Over the last month, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych came close to fulfilling the most audacious hopes of Europhile Ukrainians. He reasserted the finality of Ukraine’s European choice when the Kremlin threatened with introducing additional trade barriers to Ukrainian exports. He coerced MPs from his own Party of Regions into submission demanding unanimous support for EU-backed legislative acts. He then rushed through the parliament those draft laws that would fulfill some of the key EU conditions for signing the Association Agreement (AA). And he even used a subservient High Administrative Court chaired by a judge with Donetsk pedigree to kick one of the most outspoken pro-Russian MPs from the parliament. Yanukovych has done all of this, supposedly, for the sake of persuading the EU to sign the AA at the Vilnius Summit this November that has been seven years in the making. Why would a political leader with Yanukovych’s record of authoritarian rule and a history of catering to pro-Russian voters make such a dramatic last-minute push to make a deal with the West? The answer should go no further then the next presidential election.
In his seminal 1988 article, political scientist Robert Putnam observed that politicians have to play simultaneously on domestic and international tables trying to use moves on one of the boards to score points on another. As he put it, “on occasions clever players will spot a move on one board that will trigger realignments on other boards, enabling them to achieve otherwise unattainable objectives.” What political rewards will the signing of the AA bring to Yanukovych domestically?
The first reward has to do with neutralizing political opponents. The three main opposition parties (Bat’kivshchyna, Udar, Svoboda) that had earlier accused him of selling Ukraine out to the Kremlin have already lined up in support of his pro-EU initiatives. If the AA is signed they will lose the main trump card they have long successfully used against Yanukovych—their ability to paint him as a traitor of Ukrainian national interests. This allegation goes back to the 2004 campaign when Russian President Vladimir Putin openly favored Yanukovych in his electoral battle with Viktor Yushchenko. More recently, this charge has been revived after Yanukovych signed the Kharkiv Accords with Russia in April 2010 extending the lease of Sevastopol for the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2042 and later elevated the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. It helps the opposition to consolidate its traditional “orange” electorate in western and central Ukraine. With the signed AA in hand, Yanukovych will turn into a stronger opponent of the Kremlin than any of the opposition parties.
The second reward is gaining an agenda-setting advantage. The AA will define the substance of Yanukovych’s presidential campaign allowing him to credibly promise a “new dawn” for Ukraine under the EU’s auspices. The fact that he, rather then permanently disorganized and quarreling “orange” politicians, managed to move the country decisively Westward would testify to his ability to take the next steps in line with the AA’s requirements. The EU integration and accompanying domestic institutional changes would become a centerpiece of Yanukovych’s campaign. At the same time he can take credit for those changes in domestic policies that followed the preferences of Russophones. This would be an example of “triangulation” that won campaigns for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s. Its goal would be to use the issue that would split the pro-EU coalition of his opponents in central and western Ukraine without losing some of his own voters in the east and the south who would be carried over by the authority of Yanukovych’s party.
The third reward is the likely demobilization effect of the AA. As political scientist Lucan Way argued, the opposition can mobilize its supporters onto the streets in large numbers only if it can present an incumbent leader as someone alien to the core ideas on which the national identity has been constructed. In 2004, the opposition’s framing of national identity was tightly linked to Ukraine’s European roots, while the pro-European slogans took the center stage during the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych, caricatured as a “pro-Russian villain” at the time, could not find a similarly effective framing to mobilize his own voters and he must have taken notice. The opposition leaders have already concluded that they would not make Yanukovych recognize his defeat in the 2015 election unless there is another popular mobilization on the scale of the Orange Revolution. If 2015 election turns out to be indeed close and there are suspicions of fraud by the authorities the opposition would find its mobilization capacity substantial weakened if Yanukovych becomes the champion of EU integration.
The fourth reward is international recognition. The sense of international isolation of Leonid Kuchma’s regime in the run-up to the 2004 election strengthened the opposition’s case about the need to “kick the rascals out.” International ostracism of Ukrainian top officials, which resulted from their alleged involvement in the murder of an independent journalist and illegal arms sales, weakened domestic legitimacy of Kuchma’s regime. Although several former U.S. officials, like David Kramer or Steven Pifer, mentioned the possibility of imposing targeted sanctions on the Ukrainian authorities, neither European leaders nor current American policy-makers are willing to toughen their stance vis-à-vis Yanukovych’s regime. If their current policy of engagement is reinforced through the signing of AA, Yanukovych will be able to claim wide international backing for his current policies and, hence, strengthen his weakened domestic standing.
Finally, if the EU decides to sign the AA without persuading Yanukovych to release from jail Yulia Tymoshenko he will emerge as a winner from the “game of chicken.” By calling Europe’s bluff, as “The Economist” characterized it earlier this year, Yanukovych will demonstrate his strength and resolve to those ambivalent ruling elite members, whose defection in the manner similar to 2004 could have caused the crumbling of his regime. This will increase for them potential risks of defection and help Yanukovych maintain cohesion of the ruling coalition in the critical campaign period.
While giving Yanukovych major benefits in domestic politics the use of the AA during the campaign poses hardly any serious risks. Since Yanukovych maintains virtual political monopoly in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, his traditional voters would not have any other choice but to support him in the second round. The strong pro-Western credentials of the other two viable presidential candidates—Vitaliy Klichko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk—would be sufficient to turn Yanukovych into a “lesser evil” even for some of his most disillusioned supporters. In addition, the use of massive administrative resources would ensure a high enough turnout to produce the usual results. At the same time, despite Putin’s clear discontent with Yanukovych’s foreign policy course, he is unlikely to interfere in the campaign because he lacks his own preferred candidates. In contrast to the opposition leaders, Yanukovych could at least guarantee Putin continued access to Sevastopol and Ukraine’s neutrality in the security policy.
If the EU decides to pursue the AA despite Yanukovych’s ongoing violations of basic democratic norms, it will be driven primarily by recent geopolitical pressures from Moscow and by the growing burden of sunk costs from the seven-year efforts to integrate Ukraine. Although Western foreign policy experts long discounted the role of geopolitics in the EU’s decision-making, Putin’s surprising success in swiftly bringing Armenia into its fold raises the stakes of the EU’s upcoming Eastern Partnership summit. Its perceived failure would further raise doubts about the strength of the EU’s own leverage and resolve vis-à-vis post-Soviet states. However, its success in signing the first AA with an Eastern Partnership state will be short-lived if the country’s leadership will use the occasion to strengthen its hold on power while continuing “business as usual.” Given that Yanukovych’s game with the EU stems from the benefits he expects to receive in his electoral competition on the domestic board, the AA will hardly mean more to him than his own campaign poster.