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Russian Pressure Moves Ukraine Closer to the West


Since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been struggling with its identity, wavering between Russia and the West. However, with the first post-Soviet generation reaching adulthood, pro-European attitudes in Ukraine appear to be prevailing. In November this year, the European Union and Ukraine are scheduled to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements, which would lead Ukraine to move further from Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia is trying to prevent this development but some experts say its methods are backfiring.

To sign the Association and Free Trade Agreements with the European Union, the Ukrainian parliament has to adopt legislation to bring the country's laws into compliance with European standards.

Pro-European former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sees it as Ukraine's last chance.

"We will not have this chance in a year, two or 10," he said. "We have many deficiencies, beginning with the election system, law enforcement, the problems of double standards in the rule of law, unprecedented corruption and many others. But all these problems can be only resolved within the context of moving closer to Europe."

The EU is also demanding an end to politically-motivated prosecutions and the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that her right to a fair trial was violated, she remains in jail on abuse of power charges.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer says freeing Tymoshenko is crucial.

"If they are not prepared to do something on Tymoshenko, I think it will be very difficult, from what we are hearing now, to see a majority of EU member-states favoring going ahead and signing an Association Agreement," he said.

Meanwhile, Russia, which is striving to keep Ukraine in its orbit, is offering an alternative: joining the Customs Union. Ukraine would not need to fulfill any requirements and will enjoy free trade with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and pay lower prices for Russian natural gas.

In August, Russia blocked imports from Ukraine. Some goods suddenly failed to satisfy Russian safety and quality standards or had other difficulties passing through customs.

Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute in Washington sees the move as a form of pressure.

"Russia is really showing that the chips are down and since about one quarter of Ukrainian trade is with Russia, Russia has a big impact," he said. "Ukraine has been in recession for four quarters with GDP falling 1-2 percent a quarter, the financial [situation] is in the very poor shape. So, President Putin seems decided to get Ukraine down on its knees."

As a result, Ukrainian politicians called for closer ties with the EU, promising promised to fulfill all requirements as soon as possible.

The Europeans were outraged over Russian actions towards its neighbors who seek partnership with Europe.

"What we have seen during the last few week - brutal Russian pressure against the partnership countries, the sort that we haven`t seen for a very long time," said Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt. "I think to the certain extent they are doing this because all the world attention on Syria, they don`t think that will be that much noticed. That`s why it is important we bring it up here."

Russian influence over Ukraine is not limited to trade. It has a strong political, media and religious presence.

Kennan Institute head Matthew Rojanski believes that Russia will continue to exert its influence over Ukrainian politics even after the Association Agreement is signed.

"It does give me concern that even if Ukraine has an Association Agreement with Europe, even if the Ukrainian economy grows consistently, education becomes more widespread and people have more ties to the West, as well as to the East, that potential to interfere in a destructive way in the development of the Ukrainian nation-state is always going be there, or is going to be there for long enough that that development will be dysfunctional," said Rojanski.

Despite this, many Ukrainians seem ready for their country to move closer to Europe.

According to the most recent poll, 41 percent of Ukrainians support joining the EU and 31 percent are in favor of the Customs Union.
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