WASHINGTON — The European Union is set to decide whether to sign a path-breaking Association Agreement with Ukraine at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November.
The Association Agreement would create a framework for co-operation between the European Union and Ukraine, a non-EU country. If the arrangement is successful, it could lead to EU membership for Ukraine.
The chances of signing the agreement received a boost from the news that Ukraine will allow former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a rival of the president currently in prison, to travel to Germany for medical treatment. Tymoshenko suffers problems with her spine.
President Viktor Yanukovych is now faced with a difficult choice. The EU has called for Tymoshenko to be pardoned, in addition to being released for medical treatment. If Yanukovych complies, Tymoshenko could fully participate in Ukrainian politics and possibly run in the March 2015 presidential election.
But Yanukovych is highly unpopular. A recent poll indicated he would lose against any of three opposition candidates: Tymoshenko, boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko and Arseniy Yatseniuk.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economy has nosedived, with the World Bank forecasting zero growth this year. Threats of currency devaluation and default can no longer be discounted as scare tactics.
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Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin have had bad chemistry for years. The Ukrainian leader believes he was deceived three years ago when he agreed to extend the lease for the Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet baseto Russia and to drop Ukraine’s application for NATO membership. Russia did not honor its part of the bargain — a gas price discount — and today Ukraine is importing cheaper Russian gas from Germany and Central Europe.
Yanukovych could release Tymoshenko and receive the Association Agreement but face a reinvigorated opposition in the 2015 presidential election. Or he could keep her imprisoned and risk having to buckle under to Putin.
For the EU compromise to go ahead, President Yanukovych would need to heed the EU’s call to overturn Tymoshenko’s 2011 conviction and seven-year sentence for “abuse of office,” and close other criminal cases against her, including one for allegedly abetting a 1996 murder. This would require Yanukovych to reverse the entire repressive strategy he and his loyalists have been pursuing for the last three years against the opposition.
Yanukovych has utilized his power to monopolize law enforcement and finances, which he would be reluctant to give up. Leading members of the government come from his home region of Donetsk. Since he came to power, his eldest son, a dentist by profession, has earned a place in the list of Ukraine's 100 wealthiest persons.
Yanukovych sees Tymoshenko as a "protyvnyk," a mortal foe who cannot be bought and who, if pardoned, could defeat him in 2015. He fears as president she would launch criminal proceedings against him and his associates.
Ukrainian authorities have so far failed to show progress on conditions laid out by the EU: electoral reform, a mayoral election in Kiev, transparent constitutional reform and an end politically motivated convictions. Because the pose risks for Yanukovych’s personal power, they remain stalled.
Faced with the prospect that Ukraine will not meet the conditions for signing the Association Agreement, the EU has two viable options.
It can ignore Ukraine’s failure to meet the criteria and sign the Association Agreement anyway. This would signal the EU’s belief in the geopolitical importance of Ukraine. Yanukovych, however, would interpret such an action as tolerance for continued authoritarian rule and his disregard of democratic values and norms. He could then base his re-election campaign on having won the Association Agreement without having to introduce changes to his authoritarian policies.
Or, the EU could withhold the agreement until Yanukovych meets its benchmarks or is voted out of office.
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A change in EU strategy toward Ukraine could be effective in the following ways.
First, the EU would make clear to Ukrainian citizens that the Association Agreement remains on the table and would be signed once the main conditions are met. This could turn the 2015 election into a referendum on Ukraine’s future course.
Second, increased aid and training for Ukrainian civil society, mass media, aid organizations and human rights groups would ensure greater democratic control in elections and encourage Ukrainians to force the country’s elites to be responsible for their actions.
Third, banning visas for select Ukrainian officials involved in political repression would deprive them of travel to their favorite places in Europe.
President Yanukovych has one month, before the Vilnius summit, to implement key EU benchmarks and pardon Tymoshenko. The ball is now firmly in his court, but time is running out.
Serhiy Kudelia is assistant professor of political science, Baylor University. Taras Kuzio is a Toronto-based research associate at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, University of Alberta in Canada.