The EU’s Vilnius Summit and the Ukraine Fiasco

Moscow promised Ukraine inexpensive natural gas and new loans, if it joined the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union. Given Kiev’s dire economic situation, the threats and promises were very hard to ignore.  The EU’s effort at the Vilnius Summit to attract Ukraine failed. An association with the EU would have been a first step toward Ukraine’s full membership and possibly NATO membership.  The Vilnius summit was a victory for Russia and a loss for America and the West.

By Nicholas Dima | December 17, 2013

Presidents of Ukraine-Yanukovych, Lithuania-Grybauskaitė, European Council-Van Rompuy and European Commission-Barroso

A much anticipated summit was held in Vilnius, Lithuania (Nov. 28-29), to prepare the eastern expansion of the European Union. The big prize was to bring Ukraine closer to Europe. At the same time, three other smaller countries, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, were expected to sign association agreements with the EU. In reality, the meeting was a geopolitical and eco-political confrontation between Russia and the West. The United States was absent from the meeting, while the European Union was powerless facing Moscow alone. The result of the summit was that Russia won another important strategic battle. Ukraine, the country-pivot of East Europe, remained, for now, in Moscow’s embrace and so did small Armenia located in the Caucasus Mountains. They both succumbed to Moscow’s economic and political pressures and rejected any new association with the EU.

Ukraine, by far the most important East European country, was expected to sign an agreement with the EU, and the summit was supposed to be just a formality. However, a week before the meeting, Ukraine backed off as it came under intense Russian pressure to oppose any further association with Europe. On one hand Moscow threatened it economically, and on the other, it offered advantages for not signing a new agreement. And to make good on the threats, just before the summit, Russia restricted several imports from Ukraine worth, in Kiev’s opinion, over six billion dollars. Furthermore, Gazprom, the giant Russian energy company, demanded that Ukraine immediately pay its past dues. At the same time, Moscow promised Ukraine inexpensive natural gas and new loans, if it joined the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union. Given Kiev’s dire economic situation, the threats and promises were very hard to ignore. The EU’s effort to attract Ukraine into its orbit failed. An association with the EU would have been a first step toward Ukraine’s full membership and possibly NATO membership. The Vilnius summit was a victory for Russia and a loss for America and the West.

Ukraine’s reversal triggered huge protests in Kiev

There had been demonstrations prior to the summit, but in support of European association. The decision to reject Europe and to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence triggered enraged public protests. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev and other cities. The media emphasized the determination of the Ukrainian people to break out from Russia’s shadow and join the European family of nations. At the same time, the leaders of the opposition demanded the impeachment of Yanukovych and the resignation of his government.

The protests turned violent and the police made use of truncheons, tear gas, flash grenades arresting hundreds of people. Dozens, including some journalists, were taken away by ambulances. As a result, the chief of Kiev’s police resigned, but the protests continued. Ukraine’s Prime Minister declared the demonstrators had resorted to “illegal methods,” that their actions “amounted to a coup” and that the government would take the necessary means to restore order, while Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the protests had been organized by “outside forces” to topple a “legitimate government.”

Interestingly, before going to Vilnius, Yanukovych held a secret meeting with Vladimir Putin, his sponsor and chief backer. No one knows what they discussed, but Kiev’s relations with Russia are not rosy and Moscow’s offers to attract Ukraine into its new Customs Union are murky. In this political climate, Yanukovych’s decision to choose Russia over Europe represents very much his personal interests. If he does not win the 2015 presidential elections he may end up in prison and exchange places with Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine and one of his bitter foes jailed by the regime. Could Moscow help him once again in this new “revolutionary” fervor?

The first days of December 2013 witnessed the largest public rallies in Kiev since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Those events had brought Ukraine temporarily on a westward path. Moscow derailed the pro-western movement then and it is trying to do it again now. Unfortunately, Ukraine is a divided country between those who prefer the West and those who favor Russia, but currently the balance tilts toward Europe. One recent opinion survey reveals that 45 percent of Ukrainians support integration with the EU and some 30 percent prefer closer ties with Russia. While the current American leadership seems to condone Putin’s maneuvers, the U.S. public is ill informed. American TV stations, for example, reported little of the great struggle in Kiev. People in the United States who were interested had to turn to the Arabic Al Jazeera station.

The consolation prize

Georgia and Moldova signed association agreements with the EU. Armenia, another country that was invited to the summit, preferred to remain aligned with Russia. Considering a bitter historic enmity with neighboring Turkey, an ongoing territorial issue with Azerbaijan and an economy in ruin, Armenia did not have much of a choice. There were public demonstrations against the government’s decision to reject the EU, even in remote Armenia.

As for Moldova and Georgia, they signed EU association agreements and their governments and people rejoiced over their new status. The new agreements should help the two countries increase their exports, eliminate some visa restrictions, and offer them a path toward full membership.

In anticipation of such westward moves, Russia had punished these two republics in the past, seizing some of their territories and subjecting them to intense pressure and blackmail. In this regard, the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of Georgia and of Transnistria in Moldova, which had split from these two countries, remain in Russian hands. For now Moscow is quiet; however, the two countries fear this is just a temporary reprieve to help secure a peaceful atmosphere before the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. After that, Moldova and Georgia expect renewed Russian pressure.

Moldova’s special ties with Romania

Moldova used to be part of Romania and its ties with Bucharest are very special. Returning home from the Vilnius, President Traian Basescu of Romania stopped in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, where he met President Nicolae Timofti. The leaders share the same language and strong national feelings. The very next day, December 1st, was Romania’s National Day and Presidents Basescu and Timofti commemorated it at the Romanian embassy in Chisinau. December 1st was celebrated both in Bucharest and in Chisinau. President Basescu declared for the first time after joining the European Union and NATO, Romania’s next project was to reintegrate Moldova with Romania.

Reunification is a delicate issue because Russia opposes it strongly, Western Europe is hesitant and does not want to upset Moscow, and the United States was not committed until recently, when Secretary of State John Kerry paid a short visit to Moldova and declared Washington’s support for its European integration. During the meeting, President Timofti asked Kerry for help to insure the security of the region, since they fear Russian efforts to destabilize the country.

In this complex political climate and in view of the continuing Russian threat, even the leaders of Moldova are split. While Timofti spoke warmly of brotherly Romania, in an interview given to a group of Russian journalists, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca preferred to speak of meeting Romania in the European Union. However, public pressure is growing. A large number of people demonstrated in Chisinau, during the Romanian National Day rejoicing Moldova’s association with the European Union and demanding reunification with Romania.

And there is something else. Since the 1940 Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and the establishment of the Soviet republic of Moldova, Moscow has claimed that the local people speak a language called Moldovan. Now, on December 5, 2013, the Constitutional Court of Moldova pronounced its decision on the language question. It is Romanian!

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.