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Protests

Opinion: EU closes the door on Yanukovych

The EU has frozen talks with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on the Association Agreement. DW's Christoph Hasselbach says the EU's late-arriving decision is the right one.

Porträt Christoph Hasselbach DW Studio Brüssel

DW's Christoph Hasselbach

There was almost nothing the EU didn't do for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It chased after him to the point of self-denial, while he could reject and provoke the Union as much as he wanted. Again and again, Brussels saw signs of hope that he would sign the Association Agreement with the EU, which was to bring his country closer to the European project. And Yanukovych did show some signs of giving in. These were not results of his indecisiveness, however, but pure calculation.

Yanukovych wanted to bargain

In November, he snubbed the EU with the announcement that after months of negotiations, his country shelved the preparations for the agreement - just when it was ready to be signed. Instead he wanted to turn towards Russia. Only a few days later, he still travelled to the EU-Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius where the agreement was supposed to be signed. There he told the heads of state and government that he still aspired to sign the agreement, but asked the EU to make more financial concessions.

Moscow put him under pressure, he said: if his country moved closer to the West, it would lose so much trade with Russia that the EU would have to compensate that. Although the reference to Russian pressure was correct, Yanukovych himself was the blackmailer.

He played this game long enough. And it only worked because the EU let it. Even when security forces were deployed against demonstrators in Kyiv, only hours after EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton talked to Yanukovych and while she was still in town – even after this provocation, Ashton still responded to him. After her return from Kyiv she announced that Yanukovych "planned" to sign the agreement. Her performance was downright embarrassing. Now the situation is finally changing. The EU is proactive and shuts the door for Yanukovych that was kept open despite all the affronts.

The EU is rejecting the president, not the country

One can expect that the decision to stop the cooperation was preceded by heated discussions in the EU Commission. One side, represented by Ashton among others, probably argued that it would be beneficial for both sides to continue negotiations. The other side likely countered that Yanukovych just tried to play the EU against Russia to get as much support for his financially and economically ailing country as possible. The latter side now obviously prevailed. And rightly so. The bargaining has an end.

The struggle to find the right approach for Ukraine is completely understandable. After all, the EU has no intention to end the dialog with the country as a whole. The mass demonstrations have shown how strong the desire for integration with the West is. Of utmost importance is that the rejection applies not to Ukraine as a country, but solely to Viktor Yanukovych as a person. The EU is no longer in a position to talk to him. With others, yes. But he is the president, and it is not possible to conduct interstate discussions with the opposition.

The EU is therefore left with no other choice at present but to wait and see how the internal political situation in Ukraine develops, and to support the goals of the opposition. Of course, it is not in the EU's interest to let the situation get out of hand. The EU can support the pro-European opposition, but it must insist unconditionally that the protest remain peaceful and avoid provocation. And as difficult as the idea may be to accept, the opportunity to seriously discuss an Association Agreement may only arise again after the next presidential election in 2015 - and perhaps not even then.

Only the EU can offer Ukraine real prospects

But there is another possibility. The EU clearly offers Yanukovych and his country the best prospects. In contrast, Russia can withdraw its announced special privileges at any time. It demonstrated many times during the gas dispute how ruthlessly it treats even "culturally related" countries if they misbehave. So it is possible that Yanukovych could ultimately rethink his position. If he then demonstrates credibly that he really does want to lead his country toward Europe, the EU should open the door again. But not before then.

DW.DE