sees it as a real prospect, I think it will use economic pressure, and pressure with regard to energy supplies. I do not believe that we can exclude the possibility of a future energy crisis between Ukraine and Russia.”

Does Ukraine have the means to withstand this pressure?

“It has the determination to do so. But this would be a very ugly battle. And it has deprived itself of the principle means, which should be granted to Ukraine if it conducts serious, profound reforms of its own energy sector, which would attract EU investment and support. Everyone in the EU can see this is not happening and there is a growing consensus that no assistance should be given to the modernization of Ukraine’s energy system because any assistance will serve interests that will only worsen the present problem.”

Interviewed by Yaroslav KOVALCHUK, special to The Day, Oxford, Great Britain