One year after Vilnius summit: Times of “limited sovereignty” coming back?

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy at Vilnius Summit
R.Dačkaus nuotr.

A year later, Ukraine has a new pro-Western government but it has also failed to “engage” with Brussels in the face of the Russian aggression: the free trade deal is signed but Kiev put its enforcement on hold.

The next EU Eastern Partnership summit will take place in Riga in May during the Latvian presidency over the EU Council, and Europe, which is learning bitter geopolitical lessons, will have fewer ambitions at the event.

Hope and disappointment in Vilnius

Signing the Ukraine-EU association agreement at the Vilnius summit of the EU Eastern Partnership program was expected to help Ukraine get out of the Russian orbit and be the crowning achievement of the Lithuanian presidency over the EU.

Throughout 2013, the focus was on vain European efforts to persuade Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovych to release his political opponent, ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. Nevertheless, a week before the expected signing ceremony, the Western world was stunned by the Ukrainian government’s statement that it was terminating preparations for the signing.

“I wouldn’t quite call it a failure. I think it was a shock, it was a wake-up call for the European Union. I don’t think European leaders had predicted just how much Russia would adopt this very assertive tactics in trying to resist the spread of the Eastern Partnership. They thought until the end that Yanukovych would sign. All European diplomats were saying basically they didn’t have a plan B to have some kind of alternative approach when Ukraine said ‘no’,” says Richard Youngs of the Brussels-based Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Some of the shocked Europeans were still trying to persuade themselves that Yanukovych was only bluffing to get better conditions. The hope was still alive in Vilnius on the afternoon of 28 November when, merely hours before the start of the summit, European Commission officials came up with the last compromise – Ukraine should sign the agreement but postpone its enforcement until February.

The idea in Vilnius drew cautious support from lower-ranking members of the Ukrainian delegation, but Yanukovych smashed last hopes when he met presidents of top EU institutions at the Kempinski Hotel, while leaders were already gathering to the Palace of the Grand Dukes just 200 metres away.

Yanukovych said that signing the agreement with the EU would result in Russia taking sanctions, which would consequently ruin Ukraine’s economy. After the last guests left the Palace in Vilnius an hour before midnight, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė said that the argumentation of EU leaders “failed to reach ears or thoughts of the Ukrainian president”.

“He seemed to be frank talking about pressure from the neighbouring country (…). Eastern Partnership as a concept did not have a strategy of resistance to Russian activities. It was a great mistake not to take Russian factor into consideration,” says Iuliia Serbina, an expert of the Odessa branch of the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies.

The news from Vilnius triggered protests in Kiev that were later be known as Maidan and Euromaidan. Several months later, in February, Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. Russia then annexed Crimea, and Russia-backed separatists gained foothold in several cities in eastern Ukraine. Since then, the war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 4,000 lives.

Limited sovereignty

After he was elected as Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko said in June that he would correct the historic mistake and signed the free trade agreement with the EU, using a pen brought from the Vilnius summit.

A few months later, the same president requested that enforcement of the deal be postponed until 2016. Lithuanian diplomats, who defended Ukraine’s interests in the negotiations with the EU, have made no secret of their disappointment after hearing about it in the media.

“It is disappointing for different reasons. First of all, the price that the Ukrainian society had to pay for signing the agreement. No other country has had to overcome such challenges on the way to the EU,” says Serbina.

Brussels agreed to not only unilaterally open the European market for Ukraine, but also to invite Russia to discuss the effects of the agreement. Political scientist Vykintas Pugačiauskas says that, by agreeing to Moscow’s participation, the EU clearly abandoned its position that “times of limited sovereignty in Europe were over”.

“By agreeing to ‘dispel doubts’, EU unjustifiably brought the legal aspects of the agreement to the level of political discussions and accepted Russian rules of the game, and it was done at the time when everyone expected a meeting of commitments, not new discussions,” says Pugačiauskas, a foreign news editor at the LRT national television who worked as spokesman in Brussels during the Lithuanian presidency.

“I’m no longer sure whether the agreement will take force in the shape and form it was signed and ratified,” he adds.

Moscow is also tallying its losses. Although the Ukrainian EU and NATO membership does not look feasible in the nearest future, it is even more difficult to imagine Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union, a project authored by Moscow. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly isolated on the international arena, and the Baltic states are trying to exploit a window of opportunity to ensure deployment of NATO troops and military equipment in their territories.

“I think one year on, we cannot say that this is a complete failure, because in the end Ukraine has gone back to a pro-European choice and a more democratic government. Of course, Ukraine is in a terribly fragile situation, but in some ways Russia’s tactics made pro-European identity stronger at least among parts of the region’s population,” says Youngs.

After facing strong resistance of Ukrainians, Putin cannot expect an easy repetition of the Crimea scenario in other Ukrainian territories.

“Russia was thinking of a coup in the so-called Novorossiya and its annexation by Russia, but resolute actions of Ukrainians and the decreasing popularity of Vladimir Putin in eastern Ukraine upset the plans,” an EU official has said recently, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With the next Eastern Partnership summit planned to take place in Riga next May, no more “engagement parties” are planned. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would like to get an EU membership perspective in Latvia, but this may seem too big of a commitment for Western Europe, therefore, the discussions will probably focus on other instruments, such as progress in the efforts for a visa-free regime.

“One just wonders, if the political will in Riga will be strong enough to give Eastern Partnership the really strong impulse. I think it needs to, but at the moment the focus on the conflict, on the crisis in Ukraine is taking attention away from other countries like Georgia and Moldova, both of which are places where we may be facing a crisis by the time the Riga summit takes place next May,” Youngs warns.

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