EUROPE, UKRAINE PLAY GAME OF CHICKEN OVER FUTURE TIES

Wall Street Journal on November 14, 2013, published an article on the future EU-Ukraine association agreement. Two weeks before a summit that European leaders hope will bolster trade and political ties with their eastern neighbors, the crown jewel of the initiative—an agreement that would lock Ukraine into a European path—is still up in the air. Excerpts below:

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to release a political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison for medical care, coupled with Russia’s intensifying economic pressure on Ukraine, has thrown the pact into doubt.

For Europe, that would be more than an embarrassment. Ukraine’s alignment has far-reaching strategic significance, as Russia seeks to curtail European inroads and rebuild its influence in former Soviet territories.

Failure to win over Ukraine after four years of trying would be a signal political failure for the 28-nation bloc and one of the clearest signs yet of the EU’s diminished diplomatic heft even in its own backyard.

Ukraine’s hesitation in freeing Ms. Tymoshenko—a condition set by Germany and other EU countries—follows a surprise decision by Armenia in September to join a Russian-led Customs Union rather than sign an “association agreement” with the EU. The move jolted Europeans, who had spent three years negotiating with Armenia.

The Ukraine deal could still materialize, but it would require extraordinary diplomatic maneuvering. Ukraine’s parliament would need to pass a law next week allowing prisoners like Ms. Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment abroad, or the president could pardon her.

Ms. Tymoshenko, who complains of chronic back pain, is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office following a trial that Western leaders consider rigged.

European officials have not given up hope. At a meeting in Brussels on November 14, no country called on the EU to shut down the talks and walk away, but there was also no support for signing up to an agreement without a solution for Ms. Tymoshenko, a senior diplomat said.

One thing must happen before the Vilnius summit on Nov 28-29, the diplomat said. “Physically, Yulia Tymoshenko has to be out of the country to put the EU in a position where a positive decision can be made.”

The EU’s effort to sign a deal cementing its economic and political ties to Ukraine is part of a broader initiative to bolster relations with six nations on Europe’s eastern border, an effort that so far has yielded mixed results.

Of these countries, Belarus is firmly in the Russian orbit and Armenia looks set to join it. Azerbaijan is discussing an association agreement with the EU, but it seems far off.

EU approaches to Georgia and Moldova are faring better. Both are expected to “initial” association deals at the summit in Vilnius later this month, an interim step before signing.

Ukraine is the centerpiece of this eastern campaign. The latest report by the EU envoys on the Tymoshenko case, Pat Cox and Aleksander Kwasniewski, brims with exasperation, especially regarding Mr. Yanukovych.

Mr. Cox, a former president of the European Parliament, and Mr. Kwasniewski, a former Polish president, have made 26 trips to Ukraine since their appointment on June 2012, and until now their language had been restrained.

Their report on November 13 warns bluntly that “time is running out” and cites the risk of a “stalemate and a nonproductive blame game.” It notes a “chronic lack of mutual trust and confidence” between Ukraine’s government and opposition.

Still, Messrs. Cox and Kwasniewski say the chief obstacle to a deal is political will, and they suggest it is primarily Mr. Yanukovych who must muster it. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Abundantly clear that everything concerning Ukraine’s direction is in the hands of President Yanukovych.”

It is possible that this back-and-forth means only that Mr. Yanukovych is seeking the best possible terms, but if so, European leaders warn that there is a danger of miscalculation. If a deal isn’t signed this month, they say, it could be at least two years before another opportunity arises, due to upcoming elections.

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