The German Election and Yanukovich’s Choice

September 26, 2013
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

If Viktor Yanukovich was hoping to sign the Association Agreement with the EU without paying too high a political price, the German election results may have dashed that hope. How so?

Speaking at the recent YES confab in Yalta, Elmar Brok, EU parliamentarian and adviser to Angela Merkel, insisted that Kiev release Mrs. Timoshenko to medical treatment in Germany and drop all criminal charges against her if Ukraine is to be granted associate status in the EU.

Mr. Brok even gave Ukraine a deadline – October 15th.

If there were any doubt as to the seriousness of these demands, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, also speaking at YES, dispelled it. In his words:

“When Elmar Brok tells you the Julia case is important, it means that the Julia case is important to’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel.” (Kyiv Post, September 21, 2013)

On September 22nd, Mrs. Merkel was returned to power with her party’s strongest result in twenty years. With her on the dais at the victory celebration was -- Elmar Brok.

The Ukrainian government would be well advised to assume Europe – i.e., Germany -- means what it says about Mrs. Timoshenko’s release: No Association Agreement without it.

So what will Yanukovich do – accede to Europe’s demands, or call its bluff?

When asked at Yalta what would happen if Brussels rejected associate status for Kiev, Yanukovich replied: “It won’t be a disaster.” This telling response, coupled with his recent statement that he does not have the authority to release Mrs. Timoshenko,may well indicate Yanukovich is prepared to call Europe’s bluff.

If so, he may be calculating that when push comes to shove, Europe’s interest in using Ukraine as a geopolitical pawn will trump its interest in prevailing on Kiev to end its practice of selective justice.

And if Europe rejects Kiev’s bid, it will indeed be no disaster for Ukraine.

The Association Agreement provides Ukraine few tangible benefits. The statement of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt at the YES conference to the effect that Ukraine’s economy would grow by 12% if it signed the Association Agreement (and contract by 40% if it joined the Eurasian Custom Union) is errant nonsense, to put it mildly. Terminally moribund, Europe is in no position to act as a locomotive for the Ukrainian economy. Even if the EU were healthy, Ukraine produces little Europeans would want to buy. The deal entails massive compliance costs, will put Ukraine on the wrong side of Eurasia’s tariff wall, and would likely put paid to any hope of a reduction in the cost of imported energy.

Nor is there much for Yanukovich politically in posing as president of all Ukrainians. Some 26% of voters in the east and 21% in the south say they support Yanukovich (compared to the 71-90% and 60-78% he received in those areas, respectively, in 2010) – out of which only 8% think Ukraine should choose the AA over the CU. [Statistics from Forbes Ukraina, September 12, 2013] As for western and central Ukraine, they will not vote for him no matter what he does.

If the Europeans (led by the Germans) hang tough on Timoshenko (as I suspect they will) and reject Kiev’s bid, Yanukovich and Ukraine will have dodged a bullet – and if you don’t believe me, just ask the Bulgarians and the Cypriots and the Spaniards and the Italians and the Irish and the Portuguese and the British, and so on, ad infinitum.

The Croatians, who just joined the EU in July, are deeply upset at Brussels’ insistence that it quit subsidizing key industries that employ lots of workers. There is the widespread feeling that European membership, sold to the people as a panacea, more closely resembles a suicide pill.

And then there is Germany. The remarkable success of the anti-euro Alternative fuer Deutschland, although it fell short of qualifying for parliament, is ominous for the future of the EU.

Former World Bank head Robert Zoellick said at YES that the real importance of the Association Agreement was geo-political, not economic, and that it would help Ukraine ward off challenges to its sovereignty. But the European Union, by design, is the graveyard of national sovereignty. Even associate status entails extreme limits to national freedom of action as even a casual perusal of the agreement makes clear.

Ukraine needs to proceed with extreme caution and beware the snake-oil of Western functionaries.