And so the circle closes. Nearly seven months ago, on November 28, 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had the chance to write history. The European Union was ready to sign the association agreement at the summit for the European Partnership initiative in Vilnius.
The document, negotiated as early as 2011, was meant to bind Ukraine to Europe economically, partly through a free trade zone. Yanukovych declined, citing economic pressure from Russia. But his decision triggered a protest movement that forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia at the end of February. On Friday (27.06.2014), his newly-elected successor, Petro Poroshenko signed the agreement at an EU summit in Brussels.
It is now all about the economic factor. The political association was sealed on March 21 by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, when Brussels wanted to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine, which lost part of its territory through Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Qualified joy, great hopes
Now Ukraine may lose more regions in its eastern half. After the association agreement was signed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow that "attempts to impose an artificial choice between Europe and Russia have pushed society to a split, to a painful internal confrontation."
In Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian separatists have declared their own "people's republics" and are locked in serious fighting with the Ukrainian army. Hundreds of people have already been killed. Kyiv accuses Moscow of supporting the separatists with weapons exports and irregular troops, and Poroshenko declared a week-long ceasefire, which was due to end on Friday at 9 a.m. and which the separatists publicly supported but ignored in practice. People are still being killed every day.
The events in the east have spoiled much of the Ukrainians' joy over the association agreement, though last winter hundreds of thousands carried European flags in demonstrations to support it. Nevertheless, this Friday represents a personal victory for Poroshenko, not least because he drove the negotiations towards the agreement when he was foreign and economy minister. "The first stage of our European integration is complete," he said recently.
The Kyiv government is hoping that economic help from Brussels and Western investment will soon follow. The country has been on the brink of bankruptcy for months and urgently needs billions in financial investment. Ukraine is also hoping that the association agreement will be a first step towards full EU membership. Brussels, however, is still insisting on keeping the two separate.
Georgia and Moldova
Two other former Soviet republics have also signed the association agreements in Brussels: Georgia and Moldova, also members of the EU's Eastern Partnership. The signing was due to take place at a later stage, but events in Ukraine have accelerated everything, say observers. Both politicians and citizens had recognized that "it makes no sense to bet on Russia," as Kakha Gogolashvili of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), told DW. He believes the number of people who still believe in good relations with Russia is dropping.
"The most important thing is the general framework that gives us the opportunity for new reforms and new investments," says Pirkka Tapiola, director of the EU delegation in Moldova. Brussels, on the other hand, is mainly interested in closer economic ties that don't antagonize other countries.
After the signing, all three countries want to ratify the agreement in their parliaments as quickly as possible, so that it can come into power in autumn. Then Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau want to adapt their laws to the EU's. But the final ratification - by all 28 states - is likely to take years.
Looming trade war with Moscow
Even if Russia is not part of the EU summit in Brussels, a lot of people will be looking to see how Moscow reacts. About a year ago, Russia threatened Ukraine with serious consequences should Kyiv sign an association agreement with the EU. To lend weight to the threat, Russia temporarily stopped imports from Ukraine in August. "We have to assume that we're going to enter a trade war with Russia soon," Ukrainian Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta said in mid-June.
So far, Moscow has offered calmer tones. There won't be sanctions against Ukraine, said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia would, however, introduce import duties for Ukrainian products in order to support the domestic market. "This will be a tough test for Ukraine," Putin warned.
For Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the association agreement is the long-yearned-for exit from the Russian zone of influence. Moscow has been trying for years to bind the former Soviet countries into a new alliance - the Eurasian Union initiated by Putin. Without success. Now Brussels is forging its own alliances.
Months ago, Moscow was demanding a say in the signing of an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Both Kyiv and Brussels rejected the idea - but now talks between Ukraine, the EU, and Russia about the effects of the agreement may happen in July - at least according to Russian news agency Interfax, citing an anonymous source in Brussels.