KYIV – The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga on May 21-22 revealed the European Union has lost the boldness it demonstrated in Vilnius in November 2013, when its participants ostracized former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for declining to sign the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.
After the military aggression demonstrated by the Russian government since then, the European Union’s leaders demonstrated heightened caution, refraining from any direct condemnations of Russia and mutedly encouraging the six post-Soviet member states on their Euro-integration efforts.
As expected, in the summit’s joint declaration, the EU refrained from making clearer Ukraine’s prospects for membership, let alone offering visa-free travel regimes. For the first time, the declaration referred to “trilateral consultations” on the Ukraine-EU Free Trade Area, calling the January 1, 2016, launch date “provisional,” to the disappointment of observers.
The declaration “reads like a successful sting operation by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB),” Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, wrote on May 26, describing the summit as a “disaster” for Ukraine.
The consensus among numerous political observers was that Ukraine remains on track for Euro-integration, but both the Russians and the Ukrainians themselves have succeeded in dampening the enthusiasm.
“The EU is tired of Ukraine’s desire to gain political results without real work,” said Bohdan Yaremenko, a Ukrainian diplomat and head of the Maidan Foreign Affairs Fund.
The lack of results was most felt among the public in the lack of a firm date to launch a visa-free regime with the EU, which would allow Ukrainian citizens to travel to EU countries for 90 days without needing to apply for a visa.
The public had “heightened expectations” in this regard, said Volodymyr Fesenko, the board chairman of the Penta Center for Applied Political Research in Kyiv.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the administration of President Petro Poroshenko had failed to fulfill the necessary requirements for the Visa Liberalization Action Plan in time for the summit to move the process along.
“On the summit’s eve, Poroshenko harshly rebuked the State Migration Service and other bodies,” said Mr. Fesenko, who attended the summit as part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s civic council. “They failed to do part of their homework, and we can’t allow such mistakes in the future. Our internal errors weren’t critical, but they interfered and were used as a pretext.”
Indeed, the EU is concerned about receiving a wave of refugees from the war in the Donbas, as well as migrant laborers displaced by Ukraine’s economic recession, he said.
The joint declaration refers to the need to complete the implementation of the second phase of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan once all benchmarks are met in implementing required reforms by year’s end.
At that point, the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, would ask the European Parliament and the EU Council, which represents the ministers of EU member-states, to exempt Ukrainian citizens from visa requirements to enter EU territory.
The year-end review was demanded by the Ukrainian delegation, which included Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration.
To placate the public, Poroshenko Bloc National Deputy Iryna Gerashchenko told the Channel 5 television network on May 25 that the visa-free regime may be launched as soon as the summer of 2016.
“Many questions remain to the Migration Service and Internal Affairs Ministry,” she said. “Parliament needs to monitor this and assist with amendments to the laws on fighting corruption and approving a new labor code.”
Indeed Mr. Chaly and Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, fought for every word in the joint declaration, Mr. Fesenko pointed out.
Yet Dr. Aslund of the Atlantic Council wasn’t impressed, particularly when it came to the Free Trade Area. Russia had already succeeded postponing its launch until January 1, 2016, from November 1, 2014, as originally planned.
The document even calls that date into question, referring to the “provisional application of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Ukraine starting on 1 January 2016.”
It also referred to the need to hold further “trilateral consultations” on the agreement, without directly mentioning Russia, despite repeated statements from EU officials since the Association Agreement’s signing that Russia would not influence the Ukraine-EU Free Trade Area.
“Again the EU has given in to the unmentionable Russia,” Dr. Aslund commented. [To read Dr. Aslund’s commentary on the summit, see page 7.]
The 13-page summit declaration refers directly to Russia only once and in the context of natural gas talks, with the EU playing the role of a facilitator to “contribute to underpinning the stable, sufficient and uninterrupted gas flow to Europe.”
The EU reaffirms its position from the April 27 joint statement on the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, the declaration said, but without mentioning Russia. No mention was made of the Russian-sponsored war in Donbas.
The declaration also made no mention nor did it offer Ukraine support in the current debt restructuring talks being held with private creditors and the Russian government, which has been demanding payment of the $3 billion debt that was assumed by Mr. Yanukovych.
“Whith such friends as the EU in Riga, Ukraine needs no enemies,” Dr. Aslund tweeted on May 25. “Has EU become pro-aggression & pro-Kremlin?”
Of the six Eastern Partnership member states, only Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia are actively pursuing Euro-integration, Mr. Fesenko said.
Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan are pursuing tactical arrangements while maintaining their membership in the Customs Union, he said. Yet their mere presence posed a threat to Ukraine. Diplomats representing Belarus and Armenia tried to undermine the already weak summit declaration, he added.
Among those in attendance was European Council President Donald Tusk of Poland, who referred to Russia’s “aggressive and bullying tactics.” At the same time, he said the summit was “not an anti-Russian beauty contest.”