The international conference in Yalta three months ago was called “Changing Ukraine in a Changing World” with focus on the “Vilnius Summit with its high expectations to sign the associate agreement with the EU”. It was held, as befits something heralding such an historic occasion, at the Livadia Palace where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met to carve up post-war Europe.
The jamboree, held yearly by a foundation run by Victor Pinchuk, a leading entrepreneur and philanthropist in Ukraine, was attended by President Viktor Yanukovych, the man whose signature would be on the deal heralded as the first step in the process of accession.
Guests welcoming the country into the West included Bill and Hilary Clinton and Tony Blair, with moral support from Dalia Grybauskaite, the President of Lithuania, which has already made the transition from the Warsaw Pact to the European Union. Senior Russian officials taking part in discussion panels faced uniformly hostile receptions from the Ukrainian audience.
Three months on, Ukraine is in a state in turmoil after President Yanukovych failed to sign the Association Agreement at the summit in Vilnius last week. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Kiev. They stormed the City Council and had, at one point, driven off the security forces from some areas of the city centre. They called for immediate elections. The talk is of a repeat of the 2004 Orange Revolution, and there have been threats of violence and bloodshed.
Mr Yanukovych has let it be known that he was made to act as he did in Vilnius under irresistible pressure from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who had effectively threatened to cut off the traditionally cheap gas supplies essential to coping with its severe winters, and there were further threats of bans of the country’s exports to the Russian market. The EU, the Ukrainian president held, had not offered anything like enough financial incentives to counteract all this: its aid packet worth £500m was “humiliating”, he said, and little more than “candy in a pretty wrapper”.
There was outrage from EU leaders. The French President, François Hollande stated there had been “pressure for sure” from the Kremlin. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, talked of the need to “overcome a situation where a country is being either tied closer to Russia or being tied to closer to the EU”. Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission President, accused the Kremlin of treating Ukraine like a Soviet colony.
It is surprising that they appear to have no inkling this was coming. At Yalta, amid the black-slapping, there were expressions of concern from some about complacency in the West that the EU agreement was a done deal. One industrialist pointed out privately that there was a lack of understanding about just how much damage would be caused to a fragile economy by Russian punitive action. Others stressed that Ukraine’s population in the east – which is mainly Russian speaking – naturally gravitates eastwards, and this needed to be taken into consideration.
There was also unease about some of the demands being made by the EU, one of the most highly publicised of which was for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned opposition leader, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power during her time as Prime Minister. She says the charge is politically motivated. Senior Western diplomats negotiating her release pointed out there was strong opposition among Mr Yanukovich’s people at what they saw as outside interference.
Furthermore, although Ms Tymoshenko’s freedom would have come with the caveat that she does not seek political office during the remainder of her seven-year sentence, the President was apprehensive that she would become a focal point of opposition in exile. There was a difference in opinion on this issue within the EU camp. Germany had offered Tymoshenko medical treatment and refuge, taking the lead in insisting that she was freed before Vilnius. Others, including the UK, argued that the matter could be resolved in the time between the associate agreement and ratification.
The questions are: what happens now in Ukraine? President Yanukovych has some time left to change his mind and his stance in Vilnius may well have been motivated solely with the intention of wringing out more money from the EU. But will he be able to stay at the table to discover whether his bluff gets called?
The failure to sign the Association Agreement was the immediate reason for people turning out on to the streets, but there is deep-seated resentment about economic stagnation and unemployment, corruption and inefficiency. And, as we have seen elsewhere, popular rage can topple governments with such fault-lines.
Questions can also be asked of the EU; with loudly expressed consternation in the UK and Germany at the prospect of migration from recent member states such as Romania and Bulgaria, is there an argument for a temporary halt on the eastward expansion to the borders of a prickly, Putin-run Russia? Especially as this is happening as the Kremlin, too, is embarking on enlargement. Kazakhstan and Belarus have already joined its customs union and Armenia is likely to follow as well, despite its own small protests.
Ukrainian ministers have suggested that the Russians should be brought into talks on its EU accession plans, something the EU hierarchy has rejected. Ms Merkel, however, did moot there was need to talk to Russia to avoid another Ukrainian-style impasse; perhaps the answer lies in the two expanding blocks meeting again for a reprise of Yalta of more than six decades ago to work out the realistic borders of 21st-century Europe.