PACE Leader Hopes for Association Agreement With Ukraine Later This Year

The paradox of Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union is that its democratic elections in October, which yielded results almost identical to pre-election polling by pro-Opposition think tanks, represented the nadir of Kyiv’s relationship with Brussels; and that in the aftermath, that relationship has improved appreciably.

It now appears increasingly likely that Ukraine and the European Union will sign the Association Agreement on which the two agreed last year, moving the former Soviet Union’s most populous state closer to the EU and away from Russia’s embrace. This thaw owes much to both new attitudes in the European Union and Kyiv’s continuing efforts at reform.

On a visit to Ukraine this week, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Jean-Claude Mignon signaled a warming in the body’s relationship with Ukraine, a change from last year’s adversarial stance. While noting that Ukraine still has work to do in order to reach European standards, he applauded Kyiv’s determination to reform to meet those standards. “I am absolutely convinced that Ukraine wants to fulfill its obligations, therefore it would be perfect timing to sign the Association Agreement in November of this year.

“We are looking forward to this since this agreement is beneficial to both Ukraine and the EU,” he added. He also added that PACE wanted to work with Ukraine to advance its reforms which, he stressed, must be accelerated.

Even when meeting the Opposition and making the traditional genuflection to their allegations of selective prosecution, Mignon sounded an optimistic note, expressing “confidence that the situation will improve,” according to reports in Ukraine.

This sea change is almost certainly a result of the realization that the constant bludgeoning Ukraine took from Brussels over every failure, real and perceived, was strengthening hardliners and apologists for Russia against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s hard pivot to the EU. This is a welcome, if belated, dose of Realpolitik.

PACE’s – and Mignon’s – apparent warming to Kyiv is also due, at least in part, to the largest former Soviet republic’s continued reforms, which show no signs of ceasing. In the last two years alone, the Ukrainian parliament has passed bipartisan electoral reform, tax reform, pension reform, and the first reform to the criminal code since the Khrushchev era.

According to recent reports, Kyiv is not only considering additional electoral and judicial reform, but media reform as well – a key step to an open society of the kind Europe claims to value.

Media reform and privatization has been a stated goal since before the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko governments of the last decade (and a long-standing promise to PACE), one never realized. Whether out of a lack of will or the Orange administration’s chronic inability to battle Ukraine’s formidable bureaucracy, the project was often bound in the same terrible cycle of reports and special committees and draft regulations and more reports that characterized much of Ukrainian reform during that time period.

A draft law to gradually but fully privatize over the course of seven years, submitted last fall, seemed doomed to the same fate when it was sent back to committee by the governing agency. It is to Yanukovych’s credit that he has pushed the matter back to the forefront, setting an April deadline for a new draft bill to be submitted to Parliament. If approved, the measure should be yet another step on Ukraine’s road to a legal regime in line with modern Europe’s.

As is almost invariably true in former Soviet states, Ukraine has made its share of errors in good governance, during Yanukovych’s administration, the Orange administration that preceded it, and of course during former President Leonid Kuchma’s dysfunctional and kleptocratic regime. One of Kyiv’s most admirable qualities is a willingness to admit these errors and work, however haltingly, toward fixing them.

Encouraging these reforms is a better path to a European Ukraine than bludgeoning the young state for its failings. Hopefully, Brussels has realized this at last.