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Fixing Vilnius Summit and returning Ukraine to EU’s orbit

Armenia reneging on the EU for membership in the Eurasian Union – Check! Belarus soldiering on its autocratic rule – Check! Azerbaijan skeptical about the EU trade deal – also, Check! Ukraine refusing to sign the AAs days before the summit – Double-check!

The run-up to the Vilnius Summit has indeed been a Shakespearean tragedy.

The meeting in Vilnius was set out to usher a new era of associations with five participating states, including a long-awaited pact with Ukraine, and thawing of relations with the continent’s last peculiar dictatorship in Minsk.

Instead, the Summit stood disappointed as Armenia and Ukraine U-turned towards East under continued gunboat diplomacy from the Kremlin. Moreover, self-sufficient and oil-rich Azerbaijan has opted to play it slow, with trade talks to continue into the years. Belarus, as always, did little to nothing.

There have been some positive developments for the EU’s two sweethearts. Georgia and Moldova, comfortably rolled up in EU’s sleeve, stayed on track with their European aspirations and were duly rewarded. Moldova received an offer for a visa-free regime and alongside Georgia has initialed respective far-reaching co-operation agreements.

But the biggest challenge of the Summit – marking a breakthrough with EU-skeptical and Kremlin-dependent states – has not seen the light of day. And the biggest grunt of the failures at Vilnius has fallen on Ukraine, a country of 45 million divided into a predominantly pro-EU west and moderately Moscow-friendly east and south.

Tales of a botched EU deal and Ukraine unrest

The move to cancel the inking of EU agreements caught pro-European Ukrainians by surprise and spurred questions over the country’s long-term vision, which ultimately boils down to a civilisational inquiry: the EU or Russia.

Russia, on its part, has been playing hardball to derail Ukrainian leadership from their European course. In the months running up to the Vilnius Summit, Moscow has actively applied backdoor pressure through threats of hiked gas prices, economic embargoes and trade measures. It is on this part that pro-EU protestors blame President Yanukovich for swapping a long-term roadmap towards Europe for short-term chunks from the Kremlin.

In his defense, Yanukovich has pleaded that the country’s tight finances would rapidly dry up if it decides to sign the AA and detach itself from the Russian market.  As a concession, the Commission has offered to compensate Ukraine to the tune of 1 billion euros for a period of 7 years for various losses that would result from a stricter trade regime by Russia. This offer has been turned down by President Yanukovich, asking the EU to dole out more cash.

Brussels responded with C’est bientôt dit, or simply speaking – No.

The failure to come to a win-win agreement has translated into swathes of uncoordinated demonstrations across Ukraine, with hundred of thousands congregating in the capital, Kyiv. A number of protests have gone ugly, with daily reports and videos of police brutality and crackdown on dissidents.

A wide spectrum of political forces in Ukraine, as well certain segments of the international community, now appeal for sanctions, resignation of the President and immediate signing of the AAs.

Recommendations for a pragmatic EU response

The biggest challenge for the EU now is, perhaps, to rethink its approach and keep Ukraine at an arm’s length. The abrupt U-turn in the run-up to the Vilnius Summit has demonstrated that the opponent team can and will drag Ukraine away to its side of the field.

To realize a new strategy, the EU should better tap into the complexity of Ukraine. The offer on the table should be tailored to both the pro-European aspirations of the west and the economically-suspicious east. Finding this balance may seem as a needle in a haystack, but Brussels would find it rewarding to pool more resources in this regard.

Secondly, the EU ought to forego any calls for sanctions on Ukraine. This would pave a way for Russia to further grab hold of Ukraine’s economy. Similarly, travel restrictions and arrest of personal assets should be out of the question. Alienation mechanisms have a long-standing track record of failure. Look at Belarus.

The EU should not make any moves that could destabilize Ukraine. These would include providing excess support to opposition forces, backing out of formal talks and demonizing the Ukrainian government. This could stir the country towards prolonged internal confrontation and martial law, forcing Yanukovich to seek shelter for his regime under the Russian umbrella.

Instead, the EU should condemn within reason the rough-handed crackdown on dissidents and push for Interior and police reforms. Yanukovich’s actions should be denounced, but his regime should not be ostracised. A multi-party platform for dialogue ought to be encouraged.

Moreover, the EU should take note of recent official Russian statements, including that of President Putin, that refer to the pro-EU demonstrations as “staged provocations from foreign special forces”. This discourse indicates that Moscow has already ostracised one of the conflicting sides, and if Yanukovich were to be cornered for his pro-Russian choice, the Kremlin may invite itself to interfere.

Finally, the EU should remember that this is not yet the point of no return and that the ball is still in its court. Brussels needs to rethink its strategy and reward Yanukovich in case he gets back to the negotiating table in good faith. This rekindling must ideally be reinforced with certain conditionalities, such as the release of the former PM Timoshenko and the holding of early parliamentary elections.

Either way, the EU must play its cards swift and wise lest not to have a second, bigger Belarus in its immediate neighbourhood.