20 December 2013

Thoughts on Ukraine

Ukrainians are right to not want to join the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan

According to research conducted in November by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology only 37% of Ukrainians support the idea of Ukraine joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.* A more recent poll from December has the figure of 36%. Ukrainians are right in being unenthusiastic about joining this arrangement.

The Russian-led Customs Union is as much a protectionist bloc as it is a free-trade zone. It abolishes custom fees between member-states, but also maintains hefty tariffs for imports originating in third countries. The Custom Union import tariffs are only slightly lower than the Russian tariffs they replaced and much higher than the tariffs Ukraine collects now.

By joining the Customs Union Ukraine would eliminate artificial, state-imposed barriers to trade with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. However, it would simultaneously have to accept additional, Customs Union-imposed barriers to trade with third states. It is doubtful the elimination of tariffs and customs checks on the border toward Russia and Belarus could offset the loss of trade with the rest of the world with which the Ukraine currently conducts 65% of its trade.

Even if it could, however, it simply does not make long-term sense for Kyiv to place itself in a position where it may not set custom duties by itself, but where it is tied to more protectionist-minded Moscow, Astana and Minsk instead. That said the Customs Union could become more appealing in the future if it were to dramatically reduce tariffs.

Popular support for EU membership in Ukraine is actually rather weak

Media coverage has focused on the pro-EU protesters in Kyiv, but in reality these speak for fewer than one half of all Ukrainians.

45% of Ukrainians support the recently-negotiated EU Association Agreement. The support for the eventual (and at this point very much hypothetical) EU membership is at a similar level. A November poll has it at 39%, while a more recent research suggests the figure of 46%. In either case this actually represents a very low level of support for EU integration

Put in perspective the last measured support for EU membership in Serbia and Croatia (just before its 2012 accession referendum) stood at 53.7% and 56% respectively. In other words Ukrainians on the whole continue to be considerably less enthusiastic about EU membership than even the public in the most skeptical EU-candidate states.

Additionally, as pointed out by Odessablogger, the 45% of Ukrainians who rally in support of the recent Ukraine-EU deal do so after a prolonged propaganda campaign in favor that was waged by the nearly entire political class (everyone but the Communists) and the media. In other words 55% of Ukrainians sill failed to be swayed by the pro-EU arguments they have been subjected to for months.

The preference of official Kyiv was clearly a link with Brussels, and not Moscow

Anatoly Karlin over Da Russophile blog explains it is plain to see Yanukovich would have clearly preferred to link up with Brussels, rather than with Moscow, but could in the end not sign what was offered by the former. This is easily apparent from the fact the government in Kyiv had waged a propaganda effort in support of the EU Association Agreement.

In fact it is not difficult to believe that the storm of mass protest Yanukovich is now attempting to weather is him paying the price for his flip-flopping. By turning on the pro-EU propaganda mills Yanukovich first emboldened those Ukrainians who desire a Western orientation, and then, at the last moment, disappointed them when he could not deliver an EU deal he could live with. 

Another thing that is apparent from this is that it is the views of the part of the Ukrainian population that is the most Russophile that have the least representation among the Ukrainian political class. Yanukovich and his Party of Regions in truth represents a kind of in-between option, espousing neither unreservedly pro-Western, nor unreservedly pro-Russian positions. Also obviously there is no shortage of established political forces in the opposition that espouse hardline pro-Western views. Ie the right-wing nationalist Svoboda, and the somewhat more presentable
Batkivshchyna and UDAR. The reliably pro-Russian 36% of Ukrainians, however, have no one to turn to on the political scene, and as a result are the most likely to be apathetic to politics, particularly in terms of activism and street demonstrations.

Yanukovich preferred Brussels because he is desperate for legitimacy other than that offered by popular mandate

It is interesting that Yanukovich of all people would have preferred closeness to Brussels than to Moscow, that is if he could have it. Keep in mind that he was voted in by the Russian-speaking south and east of Ukraine, and that he is loathed by EU officials. So why does he still want to join their club (if possible)?

Actually the reason is the same as it is for all pro-EU political leaders in Eastern Europe and indeed throughout the entire EU. It is the desperate search of elites for legitimacy through linkage with other elites. As explained by Brendan O'Neill, the political leaders throughout Europe who find themselves disconnected from the populace, which they are unable to move or inspire, or really even to understand therefore lack real democratic legitimacy. They therefore are driven to secure legitimacy, or an illusion of it, by combining together:
"The EU project of the past 40 years arose from the needs of all of Europe’s cut-off, legitimacy-lacking national elites. Feeling themselves increasingly estranged from their own populaces, and more crucially from the political legitimacy that comes with having a connection with the populace, national elites chose to club together in Brussels, to create new institutions which would allow them both to formulate political and economic policy away from the madding crowd and also to derive some measure of political legitimacy from the idea that they were pursuing ‘the European project’ rather than from their own demos."
Understanding what the EU is, it is not hard to see the appeal for Yanukovich. A leader less able to connect with the populace would be difficult to name. An old Kuchma crony he is widely seen as a simpleton and a tool of the oligarchs even by those who vote for him.

Both linkage with Moscow or with Brussels could conceivably solve the short-term problem of a cash-infusion the government of Yanukovich needs, but only the latter would give it the stamp of approval as a government suitable to conduct the early "europeanisation" of Ukraine. Having also the approval of other European elites the government in Kyiv could conduct itself more confidently and exercise power in a more forceful way and with a greater sense of impunity, than if all it has is the passive consent of an apathetic electorate it finds itself unable to speak to.

* To be joined by Armenia in 2014.

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