Myths about Russia: does Moscow pressure Ukraine?

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Myths about Russia: does Moscow pressure Ukraine?
Published 13-12-2013, 05:56

Dmitry Babich

Dmitry Babich is a political analyst with the Voice of Russia radio station

One of the most widespread myths about Russia is that Russia "bullies its neighbors". What that "bullying" consists of, is never clearly defined, several vague references to Soviet past usually suffice. In 2013 the much publicized victim of this presumed bullying was Ukraine, with Western media constantly repeating the mantra that "Moscow puts pressure on Ukraine." This propaganda cliché said that this pressure was solely due to Ukraine’s desire to get closer to the European Union, by signing at a summit in Vilnius the so called association agreement with the European Union.

But is it really so? We need to answer three questions here. First, does Russia really prohibit Ukraine any kind of European integration? Second, does all Ukraine crave to sign the association agreement with the EU? And third, does Russia use illegal means to prevent Ukraine from integrating itself into the European Union? The answer to these three basic questions is no.

On the first question, about Russia prohibiting European integration to Ukraine. It should be noted, that the Russian leaders never said they did not want Ukraine to get closer to the EU. The Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which Moscow suggested Ukraine could join, officially views itself as a vehicle of European integration. The Customs Union sets as one of its goals preparation of its member countries to possible future membership in the EU. Russian president Putin set the same goal before the Eurasian Union – an economic alliance he suggested would be created in future. Putin said the Eurasian Union should not be an alternative, but rather a complement to the European Union, fueling European integration from the east in the same way the EU is fueling it from the West. When the crisis started because of Ukraine’s postponing the signing of the association agreement with the EU, Russia agreed to participate in trilateral talks on trade relations between Ukraine, the EU and Russia. It was the Ukrainian leadership that suggested this format of talks, and it was Brussels that turned down the mere idea of them. Vladimir Skachko, the editor-in-chief of the Kiev-based newspaper "Kievski Telegraph" believes that Yanukovich postponed the deal for purely economic reasons, braving the pressure of the EU and not that of Russia.

"Ukraine’s integration into the EU under the scheme suggested by Brussels would be suicidal for Ukraine. Even Western economic analysts acknowledge this. The postponement of the signing of the association agreement lowered Ukraine’s financial risks and allowed Ukraine to avoid a default".

All talk about "pressure" stems from the fact that the Russian president Vladimir Putin offered Ukraine a discount on the prices of natural gas, which Ukraine gets from Russia. When a salesman offers you a discount for some favorable attitude to his other offers, is he exerting pressure on you? The Russian natural gas is being shipped to Ukraine under the contract signed in 2009 from the Ukrainian side by the darling of the European anti-Russian politicians – Yulia Tymoshenko. She was the prime minister of Ukraine at the time and signed the deal in the beginning of the year 2009 after the Russophobic president Viktor Yushchenko led the Russo-Ukrainian gas negotiations into a dead end. So, if the EU thinks that Putin is pressuring Ukraine by "unfair" gas prices, it should put the blame on Tymoshenko and agree with the Ukrainian court, which sentenced Tymoshenko to several years in jail for abusing her powers in 2009. Instead, the EU has been continuously accusing the Ukrainian justice system and president Yanukovich personally of putting Tymoshenko in jail for nothing. The EU’s representatives in Ukraine, including the former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski, made the release of Tymoshenko a precondition for signing the association agreements, which they now are so eager to sign with Tymoshenko still in jail. So, the leaders of the European Union should decide which of their myths they like more – the one about Russia’s gas pressure on Ukraine or the one about fair, democratic and innocently accused Yulia Tymoshenko.

As for certain limitations on the Russo-Ukrainian border, they became apparent only during the last few months, when the perspective of Ukraine’s getting a free trade zone with the EU became real. Putin warned that Russia would have to build a stronger border with Ukraine. Otherwise the EU-made products would enter the Russian territory customs-free. Vladimir Putin explained why Russia could not afford acquiescing to such a development.

"If Ukraine signs the agreement on the free trade zone with the EU and annuls its customs tariffs for the exporters from the EU, then this zone of zero tariffs will automatically spread itself to the Russian customs territory. In our opinion, this flood of European exports will just destroy whole branches of Russian economy".

Now to the second question. Does the Western press tell the truth when it writes that, all Ukrainians are protesting against the association agreement with the EU? Well, this is at best a half-truth. All opinion polls show that no more than 39 percent of Ukraine’s population are ready to enter the EU under the terms proposed by Brussels. And even those who demonstrate at the Independence square in Kiev have hardly read the full text of the association agreement and its protocols, which is about one thousand pages long.

Despite Mr. Yanukovich’s pronounced desire to see his country in the EU, he hjad to acknowledge publicly that his decision to postpone the signing of the agreement was a sovereign one. Here is how The New York Times, a newspaper one can hardly suspect of being pro-Kremlin, describes Mr. Yanukovich’s stance on the issue. This piece is worthy of being quoted in full:

"Mr. Yanukovich, in the interview, played down the allegations of Russian pressure over the accords, and said the Kremlin had expressed legitimate concerns. "What did Russia blame us for recently?" he asked rhetorically. "It accused us of not considering its interests during negotiations with the European Union," he said. "Is this a fair position? Certainly, it’s fair." End of quote from the New York Times.

Svetlana Gamova, a political expert on post-Soviet space currently working at Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily in Moscow, stresses the need to take into account the opinions of all Ukrainians, and not just the opinion of the passionate and politically active West of the country.

"There are regional legislatures holding their sessions in Odessa, Lugansk, Donetsk. They are all against the agreement with the EU and they represent the part of Ukraine, which no one talks about now. And even if the opposition activists manage to convene 100 thousand people on the Independence Square in Kiev – this will be far from the whole Ukraine".

Now finally to the third question. Does Russia use illegal or immoral means to bar Ukraine from signing the association agreement with the EU? Well, compared to the tremendous pressure from the EU and especially to the pressure from such EU members as Poland and Lithuania, the Russian stance on Ukraine is extremely mild and non-interventionist.

During the days of protests Kiev was visited by two former Polish prime-ministers, by one Polish former president and an acting chairman of the Lithuanian parliament. And they all openly supported the protests even when these protests included violent attacks against the presidential administration and other government buildings. Meanwhile, the presence of one Russian official of a much lower rank would be viewed as a scandal by all of the European press, even Russian newspapers would negatively react to it. The heads of Europeans states, including the German chancellor Angela Merkel, openly told Yanukovich how he should behave, telling him not to use violence in the situations where they themselves would have used not only violence, but also long jail terms. In Britain, some participants in the pogroms and riots if 2010 are still in jail – and none of these people tried to ransack or attack the office of the head of state. So, after the events in Kiev we probably should say good bye to one more European myth – about the impartiality of European governments and justice systems.


Voice of Russia

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