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1 Mar 2013

Battle for Ukraine

European integration

Chances of integration of Belarus into the European Union depends not only on restoring democracy but, rather, on desire of the EU member states to accept new candidates from the East. And now the main test for them is Ukraine. If the EU accepts Ukraine, Belarus’ perspectives to join this club will look more realistic. 

Being heavily involved in Russian media sphere few Belarusians paid attention to Ukraine-EU summit which took place on 25th of February in Brussels, Belgium.  To summarize the results it is important to say that both sides supports the idea of Ukraine in the EU and played down the Timoshenko case which was a real issue just a couple of month before. The next step will be a free-trade agreement to be signed in Vilnuis this autumn.

What does it mean to Belarus? And will Ukrainian success in talks with the EU help Belarus to strengthen European vector in its policy? Certainly, so.  A lot of Belarusians still believe that this country will be better off in the EU rather than in newly created custom union with Russia and Kazakhstan. Under last public opinion polls (unofficial, as it had been done by the Vilnus-based institute) around 46 per cent of our countrymen (against 41 percent in favor of the CU) would vote for the EU membership. For them benefits and pride of being a European mean more than opportunities that open Eastern market would provide. And if Ukraine, which Belarus holds the longest border with, will join the EU, Belarusian, probably, would support the idea of being in the EU in bigger numbers.

Unfortunately, the main obstacle lies inside the European Union. Economic crisis and austerity measures did not help much to promote solidarity with “our Eastern brothers”.  Both politicians and ordinary people just don't want even think about enlargement. Turkey has just fallen the first victim of such mood. Nobody now still think that incorporation of the Islamic republic will happen in near or even distant future. Only Croatia managed to finish negotiation process when the “next of kin”, Serbia, is still talking over major and minor details. To put it simply, old Europeans (rather a derogative word for Frenchmen, Germans and other nations - founders of the EU) just do not want to see new member countries in the Union and pay them money.

This attitude is wrong. Ekaterina the Great of Russia once said, that “the only way to keep borders of Russia safe is to expand them”. The same is true now about the EU. Without new members and “new blood” the EU will stagnate more and more and, finally, will be written off as a key player in world economy and politics. Accession of Ukraine, a country with almost 50 mln people and rich with natural resources, will boost European economy and help the EU to keep its status as the biggest single market in the world.

For Belarus to support Ukraine’s ambitions to join the EU is a very important part to support its own independence. Some people think, that main problem of Belarus is that the country is too small to influence even its own fate. In 1918 Belarusian delegation had to wait in Brest-Litowsk where Germany, Soviet Russia and Ukrainian People’s Republic had been negotiating new borders. In 1920 in Riga the same thing happened. In both cases only existence of Ukraine as an independent state helped Belarusians to protect sovereignty.

Interestingly, almost all political forces in Belarus (apart from hard core USSR-supporters) are welcoming Ukraine’s draft towards the EU. Motives for each side are different, though.

Democratic and nationalist opposition wants Ukraine to be a kind of “an ice-breaker ship” to the West for Belarus.  For them Ukraine is a good example how the government and people of both East and West Ukraine, having totally different historical backgrounds and political views, united in the only common desire -- to join the EU. For Belarusian opposition which members are often arguing over minor issues this could be a good way to solve the differences and fight for common goal like this.

Meanwhile, President Alexander Lukashenka, who once claimed to be a true friend of pro-European President Victor Yuschenko, is really interested in being the one and only friend of Russia in the west part of so-called “near abroad”.  For him, Ukraine in the Custom Union would be a competitor when fighting for Russian subsidies rather than a true ally. Being “the fortress besieged” by first “aggressive” Baltic States and Poland and then Ukraine from south is a very place he wants to be in order to negotiate lucrative deals with the Russians.

Real results of this "Battle for Ukraine" we will see  this November in Vilnus, Lithuania. It things will go good enough, Ukraine and the EU to sign a free trade agreement which ultimately will end all speculations about the former joining the Custom Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.  Belarus will only benefit from such outcome.

by Yuri Drazdow


  1. (Actually, not so anonymous)
    Interesting perpective from Minsk, thanks.

    1. Are EU membership and CU membership mutually exclusive? Would it be out of the question for Ukraine (and Belarus later) to be members of both EU and CU? No doubt those on either side of the Ukraine tug-o'-war would like the terms of membership to be exclusive, but that would surely be up to the sovereign country to decide.

    After all, many countries sign up to multiple supranational organs. Think of Britain in both EU and Commonwealth: both bodies involve trade, cultural, diplomatic and other agreements and more subtle historical and emotive connections. Or South Africa: SADCC, AU and (British) Commonwealth. Or Guyana: USAN, CARICOM and the (British) Commonwealth.

    2. I sometimes wonder whether certain elements of USA foreign policy (the elements that prefer a fractious Europe to a harmonious one) would like to see the Ukraine-EU rapprochement undermined.

    I do realise this is counter-intuitive to the more straightforward notion that the USA would favour anything that drives wedges into the CIS and bolsters Europe.

    Bruce, London

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bruce.
      1. Yes, as far as I know they are mutually exclusive. It is impossible to have two custom duties on the same product, isn’t it? So, if Ukraine wants to sign a free-trade agreement, it has to abandon any attempts to join the CU. At least, Barrozo and Van Rompey stated so.
      Your examples of Britain, South Africa and Guyana are, actually, proving their point. You can't be a member of two organization of the same type (stressed on the “same type”). One can’t compare the British Commonwealth to, say, NAFTA. But one can NAFTA and EU free-trade zone. Football teams are not allowed to play both in English Premier League and Belarus’ Vysshaya Liga . As far as I know the close ties of Britain to its former colonies (the Commonwealth) have prevented it to join the Schengen zone because it would require Britain to abolish certain visa types (such as 2-years Work and Holiday visa) for citizens of other British Commonwealth states

      2. I personally wouldn’t demonize the USA so much. Of course, I assume that they are not very happy to see rise of the Euro as competitor to the US dollar hegemony. And, of course, they do certain action at the background while declaring sympathy to the European integration. But I can’t imagine the US ambassador is plotting anything to break the agreement between the EU and Ukraine. Moreover, I believe that the US in this particular are in favor of totally opposite – they do want to see Ukraine in the EU the sooner the better. It helps them make Russia, their only real exiting nuclear threat, weaker. It is the Europeans who think it is going too fast and they are not ready

      But my point is that this position is wrong. I do understand that people of the EU are tired of newcomers. But Ukraine must be an exception. This country is so rich and so important so it would be a mistake to ignore its desire to join the EU.

      Yuri Drazdow