Declining to sign an accession agreement with the European Union toward the end of 2013, Ukraine struck a major blow to the West’s wish of pulling the Eastern European country out of Russia’s sphere of influence and control.
It was a great gift that Russian President Vladimir Putin got for the new 2014. To save the image of its Eastern Partnership and soften that obvious failure, the EU presented minor gifts to some other countries seeking membership, including a date of January 2014 for starting accession negotiations for Serbia, as well as revival talks with Turkey on membership and on dropping visa requirements for Turks visiting Europe. At its last annual meeting, the EU heads of states, prime ministers and foreign ministers only sent New Year’s cards to the remaining candidates, expressing their expectations for these countries to make new moves regarding the EU roadmaps. Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t even mentioned.
Instead of trying first to draw a geopolitical link between Ukraine’s drama and the Balkans, I would rather stress its personal issues. Ukraine has reached a phase where further development depends highly on the behavior of its main actors. Within Ukraine, they are President Viktor Yanukovych and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Their political, ideological and personal conflict reminds me of the contest for the throne between two sisters and two queens, Mary and Elizabeth, from 16th-century England. It was crueler than Shakespeare’s immortal tragedies on royal European intrigues and executions.
Queen Mary, a strict Catholic, was determined to re-establish Catholicism in England. Regarding the Protestant Elizabeth as a direct threat to her throne, she accused her of rebellion and sent her to the Tower of London, from which prisoners seldom returned alive. Elizabeth, however, later ruled for 45 years and established the protestant Church of England.
Returning to the Ukrainians Viktor and Yulia, they have had, in a sense, similar personal conflicts and competitions to be the highest power. The former is, for now, the head of state. And he sent the latter to prison. Since their country is approaching elections, the most important thing for Yanukovych is that his main rival Tymoshenko remain imprisoned — at least until he secures a new mandate.
Being a part of the former Soviet Union for most of the last century, Ukraine is considered an Eastern, fully pro-Russian country, even after the collapse of communism. Deep political, social and cultural divisions within Ukraine itself were neglected and they emerged again during the pro-European and pro-Russian demonstrations of the last decade.
I knew it was — as its name implies in all Slavic languages — somewhere on the edge (kraina) of Russian, Polish and Ottoman domains, but I discovered only recently that its western parts were under the Austro-Hungarian rulers in the 19th century, the same as the whole of Bosnia. The Ukrainian language is common in western Ukraine, but hardly spoken in its eastern regions. Around two-thirds of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, but they are also divided between the patriarchate of Kiev and Moscow.
Since the Western world of Shakespearean times was split between Catholicism and Protestantism, the conflict during the Tudor dynasty between Mary and Elizabeth was more than a struggle for power between two sisters. And since today’s world is still roughly divided by East and West, in circumstances created by the course of centuries, we might also say that Yanukovych belongs to the reviving East, and Tymoshenko to the expanding West, thus extending their personal struggle beyond Ukraine.
Following these comparisons, which might seem rather vague, I see in President Putin a major outside role in the Ukrainian contemporary drama. In theatrical terms, he is the play’s director as well. He has become strong and bold, and he doesn’t allow other foreign actors to appear on the Ukrainian scene. In terms of politics, he has maneuvered forcefully and successfully to derail plans of the European Union or of Euro-Atlantic alliances and worked for Ukraine to move closer to Russia.
He might have schemed for Ukraine’s EU rapprochement if it wouldn’t mean taking the first step for expanding NATO further eastward. That is why President Yanukovych was very polite when talking to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, but became disturbed upon hearing that US Senator John McCain said, “The free world is with you, America is with you, and I am with you,” about the pro-European rally in Kiev.
Such words upset President Putin even more. They warned Putin to put additional pressure on President Yanukovych not to sign the EU accession agreement in Lithuania last month. In September, similar pressure by Russia forced Armenia to abandon its talks with the Europeans. After Putin threatened Yerevan, saying that Moscow might make trouble in the conflict with Azerbaijan, the Armenian government announced it will join the customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
That custom union is the first step of Moscow’s plan to establish and further expand the so-called Eurasian Economic Union. President Putin said last week in a meeting with the president of Belarus and Kazakhstan that the final plan was already made for the 2015 launch of an economic union with those two countries and that he hopes it can also be joined by Ukraine.
To further extend such a union to include former Soviet countries, and even to expand further into Asia, Ukraine is certainly a key country due to its strategic position and importance for Russia’s own security. Russia is not only trying to safeguard its influence on the Ukraine, but it is keeping it under its control as well. As George Friedman recently wrote, “From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly.”
Ukraine’s forceful refusal to sign the already prepared accession agreement with the EU brought the West’s efforts to expand its political, economic and military influence toward the East to a standstill. Going beyond countries past Ukraine along the Black Sea, it also made some smaller countries hesitate in regard to their relations with the EU and Russia. Russia will leave some of them for the EU, sooner or later, but it won’t do the same for the NATO military alliance. After all, that is a subject for further consideration.
But it is interesting how the EU reacted to the Ukrainian pro-European revolt, which was significantly eased after Russia paid $3 billion of the promised $15 billion to President Yanukovych for the great favor in Lithuania. Almost at the same time, the EU signed a deal with Ankara to send back illegal migrants entering EU member states via Turkey, as well as an accord to enter negotiations on dropping visa requirements for Turks visiting Europe. The EU ministers also agreed to begin membership talks with Serbia on Jan. 21. Nobody can convince me that it was coincidental that Turkey’s EU accession negotiations resumed last month after years of stagnation, and that it was not a kind of covering up for the Ukrainian defeat.
It is also not difficult to link the start of negotiations with Serbia with Belgrade’s efforts to normalize relations with Kosovo, but even more with its relations with Russia. The EU heads of state and foreign ministers expressed hopes that other Balkan countries, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, will be successful in their accession process. Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, was not mentioned at all. It seems that it is not drawing nearer to the EU but instead more distant, and judging by its internal divisions, it is not very far from Ukraine as well.
Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading daily of Turkey.