Ukraine is deeply divided over where it should head – East or West. While the EU offers an Association Agreement including a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, it isn’t the only one reaching out its hand. Russia, the powerful neighbour to the East, offers membership in a customs union with Belarus, the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, which might one day turn into a more sophisticated “Eurasian Union.” Both are tempting – and a choice has to be made. The problem is, that Ukraine cannot have both.
Ukraine has 34 days. By then it should have implemented the reforms agreed upon at this February’s EU-Ukraine summit. Most importantly Ukraine has to end the practice of selected justice, as exemplified by the imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and make serious reforms towards free elections. Not many are hopeful that Ukraine will be able to show some real progress by the May deadline. Jan Tombinski, EU Ambassador to Ukraine, recently told the Interfax Ukraine news agency that at the present moment the European Commission was “very far from a positive decision“.
Despite the (pro-Russian) government’s inability or unwillingness to initiate decisive reforms, the public cannot seem to agree on one way either. A poll conducted over the last month by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology revealed that 38% of Ukrainians would vote for joining Russia’s customs union in a fictional referendum and 38% would vote for association with the EU. This dividedness is rather unique. Other former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova are very engaged with the Union and try to reduce dependence on Russia. In those countries there is a clear preference for “the West”. Belarus, the other extreme, uses every opportunity to further ties with mother Russia and at least the government shows little enthusiasm for EU-Belarusian cooperation.
Ukrainian dividedness doesn’t only prolong the standstill, it also paves the way for short-term considerations. The Russian customs union offers clear benefits in the short run – no complicated, resource-intensive reform programme is required and a favourable deal for Russian gas is another bonus. But is it really a long-term solution? Hardly. If the EU genuinely wants Ukraine to look westward it might just have to be a little more patient with those “inbetweeners”. And Ukraine’s government has to put words into deeds.