Ukraine’s favourite foreign policy game is called ‘multi-vectorness’ – a constant process of ‘eschewing choice’ as this recent study explained. For years Ukraine sought to extract concessions and be treated nicely by both Russia and the EU or US not because it was sticking to its promises, but because it played sometimes skilfully and sometimes brazenly on contradictions between external actors. A simplified version of the rule of rules of the game, in its Ukrainian version, looks the following way:
- Promise both Russia and the EU everything they might want to hear (usually integration into some Russian- or EU-led initiative);
- Ask for something in exchange (market access, lower gas prices, financial assistance, opportunities for lucrative but opaque deals etc).
- Get what you asked and drag your feet on delivering on your promises.
- If either the EU or Russia is upset for not getting what they were promised – threaten that you will intensify cooperation with the other external partner.
The truth is that this has mostly worked. (Not just for Ukraine, but also for Moldova under Voronin and at times Belarus’ Lukashenko or a whole series of Central Asian states, not to mention a plethora of historical case from Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, to Nasser’s Egypt and Tito’s Yugoslavia.) The EU has long been quite lenient with Ukraine not because it was impressed by Ukraine’s reforms performance, but because it had to be nice to such a geopolitically important country. Ukraine, at its turn, whenever felt the heat of potential pressure from Brussels, would start tickling Brussels nerves with positive noises about integration with Russia; and vice-versa, whenever Russian demands on Ukraine became too assertive, Kiev was thrown into accesses of declarative pro-Europeanness (and pro-Atlanticism).
This has been going on for most of the last two decades. But the problem with the game is that the more you play it the less credibility you have, the less likely your partners are to play by your rules and the more likely they are to toughen their demands and ask for concrete deliverables (by following the dogma of one of the heroes of Ilf and Petrov – ‘if you give me the money in the evening – you get the chairs in the morning; or if you give me the money in the morning – you the chairs in the evening’). So with each new round of the game your room for manoeuvre is smaller and smaller and the usual Ukrainian foreign policy recipe works less and less well. Both Russia and the EU are tired of the game, and much less interested in playing it.
This explains why the EU is now more than ever in a non-blinking mood over the signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement, put on hold because of the imprisonment of former prime-minister Timoshenko (and three former ministers) and other questionable ways in which Ukrainian domestic politics has been evolving. In usual fashion, the Ukrainian prime-minister tried to hint that Ukraine might join the Russia-led Customs Union. But EU’s resolve which at better times would have melted at such a threat, remained solid.
One of the more interesting episodes of these games is taking place in Kiev. Usually, it is American or Russian diplomats using straight talk to make a point and have the full backing of powerful states behind. EU’s diplomatic modus operandi is usually different. The EU has long been known for the fact that most of its diplomats are soft-spoken and controversy-shy project managers happily disbursing EU assistance, but avoiding tough political issues. Not least because their backing from ‘home’ can be less straightforward since the EU itself is so affected by many different, if not conflicting, member states preferences. In any case the EU has usually been a nice diplomatic pet, much easier to ignore than US or Russia. But not anymore (as argued in a recent post on EU is showing its teeth). The last few months saw some sharp diplomatic exchanges between the Ukrainian MFA and the EU delegation in Kiev. First, the EU ambassador to Kiev said that Yanukovich is not delivering on his promises to fight corruption. This provoked a strong rebuke from the Ukrainian MFA which accused the EU ambassador of behaving like a ‘ukrainized’ political analyst. Then the EU diplomat said his job is to say what he thinks about the situation in Ukraine and that the Ukrainians should not count on his fake smiles and praise of a non-improving business climate and that he is now someone’s ‘puppet’.
What a few years ago was called ‘Ukraine fatigue‘ in the EU, a feeling of disappointment with the failure of pursuing long-promised reforms by Yushchenko and Timoshenko, has now turned into active irritation with Yanukovich’s administration. Not a very good mood to attend the forthcoming football championship for Ukraine. By the way, attending EU leaders might want to start thinking now how to behave then. One option is to stay home, like Angela Merkel and Barroso. The other is to go, but spoil the party and visit Timoshenko. And the third, is to go and enjoy it. The bet is on EU’s different political leaders going for all three options undermining what until now has been a semblance of EU unity.