Ukraine and the west: viktor’s dilemma

A country caught precariously between east and west

“I FEEL the weight of history,” said Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, at the Yalta European Strategy forum (set up by Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch). The conference took place in the Livadia palace, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided the fate of Europe in February 1945. Yet Ukraine’s situation as a swing state also prompted historic reflections. Twenty years after the Soviet collapse, the country faces choices that will determine both the shape of Europe and its own sovereignty.

Bordering Russia in the east, the European Union in the west and Turkey across the Black Sea, this country of 48m people is of interest to all three. The European Union may have little appetite for expansion just now, but it has been negotiating a free-trade and association agreement with Ukraine that would be a big step towards integration. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, said in Yalta that “we see Ukraine as Europe’s future production harbour, not just as a pipeline territory.” Turkey, which talks of regaining the influence it enjoyed in the Ottoman days, also has an interest in Ukraine, especially in Crimea, home to 260,000 ethnic Tatars. It sent senior officials to Yalta and hosted a reception on the Black Sea.

Conspicuously, there were no representatives from Russia in Yalta, but its shadow was felt. Russia sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. It wants it in a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Russia is not in a position to rebuild its empire but Vladimir Putin, its prime minister, sees his mission as gathering in lands lost in the Soviet Union’s disintegration.

The good news, said Mr Sikorski, is that it will not be the imperial powers that decide Ukraine’s fate. The bad news is that Ukraine’s politicians lack any long-term vision. From his rhetoric President Viktor Yanukovich seems pro-European.

But his behaviour is distinctly post-Soviet. The trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and Mr Yanukovich’s main rival, is an example. Her arrest put a spanner in Ukraine’s negotiations with the EU. Mr Yanukovich did not expect this. He appears to have believed that relinquishing Ukraine’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium, which pleased America, and eschewing Russia’s pressure to join its customs union would outweigh the arrest of the tarnished Ms Tymoshenko.

In recent weeks Mr Yanukovich has discovered how wrong he was. He has been bombarded with statements and telephone calls from Western leaders. Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy supremo, sent him a stern letter. In Yalta Stefan Füle, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Elmar Brok, a German MEP, and Mr Bildt told Mr Yanukovich that if he wanted his free-trade deal with Europe he had better free Ms Tymoshenko, and under terms that would allow her to run in the next presidential election. “The message has been delivered and it has been received,” commented Mr Bildt.

Mr Yanukovich could yet pardon Ms Tymoshenko, or decriminalise the offence with which she has been charged (overstepping her authority in a gas deal with Russia she agreed as prime minister in 2009). But, like the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia in 2003, her treatment has signalled to prosecutors and the security services that they have a free hand. Raiding of businesses by armed men is widespread. Businessmen say the climate is worse than a decade ago.

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Ukraine and the west: viktor’s dilemma