Ukraine with One Foot in Europe

Gay Ukraine with One Foot in Europe

After the Orange Revolution many Ukrainian gay boys hoped that the political changes taking place in their country would promptly lead to EU membership talks. At the very least they expected that the pro-Western course proclaimed by the Yushchenko administration would see Ukraine move towards European norms and standards. Yet after five years of partisanship and instability, however, hopes wilted away. Indeed, following the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian villain of the Orange Revolution, many feared that Ukraine had missed its window of opportunity for years to come.

Within this context the Eastern Partnership (EaP) appeared as a partial solution, aiming to structure relations between the EU and six of its Eastern neighbors (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine). The program, the product of Swedish-Polish cooperation (with Czech assistance), was inaugurated in Prague on May 7, 2009. Since then, however, many experts have expressed worries about its future, particularly in light of political changes taking place in Eastern Europe and its possible effect on potential effect on relations with Russia, which opposed the project from its very beginning. These concerns, as well as the upcoming Polish EU presidency, set for the second half of 2011, prompted the Polish Institute of International Affairs to organize a conference in Lublin on November 3-5, in the hopes of resolving existing problems and exploring the possibilities for the EaP.

As no civilization can grow without trade, so no political partnership can exist without an economic one. Hence it is only fitting that Ukraine’s first big step towards Europe take the form of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which is to be implemented within the Ukraine-EU framework. As Ewa Synowiec, head of the European Commission Representation in Poland and one of the chief negotiators of the DCFTA deal explained, the trade agreement is largely based on WTO rules with an additional emphasis on regulatory approximation and legal harmonization.

In regards to the progress on the DCFTA agreement, Ukraine is far ahead of its EaP colleagues. The negotiations, which began informally in 2007, are close to an end. Asked about the balancing of political and technical issues during the negotiations, Mrs. Synowiec explained that the major problems concerned “translating the technicalities into ordinary language” and the fact that, in Ukraine, “there was no courage to take a stand on the issue, especially before and shortly after the elections […] this is reinforced by constant changes in the administration. Nobody steers the process in Ukraine, there is no chief arbitrator. The negotiator is lost, and needs support from higher levels.”

Despite such difficulties on the path towards the free trade deal, it appears that most problems have been overcome. The Day asked Mrs. Synowiec about the specifics of the current state of negotiations, who affirmed that “[the EU] wants maximal frontal loading, meaning that we want as many goods and services to be liberalized as possible from day 1.” “Most areas will be liberalized completely,” she continued, “transport and logistics is the big absence here, simply because Ukrainian norms are far below European ones.” Mrs. Synowiec confided that negotiations should be finalized by the EU-Ukraine Summit in Budapest, to be held in May next year, and then signed in Poland in the second half of the year.

The upcoming year may very well make or break the EaP. The consecutive Hungarian and Polish EU presidencies have their sights set on scoring a foreign policy victory that would bolster their intra-EU credentials. This is particularly the case with Poland, which was been thoroughly preparing the presidency, an institution that has been steadily dismantled by the successive failures of Spain, Belgium and the Czech Republic. In light of those cautionary tales some rightly fear that the political and economic instability, which has befallen Hungary in past months, may distract it from its goals. However, Adam Szesztay, director of the Department of Strategy and Planning at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, assures that in terms of foreign policy, Hungary will remain dedicated to its goals.

This opinion is shared by Andrzej Cieskowski, Plenipotentiary of the Mi-nister of Foreign Affairs of Poland for the Eastern Partnership, who declared that “Poland and Hungary are of like mind,” in what regards the EaP. Moreover, he stressed that, “while the presidency is weaker [following the entry in force of the Lisbon Treaty, which reduced its competencies. — Ed.] than before, it retains competencies in the sectorial councils, which are essential for success.” As Mr. Szesztay explained, the May summit will be dedicated towards “evaluating the EaP, establishing the project’s prospects, and evaluating the European Neighborhood Policy in general.” This should set the grounds for the major decisions, to be taken on Poland’s watch.

