Pressure on Ukrainian President Yanukovych is increasing following his decision to shelve EU integration talks. He will be a sought-after participant at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.
Viktor Yanukovych seldom uses flowery language. The Ukrainian president’s style is usually dry - but not this time.
"Maybe conditions are unfavorable at this stage on the way to the summit," Yanukovych told reporters in Vienna, about the decision to shelve the association agreement with the European Union. Ukraine, he said, still has its sights set on the EU but needs to take a break.
Ukraine initially planned to sign an agreement with the EU in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, during the Eastern Partnership Summit (28./29.11.2013).
‘Under enormous pressure’
The "unfavorable conditions" mentioned by Yanukovych are twofold: On the one hand, Russia is putting pressure on the Ukrainian government. Moscow has threatened to impose trade restrictions if Ukraine signs the association agreement with the EU.
"Yanukovych is under enormous pressure," said Dietmer Stüdemann, former German ambassador to Ukraine, adding that he expects Russia to exert even more pressure.
On the other hand, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now in the opposition, remains behind bars. Her release was one of the key requirements for signing the deal. Neither Yanukovych nor the parliamentarian majority wanted to resolve the Tymoshenko case.
For months, European politicians had bombarded the Ukrainian president with pleas to sign the agreement. The break in relations with the EU, observers say, was intended to ease pressure on the president in the Tymoshenko case and to avoid disgrace in Vilnius. But it appears the plan hasn’t worked.
Change of policy
For nearly a week, tens of thousands Ukrainians have been demonstrating and demanding that their government return to talks with the EU. The biggest demonstrations are in Kyiv. A sea of blue flags with a circle of yellow stars has flooded the city. The protesters are called "Euromaidans" because they remind people of the "Orange Revolution" on the "Maidan Neasleshnosti" (Independence Square). Exactly nine years ago, in late autumn 2004, mass protests forced the government to repeat the presidential election.
This time, the mood is different, according to eye witnesses like Florian Kellermann. "Back then, there was huge hope of success," said the freelance journalist, who has been living in Ukraine for more than 10 years. Today, he added, the hope is much smaller.
"The people can demonstrate that they want to join the EU and that they disagree with the government, but they have nothing in their hands," said Kellermann, who views the current protests as symbolic and unlikely to have any consequences.
The split between East and West
Nor has Ukraine caught the European fever as the Ukrainian opposition would like outsiders to believe, warns Kellermann. "The Ukrainian opposition claims the entire country supports European integration," he said, "but surveys show that this is not the case."
The November poll of the Kiev International Institute for Sociology (KMIS), for instance, shows Ukraine as a divided country. According to the recent poll, 39 percent of Ukrainians would vote for EU accession, even if the issue is not yet on the agenda. But nearly as many Ukrainians - 37 percent – support integration with Russia and other former Soviet republics in the form of a customs agreement. Moscow has offered this option to Yanukovych. Many Ukrainians, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country, are more attracted to Russia than to Europe.
The current DW-Trend confirms a similar pattern of support. According to the survey, 37 percent of Ukrainians are for EU accession in the next five years. More than half of all Ukrainians would like to see their country become a full member of the EU.
Pressure on President Yanukovych is increasing on all fronts. Tymoshenko recently threw her support behind the protesters. The jailed opposition leader started a hunger strike on Monday (25.11.2013), demanding that Yanukovych change his course.
And the EU is not easing up. Although Brussels regrets Kiev’s decision to shelve the agreement, it has signaled its willingness to sign the agreement as soon as possible. "The European Union will do everything to reach a solution for the association agreement," Stüdemann told DW. At the Eastern Partnership Summit, the Ukrainian president will certainly be one of the more difficult guests, but also one of the most courted.
Given the Ukrainian decision, it is expected that Moldova will become the new star student in Europe’s post-Soviet states. If the EU abolishes visa requirements for Moldova, Yanukovych will come under more pressure. The freedom to travel is a major wish of Ukrainians.