April 2, 2014
Who and when has messed things up, such that after Crimea’s annexation, we speak of a new Cold War. According to my journalistic notes, the root of the problem stems from November 2008, when we first heard talk about the “Eastern Partnership”, which some said was modeled on the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, a project that is dear to me because I was the Pact’s spokesperson until March 2008, when it passed into history.
The Eastern Partnership appeared as a response of the Mediterranean Union, an initiative that Nicolas Sarkozy launched at European level on the occasion of the French EU Presidency, in the second half of 2008. Poland and Sweden countered with an initiative in favor of the remaining countries of the European Neighbourhood policy, those from the East: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Thus, under the Czech EU Presidency, on May 7 2009 in Prague, the Eastern Partnership was launched. The initiative foresees the possibility for the conclusion of association agreements and free trade deals, similar to those which the EU had already offered the Western Balkans. The difference was that the Western Balkans had been promised EU membership when they met Brussels’ requirements, while the Eastern Partnership countries received no such promise.
The Prime Minister of Ukraine at that time was Yulia Tymoshenko, supposedly pro-EU, but in fact she hurt those relations with her conflict with then-President Viktor Yuschenko. In late 2010, Viktor Yanukovych won the presidential election. Though he was considered a pro-Russian leader, it was under Yanukovych that the Association Agreement was agreed upon and initialized. It is indeed ambitious, and I’m glad I was the first to publish about it in this blog, in December 2012.
In the meantime, on 7 May 2012, Vladimir Putin became president again. Shortly before that, as prime minister, he first mentioned plans to create a Eurasian Union on the basis of the Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, founded on 1 July 2011. In the EU, my impression is that no one took these plans seriously.
On the one hand the EU progressed with association agreements with Ukraine , Moldova and Georgia; on the other hand, Russia sought to extend the Customs Union in post -Soviet territory, including to those same countries.
The turning point came the day when Yanukovych said that Ukraine wants to be a member of both the Customs Union and to sign an Association agreement, and a Brussels official said that the EU Association agreement is not compatible with the Customs Union. It’s either-or, the anonymous official said. This was in December 2012.
Initially, no one paid much attention to these words. No one in European Union institutions realised that this was a de facto declaration of war. Any further statements by Brussels that the signing of an Association agreement with Ukraine was not directed against Russia did not sound serious. The next developments are widely known, culminating in the refusal of then-President Yanukovych to sign an Association Agreement during the summit in Vilnius on 28 and 29 November last year.
Two weeks ago, Pierre Vimont, the number two in Catherine Ashton’s External Action Service, said that the EU was “pushed into the wall by Cold War reflexes”. He also said that the choice between the Association Agreement and the Customs Union was not as “inescapable” as initially thought.
“What strikes me is when we ask is this really incompatible as it’s really said, we discover, discussing with our experts, that maybe it’s not exactly that, and we can find a common ground,” Vimont said.
So much about facts. Now for my commentary. Asked who they prefer, Russia or the EU, the Ukrainians are divided , but in Bulgaria, the country I know best, society is not unanimous either . Happily enough, when entering the EU, no one offered Bulgarians an alternative.
The Presidential elections on 25 May will show whether a majority of Ukrainians would prefer the EU or Russia. What is less clear is if the minority will accept the choice of the majority, or Ukraine will split up.
Otherwise, the EU and Russia will sooner or later have to assimilate their neighborhood projects: Whether it will be called Trans- European area from Lisbon to Vladivostok, or a Common Economic Space , it doesn’t really matter. What matters is to overcome the current crisis. It’s a big one, indeed.