New_Magazine - Yushchenko

Photo: 'Segodnya' (c)

‘A fork in the road’, by Viktor Yushchenko

Decisions taken in the next few weeks will determine Ukraine’s future, says Ukraine’s ex-President. Will Ukraine embark on a new economic and political relationship with the EU — or will it slide back into Russia’s orbit?

by Viktor Yushchenko

When I became President in 2004, one of my main strategic goals was to set Ukraine’s relations with the EU on an irrevocable path towards closer integration. It was clearly in Ukraine’s economic interests to take full advantage of the huge market for goods and services on its doorstep and to encourage the enormous potential for inward investment from the EU.

But this was never only an economic issue. Geopolitically, historically and culturally, Ukraine’s identity is European. I saw closer integration with the EU — and in the longer term full EU membership — as confirmation of that identity and a powerful stimulus to the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law.

First steps were modest and included a joint EU-Ukraine Action Plan and Ukrainian participation in various EU initiatives. But in 2008 negotiations began on a new Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, including a ‘deep and comprehensive’ free trade agreement, which would lay the foundations for closer integration.

Now that Agreement, which has been so long in negotiation, hangs in the balance. The EU has been reluctant to sign the Agreement and while it hesitates Ukraine is coming under increasing pressure from Russia to reject free trade with the EU and instead join its own proposed customs union, the Eurasian Economic Union.

Ukrainians need to be clear that to go down this path would be a fatal mistake. Ukraine will always have close links with Russia — but the European market is twelve times larger than Russia’s. It offers huge opportunities and its rules — the result of open and transparent cooperation between equal, democratic partners — are clearly defined. The EU is already Ukraine’s biggest and fastest growing trading partner. Accepting the Russian embrace would make little economic sense.

It would also mean squeezing the life out of the democratic ideals of the Orange revolution, and a return to the Russian dominance which for the last 21 years we have sought to shake off.

I therefore warmly welcomed the Verkhovna Rada’s declaration, adopted last February by an overwhelming majority, in favour of European integration and the signing of the Association Agreement. Last month, the Ukrainian government gave its green light to signature. Already the Russians are threatening dire consequences.

The EU now needs to recognise that Ukraine is making a momentous choice, and a courageous one. I can understand some of the concerns that led the EU to hold up signature of the Association Agreement. Nevertheless, while the EU has every right to raise its concerns, I believe that an EU decision not to sign the Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November would be profoundly misguided. It would damage not only the people of Ukraine but, equally importantly, the strategic interests of the EU.

Why do I say this?

For 46 million Ukrainians, the benefits of partnership with the EU are vital to their aspirations for a better life. They do not deserve to be held hostage. Ukraine’s economy is struggling. That’s why Ukrainian business needs the benefits of a free trade agreement, in order to restore economic confidence, increase market access and bring vital foreign direct investment to Ukraine. The people of Ukraine urgently need the jobs that better market access and increased investment will create.

Above all, Ukraine’s citizens and its business community need to understand where the future direction of their country lies. Economic prosperity and democracy are inextricably linked.

In the absence of basic freedoms, both economic and political, and of the rule of law, authoritarianism and corruption thrive. Ukraine could end up stumbling down the same path as its neighbour Belarus.

From the EU’s perspective, it is difficult to see how a policy that will push Ukraine into an ever closer dependence on authoritarian regimes is the right way to promote democracy, or could possibly be in the EU’s wider strategic interests.

Both Ukraine and the EU face a fork in the road. The wrong decision will have far-reaching consequences. Ukraine has made its choice. It is vital that the EU now does likewise and unblocks the route down which I, and so many others, want to see Ukraine travel.