If the Ukrainian President thought that giving in to Russia was the easy option, the crowds that massed in Kiev’s Independence Square at the weekend indicated the scale of his mistake. Indeed, Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to spurn the trade and association agreement with Europe which he had been expected to sign in Lithuania on Friday, has sparked the largest protest in his country since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Mr Yanukovych’s U-turn came as a surprise in Brussels. His approach to negotiations may often have been less about reaching a deal than about setting Europe and Russia in competition for Ukraine’s geopolitical favours. But the expectation – until little more than a week ago – was still that Ukraine would join Moldova and Georgia in signing on the dotted line in Vilnius.
Mr Yanukovych blamed his change of heart on Moscow. Russia – jealous of its waning influence in the post-Soviet “near abroad” and pitching its own Eurasian customs union in competition with Europe’s so-called Eastern Partnership – was threatening import sanctions if Kiev cuddled up to the West. With Brussels refusing to make up a difference of perhaps €160bn over the coming years, and Vladimir Putin dangling extra sweeteners such as cheap gas and future business contracts, Ukraine was best served by pulling out, the President said.
No small number of his people think otherwise, believing both that their country should foster links with Europe, and that their government’s sudden demur can only be explained by the financial and political interests of its members. Large numbers have taken to the streets to say as much. As many as 350,000 marched through central Kiev on Sunday, waving “Ukraine is Europe” banners and chanting “Out with the criminal!” (referring to their President). Batons, tear gas and flash grenades were all deployed; in their turn, some balaclava-clad demonstrators attempted to break through a police cordon using an industrial digger and others took over parts of City Hall.
For many tired by Ukraine’s woebegone economic performance and dysfunctional politics, Mr Yanukovych’s self-interested tilt to the east has proved the final straw. And what had looked like a sure victory for Mr Putin’s brand of diplomatic thuggery is now not so certain. The talks with Europe may even be resurrected.
There are lessons for Brussels here. Barely 20 years after gaining its independence, Ukraine’s loyalties are still divided. Given the links – economic and cultural – that remain with Russia, even a less venal leader than Mr Yanukovych might have baulked at the either/or that appeared to be on offer. To move forward, Europe may need to tweak its approach.
That said, sceptics’ warnings about the Ukrainian President’s proposed three-way commission cannot be ignored. While no reason not to participate, Europe must be sure to hold to its principles. Before last week’s volte-face, there was talk of a compromise over Yulia Tymoshenko – the imprisoned former Prime Minister (and Yanukovych rival) whose removal for medical treatment in Germany was part of the deal. Thankfully, Brussels stuck to its guns. It must continue to do so – not only to preserve the EU’s integrity, but also to live up to the expectations of the protesters in Independence Square.