Ukraine concerned at wavering support from Europe

Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister in Charge of EU relations, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, is frustrated by those who want an end to EU sanctions on Russia. [Chelmiee/Wikipedia]

Ukraine’s newly-appointed Vice Prime Minister in charge of European integration is worried that EU support for her country is weakening. EURACTIV France reports from Kyiv.

For a country currently mired in military conflict, on top of the worst economic crisis in its history, Europe is important enough for Kyiv to nominate a Vice Prime Minister specifically in charge of European integration.

Since April, that mission has fallen to Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the first “Vice-Prime Minister for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine.”

She has an arduous task. Now almost completely cut off from Russia, Ukraine is scrambling to improve relations with the European Union and the United States.

The slow pace of reform and persistent corruption have shaken Europe’s confidence in Kyiv as a trustworthy ally. In France and Germany, there is growing nervousness about economic sanctions imposed by Russia in retaliation for their support to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

And frustration is growing at the slow pace of economic and political reform in Kyiv, which are a condition for continued European support.

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Mutual frustration between the EU and Ukraine

On Saturday (17 September), three days after the German and French foreign affairs ministers visited Ukraine, Klympush-Tsintsadze answered journalists’ questions on the margins of the Yalta European Strategy meeting, an international conference organised in Kyiv.

It quickly became apparent that the frustration is shared.

“It is very important for us that Europe is united against Russian aggression,” she said, referring to the recent visit of Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier to East Ukraine, where some 10,000 people have died in the armed conflict since April 2014.

“I do not like to hear comments from some European countries, who place the two camps [of the conflict in the east of the country] on an equal footing, suggesting that they are equally responsible. Because there is just one attacker, and Ukraine is the victim,” she said.

The vice-prime minister used the opportunity to remind the West of its responsibility to ensure the respect of international law and countries’ territorial integrity.

“I would like to see more unity and responsibility in the West. Crimea was annexed illegally,” she said. For this expert in international relations, there is no question of changing the legal framework from the one defined under the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. This pact guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in exchange for a promise that these countries would forgo the development of nuclear weapons.

“I do not see how we can guarantee nuclear non-proliferation when the Budapest Memorandum has not been respected. What kind of effective arguments do we still have against Iran and North Korea?”

Asked about Western pressure on Kyiv to engage in the political solution to the conflict, as demanded under the Minsk agreement, Klympush-Tsintsadze said there first needed to be “a sustainable ceasefire, free movement for the OSCE and demilitarisation, including the withdrawal of heavy arms by Moscow”. She added that Russia had deployed 600 tanks in the area under separatist control.

But the Kremlin wants Kyiv to grant special status to the Donbass region, offer the separatists an amnesty and accept the organisation of elections before Ukraine regains control of its border with Russia.

“The Minsk agreement clearly stipulates that security comes first,” said Klympush-Tsintsadze. For her, elections would only be possible if security in the territory outside Ukraine’s control was guaranteed by a police force from the OSCE or another international organisation.

But she evaded the question of a potential amnesty for the leaders of the pro-Russian separatists, which is one of the conditions of the Minsk agreement. This attitude reflects the hardening of Ukraine’s position on the Donbass conflict in recent months.

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Lamenting an “economic downturn” linked to the rise of populism in Europe and the spectre of Brexit, the vice-prime minister did not hesitate to lay the blame at Europe’s door.

“I am very worried by the fact that some parliaments, including the French parliament, voted to lift the sanctions on Russia. Because I do not see why these sanctions should be lifted. The elections are approaching and the forces behind this vote have a good chance of getting into power, so this is a big source of anxiety for us. This is not acceptable from the point of view of the respect of borders and the respect for international law,” she said.

Europe tired of the status quo

Klympush-Tsintsadze also recognises the slow pace of political and economic reform in her country, admitting that she encountered a good deal of resistance from the state structures. She hastened to add that the government was determined to finalise the reforms, which are tied to the EU’s financial aid and diplomatic rapprochement.

But many of the Ukrainian speakers at the Yalta European Strategy conference doubted the political will of President Petro Poroshenko to reform the system that brought him to power.

One subject of great optimism was the visa-free travel deal that the EU is due to agree for Ukrainian citizens “next December”, according to the vice-prime minister.

“We have completed all the reforms necessary and fulfilled all the conditions on our side,” she said. The decision has already been delayed, but Poroshenko is counting on the visa-free agreement to boost his popularity. Something Klympush-Tsintsadze formally denies.

But diplomatic sources have suggested that the EU could use the visa-free deal as a lever to eke out more cooperation from Kyiv. The tempting Eastern Partnership may quickly become nothing more than Realpolitik.

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