Top envoy: Russia can offer Ukraine more than the EU

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EXCLUSIVE / The European Union has not offered Ukraine the prospect of full membership of the Western bloc so a fully-fledged membership of the Russian Customs and Eurasian Union is a better deal, the Russian ambassador to the EU told EURACTIV in an interview.

In a wide ranging interview with EURACTIV, the Russian ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov said it was in Ukraine’s interest to join the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which would develop into a Eurasian economic union by the end of next year.

Chizhov said that Russia was offering Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia full membership of its Customs Union and the Eurasian Union.

However, “The EU has never offered Ukraine or any other focus country of the eastern partnership, full membership or even a perspective of membership,” he said.

Ukraine’s economy would struggle in a free trade agreement with the EU because its products were not up to European standards, he said.

Chizhov added that Russia would also need to step up border controls with its southern neighbour to protect itself from the flow of huge amounts of customs-free EU goods, which he said would be “detrimental” to Moscow’s interests.

“We are trying to open everybody’s eyes to the opportunities of joining the Customs Union. And the risks that taking certain obligations as associate members of the EU might entail,” Chizhov said.

Russia’s top EU envoy added that even if Kyiv signed an association agreement with the European Union during an Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Vilnius in November, the next Ukrainian parliament may not ratify it.

“We believe that the unanimous decision of the Ukrainian government to proceed with the signing [of AA] may not fully reflect the range of opinions that exist among the population of Ukraine,” the Russian diplomat said.

Not a ‘successful’ EU policy

Chizhov condemned the Western bloc's policies towards Ukraine and the other countries covered by the EaP iniative: Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

He added said that it was the third EaP summit and that the other two had been “barely noticed by the wide circles of public opinion, except perhaps in the individual countries – and they didn’t produce much”.

The six EaP countries were now down to three, Chizhov said. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are all pushing for deeper ties with the European Union.

But Armenia had already “made a different choice”, while Azerbaijan was not interested from the outset and Belarus was never offered the perspective of an EU association agreement, he said.

President Serzh Sargsyan announced last month that Armenia would join the Customs UnionEU politicians said this marked the end of the country’s path towards greater integration with the Western block.

Chizov also stressed that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had applied to join the Customs Union, while Georgia’s recently elected prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, had shown will to join the Russia-backed project “not today, but perhaps”.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe last month, Ivanishvili said that his country was aiming for the EU but did not rule out joining the Eurasian Union.

The Russian diplomat said that the Vilnius EaP summit on 28-29 November was attracting a lot of attention but for the wrong reasons.

The interest was not because the EaP had become successful or that it had “required a separate line in the EU budget”, a promise of EU aid, he said.

The reason was, he said, that Ukraine was expected to sign an association agreement with the EU, and was set to open its borders to EU trade with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), and that Moldova and Georgia were expected to initial similar documents.

The diplomat added that he had read the draft of the Ukrainian association agreement, which has been published, but that he could not judge the deals with Moldova and Georgia, which had not been made public.

The EU-Ukraine association agreement was recently leaked in a blog. But the Commission confirmed it had not yet been published officially so it may not be finished.

Chizhov rejected the view that his country was placing politically-motivated barriers on the imports from those countries as a punishment for their moves towards deeper ties with the EU.

The Representative of Ukraine in the Eurasian economic commission Viktor Suslov reacted to the interview by Russian Ambassador Chizhov by sending to EURACTIV the following statement: “The statements of the Russian side about the discrepancy of technical regulations of the EU and the CU do not reflect the actual situation.

“Moreover - the agreement on technical regulations of the Customs Union is more rigid than in the European Union. Therefore, there is no contradiction here. Even introduction of more rigid norms won't interfere with the export of the Ukrainian agricultural production to the European Union. The same way as Belarus, which, having much more rigid sanitary and phytosanitary standards, exports dairy and other production not only to the Customs Union, but also to the EU rather successfully.

“Therefore, it would be absolutely wrong to set against standards and requirements of the Customs and European Union. They coincide in many respects. In the technical regulations of the Customs Union (CU) there operate special agreements on overcoming the technical barriers in trade with countries which are CIS members, but not CU members. It is rather simple to follow these procedures.”

[CIS stands for Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional organization. Its member states are Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Ukraine and Turkmenistan have the status of ‘Participating states’. Ukraine did not ratify the CIS charter as it disagrees with Russia being the only legal successor of the USSR.]

Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Resaearch Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), sent to EURACTIV the following reaction, insisting that some arguments in Ambassador Chizhov’s interview “should not go uncorrected”:

"First on an apparently technical point. Ambassador Chizhov says that products originating in the EU would transit through Ukraine to enter the Russian market duty-free. WTO rules of origin clearly determine whether goods imported from the EU into Ukraine would remain ‘made in EU’, or have been sufficiently transformed with Ukrainian value added to have become ‘made in Ukraine’. The WTO rules are clear, and all three parties – EU, Russia, Ukraine – are WTO members. If the goods have become ‘made in Ukraine’, so be it. If not they remain subject to Russia’s external tariff. 
"Second, Ambassador Chizhov says Russia is never threatening anybody on any issue. This is a story for small children. Russia has a constant track record of taking punitive, semi-coercive, and WTO-illegal measures against neighbours with which it is politically displeased. Moldovan wines, on and off and now on again. Georgian wines and the famously branded Borjomi sparkling mineral waters on and off. And now Ukrainian chocolates, where Ambassador Chizhov actually admits “well, it is not that Ukrainian chocolate is poisonous”. And now also Lithuanian milk has become a health hazard dangerous, a couple of months before the Vilnius summit. Russia is a serial offender in the imposition of punitive trade restrictions as a function of its political humour. WTO rules permit restrictions on health grounds when the scientific evidence has been transparently and convincingly presented, and Russia has not done this; otherwise a WTO panel can require the offending member states has to desist, but the procedures can be spun out over a long time.  
"Third, the Ambassador holds out the Eurasian Economic Commission as a model of political equality because there are three Commissioners from each member states. Tell that to the children too. The customs union is a creature of Russian hegemony, as evidenced by the fact that Russia’s external economic tariff has been imposed on the other member states, despite the fact that Kazakhstan has wanted lower common external tariffs. Russia and Kazakhstan may be able to afford this tariff protection, which props up uncompetitive industries, because of their natural resource wealth. But this is precisely the reason why the same regime would not be suitable for Ukraine, which has no chance of becoming a prosperous economy without becoming open to the world, first of all to the huge EU market, and then also in being helped to adopt various EU technical standards which means becoming compliant with international standards, since these tend to be the same. 
"Finally on the Armenian case. The Ambassador correctly remarks that a country can have any number of free trade agreements, but only one customs union. For this reason the EU has not proposed accession to its customs union for Eastern neighbours. There is everything to be said for the common neighbours of the EU and Russia to have good, even excellent and deep relations with both. They should not be forced to choose. But the customs union proposition imposes that choice. And in the case of Armenia the Russian (publicly non-transparent) argument seems to have been that the customs union was a condition for maintenance of a strategic security guarantee and assurance of free movement for the Armenian diaspora in Russia. These are completely gratuitous elements of pressurisation, since both could be assured together with a high-quality free trade agreement."

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