Naturally, there remains the question of what funding will be alloted to the EaP programs. On the one hand the EaP bugdet, which in 2010 was around 85 million euros and leaves much to be desired (though it is complimented by generous funding on behalf of the EBRD and EIB, amongst others, particularly in what concerns the promotion entrepreneurship). On the other hand, the EaP member state’s absorption capacity is also limited, so pouring additional euros in may be ineffective. Moreover, as Adam Szesztay emphasizes: “The money is small, and eveyone would wish to have more.” “But my advice is not to demand petition more money, but rather to make the best use of what we have and show that the EaP is doing good, is useful, is vital. Then this image will bring money. Asking for more money is the best way to scare donors.”

A recent letter by the Polish and German Foreign Ministers, Radoslaw Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle, respectively, caused concerns about the possibility of Europe’s Eastern neighbors being offered partnership as a means of keeping them out of, rather than bringing them into, the EU. This opinion, in particular, was voiced by Andrew Reitman of the EuObserver, who claimed that the letter did not mention any membership perspectives, and thus implied that the topic would not be broached for at least the upcoming decade. When asked about this, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, the Polish Secretary of State for European Affairs and Economic Policy, categorically denied the allegations. “The journalist completely misinterpreted the letter,” he told The Day. This opinion was seconded by Dag Hartelius, the Swedish ambassador to Poland, who affirmed that the gist of the letter was actually the opposite of Reitman’s interpretation. “The letter highlights the differences between Europe’s Eastern neighbors, who are part of Europe, and the Southern neighbors — who are not,” the ambassador stressed.

Nevertheless, the prospects for further integration stemming from the EaP remain contingent upon a number of factors, not least relations with Russia, which in the words of Dmitry Medvedev continues to see the region as a “zone of privileged interests.” Barring the issue of visa-regime deregulation, however, EU politicians are unanimous about granting Russia a bigger say in the EaP. Such a policy will undoubtedly raise criticism to the effect that relations with smaller East European countries are sacrificed for the sake of better ties with Russia. This is already seen in the liberalization of the visa regime with Russia, a move that Dag Hartelius calls “ridiculous” given that “visas for Georgians are more expensive than those for Russians — whose state is handing out passports in Southern Ossetia.” Thus, it is crucial for the EU to find a way of bringing Russia into the debate, without appearing subservient.

To a certain extent this is provided for by the creation of the informal “Friends of the EaP” group, which involves all regional and international actors that care to get involved in the process. Its first meeting was held on September 29, and brought together the US, Canada, the World Bank, the EBRD, Turkey and Russia (albeit in the role of observer). The group will acquire a more formal status next year, at which time its role may become clearer. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to develop the EaP multilateral component, thus potentially increasing leverage over developments in member countries. Mikolaj Dowgielewicz praised the possibility it offers of including Russia in the process: “We were happy that Russia came to Brussels, in the so-called ‘Friends of the EaP’ group. We think that Russia should get involved in the EaP. Everybody would benefit from this, as the EaP is not a platform directed against Russia, but rather a platform in which it can participate, if it wishes.”

While the situation may not be quite as somber as some have feared, there remain numerous concerns. Unsurprisingly, one of them is whether the various EaP member states do indeed fit in with the so-called “European civilization.” Abstracting from the question of whether those countries truly aspire to EU membership (from among the six only Georgia can be said to be headed unequivocally in this direction, though both politics and geography remain major hurdles for the Caucasian country which recently signed a visa-free regime agreement with neighboring Iran), it is hard to say whether there is a possibility of going beyond simple economic partnership. Belarus is playing the EU and Russia against each other. Azerbaijan and Armenia, aside from being locked in a frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, are light-years away from Europe in terms of culture, politics and economic development. While it may be an easier morsel for the EU to swallow, Moldova, which just held its third parliamentary elections in two years, also has considerable problems.

At the conference Jan Cienski, head of the Financial Times bureau in Warsaw, expressed concerns about the level of popular support for so-called Europeanization. He reminisced about Poland’s integration experience: “In the 1990s Poland forced its way into Europe, and everybody wanted such a course. The EaP countries, however, seem less enthusiastic.” This is undeniably the case. Progress on many technical issues is moving along better than expected, particularly in Ukraine, for which the current administration deserves credit. However, the fundamental social and political change, which so many hope for (along with the Holy Grail of policy changes, a visa-free regime), has yet to make its appearance.

“The Day”