The EU’s options in Ukraine

Fredag, 24. Januari 2014     0 kommentti(a)
Kristi Raik
Äldre forskare - forskningsprogrammet Europeiska unionen

As the protesters in Ukraine struggle over their country's future against the hardening line of President Yanukovych, the EU cannot become a bystander of yet another escalating conflict in its immediate neighbourhood. Amidst escalating tensions, and while Commissioner Stefan Füle is visiting Kiev, possibly to be followed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton next week, it is worth considering the EU's options in Ukraine and other similar domestic conflicts in the neighbourhood in the past.

First, some background. In the run-up to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013, the EU made every effort to deepen relations with the regime of president Yanukovych. Until recently, it kept repeating its readiness to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, even though it was obvious that Ukraine kept moving further away from meeting the political conditions (inter alia concerning the justice system and electoral legislation). The EU opted for engagement, partly out of a geopolitical motivation to anchor Ukraine to Europe, partly out of hope to use the Agreement as a tool to support incremental reforms. The strategy failed.

After weeks of protests, Ashton visited Kiev to meet with all sides of the conflict, including leadership, opposition and protesters. Referring to this and some other high-level visits by European politicians, Russia has blamed Europe for stimulating the protests. The Ukrainian opposition, by contrast, has been frustrated by Europe's passiveness in the face of repression and violence by the authorities.

As in similar situations before, when faced with an internal conflict in a neighbouring country, Europe's leaders have avoided taking sides. Europe does not do regime change, to quote Javier Solana, Ashton's predecessor. The only notable exception was Serbia in 2000, where the EU together with the US actively contributed to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. Since then, the EU has followed the crackdown of mass protests in Azerbaijan in 2005, Armenia 2008, and Moldova 2009, without challenging the incumbent regime. During the Arab uprisings that started from Tunisia in late 2010, we could repeatedly witness the reluctance of the EU to support protests. The EU hesitated to call on autocrats to step down, even when they faced massive protests and used violence to disperse them.

Now that Ukraine is spiraling deeper into violent conflict, the EU has few options to promote a positive outcome.

First, sanctions would be morally justified, but not necessarily helpful at this stage when the most urgent task is to advance dialogue between the authorities and opposition.

Second, the EU can act as a mediator or facilitator of talks between the leadership and opposition. Catherine Ashton has gained praise for her mediation efforts between Serbia and Kosovo and on Iran. Mediation requires that both sides are, first, committed to negotiate, and second, willing to accept mediation. So far these conditions are not met. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was a rare example of the EU mediating negotiations that led to a peaceful outcome of a deep domestic political crisis. However, President Yanukovych has a bitter memory of that process, which led to him losing repeat elections. This time he has reasons to fear a worse outcome, after having jailed former prime minister Tymoshenko, and now carrying responsibility for violently repressing the protests.

Third, one of the first steps towards resolving the conflict could be the launch of an independent international investigation into violent acts on both sides, the authorities and protesters.

As both sides in the conflict expect they will either win or end up in jail, it is hard to break the cycle of radicalisation. Yet, a positive outcome requires reconciliation, not revenge. Europe faces a daunting diplomatic task.

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