Aleksandr Sologub has been waiting for over a decade for concrete progress in Ukraine’s effort to win some sort of acceptance by the European Union. For Sologub, who heads the Center for Social Partnership NGO in the western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, such a move would mean potential access to markets and standardization of now-haphazard regulations that could greatly benefit the mainly agricultural region where he is active in promoting entrepreneurship.
So it was in a tone of great disappointment but little surprise that Sologub discussed the December decision by EU leaders to postpone an agreement leading to free trade and improved political ties with Ukraine. Speaking on the sidelines of a CIPE-organized training seminar for business association leaders in Kyiv, Sologub echoed the sentiments of many of the participants. “Whatever else Ukraine may be, it is part of Europe. That is where its economic future is,” he said.
In announcing the decision, EU leaders made clear that the “association agreement” – which had been successfully negotiated – would be put on hold until Ukraine’s government demonstrated a willingness to uphold the rule of law and halt politically motivated prosecutions. The EU’s move had been expected, especially after the October conviction of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on charges that she abused the powers of her office.
Tymoshenko, the principal rival of Ukraine’s current president Viktor Yanukovych, argues that the charges are politically motivated. Her conviction was condemned as unfair or politically motivated by leaders from Moscow to Brussels to Washington. Observers, including Sologub, expect no change in the legal status of Tymoshenko or other convicted opposition figures until this autumn’s parliamentary elections. “We are waiting for a change,” said Sologub. “I think that is what the EU is waiting for, too.”
Economically, the EU decision comes at an especially precarious time for Ukraine, as detailed in a recent presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Politically, Ukrainians are fairly evenly divided on whether it is preferable to be aligned with the EU or a Russian-led Customs Union that includes Kazakhstan and Belarus, as shown in a recent public opinion survey in Ukraine by the International Republican Institute. Those divisions fall largely along geographic lines, with people in western Ukraine – like Sologub – favoring the EU, and those in eastern Ukraine feeling a greater affinity with the Customs Union.
The upcoming election cycle, which promises to be just as rough and tumble as earlier contests held over Ukraine’s two decades of independence, may provide a forum for discussing the EU decision. With 450 seats up for grabs and parties likely to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, hopefully there will plenty of opportunity for real discussion about Ukraine’s economic future amid the political attacks.