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Ukraine: the unexpected awakening?

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The presidential elections in Ukraine and the events surrounding them have already been labelled as the “orange revolution”. But what does this mean for relations with the EU?

The implications of this revolution are being felt not only domestically but internationally. While events still unfold in the capital, Kiev, at least two things have become apparent: firstly, that the post-Soviet space is still unsettled; and secondly, that it is subject to rivalry between the West and Russia on the one hand, and the people and national elites on the other. The public’s disillusionment with, and distrust in, the current politico-economic elites has resulted in mass mobilisation which will pave the way for institutional and other changes. But in order to ensure victory, the revolution should be won not only domestically but also internationally.

Russia and the CIS

The Kremlin has been actively supporting the alledged winner, Viktor Yanukovich. Many Ukrainians have looked upon this as Russian interference in the domestic politics of a friendly, but foreign country. Russia’s traditional support for candidates from within the ruling elite has proved counterproductive in the case of Ukraine. By demonising the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and portraying him as ultra-nationalist (and thus anti-Russian), the Kremlin has associated itself with Viktor Yanukovich, a candidate with a dubious past who is more than willing to use the Russian card, but not necessarily create favourable conditions for Russian businesses in Ukraine in return.

The current crisis in Ukraine has raised questions on the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations and put a big question mark over the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its existing form. Moreover, the fate of the Moscow-backed Common Economic Space project or Edinoe Ekonomicheskoe Prostranstvo, between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan is also unclear. The idea of a “liberal empire” that was circulating in Moscow a year ago has become obsolete – Ukraine has outmatched Russia in its democratic record largely due to the awakening of the nation in recent weeks. What Russia will do with the CIS, a top priority of its foreign policy, is now an open question. There are several possible scenarios, from strengthening its energy policy vis-à-vis CIS members (especially Ukraine), to turning the CIS into a more intimate club of closest friends comprising countries from Central Asia and Belarus. However, at present it is still difficult to imagine the CIS without one of its key members, so the “battle for Ukraine” is not over.

The EU’s role

The EU has been more surprised than excited by the awakening of the Ukrainian nation, which has raised concerns about two things: whether the revolution will lead to the break-up of the country, thus creating a totally new and destabilising situation on the eastern borders of the Union; and the distant possibility of including a democratic Ukraine in the European Union. There is little doubt that, should Viktor Yushchenko become president, the country is likely to renew its European aspirations. This could become a problem for the EU which is already pondering putting an end to any further eastern enlargements, excepting Romania and Bulgaria. The goal for the EU today, and in the foreseeable future, will be to ensure a peaceful transition from the current system of governance to one where the balance of power is more equally distributed between the President, the Prime-Minister and the Parliament.

It is important that it is the EU, rather than Russia or America, that takes a leading role in mediating the situation in Ukraine. Since Russia is associated with its bold and outspoken support of Viktor Yanukovich, it cannot fully perform this function and it will take time before Moscow restores its image among both the Ukrainian elite and public. The direct involvement of the US, which has been tacitly supporting the revolution, will not be well received either as the nature of US foreign policy is controversial in Ukraine. Also, Yushchenko’s wife holds American citizenship, which is considered by many as a sensitive point in Yushchenko’s profile. As a result of the Ukraine crisis, the US and the EU seem to be re-discovering the possibility of co-operating with each other on important international affairs; unfortunately Russia has ended up being left out, but hopefully only temporarily.