The Cox-Kwasniewski mission was launched on the initiative of the European Parliament in June 2012. Its purpose was to resolve the issue of “selective persecution” exemplified by Yulia Tymoshenko’s jailing, which remains a key obstacle to signing the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. After 17 months and more than 27 visits to Ukraine, which involved dozens of personal meetings with President Viktor Yanukovych and former prime minister Tymoshenko, the Cox-Kwasniewski mission ended without achieving its initial objectives. A week before the Vilnius Summit, the Ukrainian government announced its decision to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement, while Yanukovych reiterated his commitment to keeping Tymoshenko behind bars. What was the impact of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission on EU-Ukraine relations and why did it fail?
Former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox and former Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski had to play a mediating role between EU leaders, Ukrainian authorities, and Yulia Tymoshenko. Their mission was based on the assumption, widespread in the West, that Yanukovych’s persecution of Tymoshenko was purely emotion-based and resulted from his irrational fears of her leadership potential. Hence, their mission amounted to a psychological therapy session that was to treat Yanukovych for his “fears” by offering him major rewards and reassuring him that Tymoshenko was no longer a viable political threat. The main proposal of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission to resolve the stand-off – Tymoshenko’s expulsion to the West under the guise of medical treatment – was intended to reassure Yanukovych that she would not challenge him in the upcoming presidential election. Yanukovych’s seemingly absurd counter-proposal that Tymoshenko could be transported to Germany and treated in Berlin’s hospital only while guarded continuously by Ukrainian police underscored that any compromises short of keeping her jailed were not acceptable.
The failure of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of the political significance of Tymoshenko’s jailing and Yanukovych’s strategic calculations behind it. As I have argued elsewhere (PONARS Memo No. 205, June 2012 and “When External Leverage Fails: The Case of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Trial”, Problems of Post-Communism, January-February, 2013), apart from dealing with a political threat Yanukovych also meant to demonstrate to a domestic audience (both ruling coalition members and the opposition) his capacity to repress his most prominent critic and then withstand international pressure to have her released. Her conviction and jailing established his credibility as the ultimate power wielder in the country and played a crucial role in his further successful consolidation of political and economic power and in preventing defections from within the regime.
Tymoshenko’s release would, hence, have imposed substantial political costs on Yanukovych by exposing his vulnerability to external pressure and, hence, undermining his power superiority. This could have threatened the cohesion of his ruling coalition, raised doubts about his relative strength among his core voters, and showed the West that pressure actually works. Tymoshenko’s release would have also shifted the power balance in favor of the opposition, particularly if she managed to gain access to media and personally contributed to the political debates through live television appearances. Yanukovych was not willing to bear these political costs in 2011 and he certainly was not willing to accept them so close to the next presidential election scheduled for March 2015.
The main inadvertent effect of the mission was the hardening of the EU’s stance on Tymoshenko’s release and turning it into a crucial issue separating Ukraine from the signing of the AA. As I argued in my PONARS memo, the indivisible nature of the issue meant that as long as both sides viewed it as equally salient they were unlikely to come to a mutually acceptable bargaining solution. Given that the issue remained critical for Yanukovych from the standpoint of his political survival, the EU’s reliance on exclusively positive inducements was insufficient to persuade him to change his priorities.
In addition, optimistic statements coming out of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission coupled with the misinformation campaign of the Ukrainian authorities raised expectations about progress on Tymoshenko’s issue among the Western audience. Taking these statements at face value, the Western press, including the New York Times and Financial Times, published reports predicting Tymoshenko’s imminent release based on anonymous sources, unconfirmed rumors or just mere speculations. For example, on October 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that a deal on freeing the ex-PM for medical treatment was near, citing the pro-government newspaper that “ran a picture of Ms. Tymoshenko under the headline ‘Guten Tag, Berlin!’”
As a result, by the end of its work the problem of “losing face” in compromising too much on Tymoshenko became the main challenge for European negotiators, particularly as they realized too late in the process that Yanukovych was not willing to budge. As Ukrainian authorities have indicated in the last several weeks prior to the summit, had the EU showed greater flexibility on Tymoshenko, they would have moved forward with signing the AA in Vilnius. However, on November 20, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, reiterated that “if the law that solves the Tymoshenko issue is not adopted EU member states will not sign the AA.” The next day the Ukrainian government announced its decision to take another pause in EU-Ukraine relations. The latest statements by European officials, like Swedish foreign minister Karl Bildt, that explain the failure of the EU-Ukraine talks by blaming the Kremlin’s “brutal pressure” demonstrate either continued misunderstanding of Yanukovych’s motivations or desperate attempts to shed responsibility for the outcome.
Now that the signing of the EU-Ukraine AA is postponed until after the 2015 presidential election, the EU should act more decisively against Yanukovych’s regime and resort to “negative inducements” in the likely case of continued misbehavior on the part of the Ukrainian authorities. The initialing of the AA in March 2012 already indicated Ukraine’s commitment to abide by the democratic values common to the EU, and the country’s leadership should bear personal responsibility for any future violations of these principles. This means that the EU should change its policy of avoiding the possibility of introducing sanctions against Ukrainian authorities as it has done so far in fear of alienating them. By contrast, only by raising the immediate costs of pursuing authoritarian policies for Yanukovych and his allies can the EU regain some of its leverage vis-à-vis Ukraine. This should be particularly effective given the upcoming start of the presidential campaign next year, which puts Yanukovych’s political survival on the line. The experience of the 2004 presidential election already proved that consistent and costly Western pressure over authoritarian leadership coupled with civil society assistance programs can ultimately tip the balance in favor of democratic forces.