Harry van Bommel: Ukraine is better off as a buffer state

23 March 2016

Harry van Bommel: Ukraine is better off as a buffer state

On 6th April the Dutch electorate will have the chance to express their views on the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. From the very first day of the campaign a curtain of fog has been drawn around this treaty’s real meaning. In this article I intend to blow this fog of misunderstandings away and argue that Ukraine is better off as a buffer state between the EU and Russia.

Misunderstanding 1: This is a simple trade treaty

Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a recent televised debate commended the agreement, describing it as a “simple trade treaty”, but it is much more than that. This treaty envisages “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters” (art. 4). It provides that Ukraine will “gradually approximate its policies to the policies of the EU, in accordance with the guiding principles of macroeconomic stability, sound public finances and a sustainable balance of payments.” (art. 343).

Such provisions are not found in normal Association Agreements, such as that with, for example, Morocco. This treaty is more akin to those which the EU agrees with candidate member states as a step towards full membership. That is, moreover, the legitimate desire of many Ukrainians, but that fact does not in any way bind us. The EU has in the past already been enlarged by the inclusion of countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, who were very far from being ready for membership.

Misunderstanding 2: In Ukraine everyone’s in favour of the treaty

In the treaty’s preamble it refers to “the importance Ukraine attaches to its European identity” and states that account must be taken of “the strong public support in Ukraine for the country’s European choice”. The reality is that Ukraine is seriously divided over its eastward or westward orientation. This division is being bloodily fought out in the east of the country and has cost more than 9,000 people their lives. 30% of the population is ethnically Russian or Russian-speaking and the conflict has, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), forced over 900,000 people to flee into Russia.

The existing divisions must not be stirred up further, but that is precisely what this treaty will do. If Ukraine finds itself shortly in the EU’s sphere of influence, the inhabitants who favour a different orientation will feel that they have been pushed out. The conflict will not then be resolved and a division of the country will instead be menacingly on the cards.

Misunderstanding 3: This treaty will help combat corruption

Supporters and opponents agree on one thing at least: Ukraine has to contend with enormous corruption. The country stands at number 130 in Transparency International’s corruption rankings. Dutch shipbuilder Damen suffered heavy losses on investments which were destroyed by corruption. This treaty provides that “Ukraine shall benefit from financial assistance through the relevant EU funding mechanisms and instruments.” (art. 453). If there is one flow of money which serves to corrupt, then it’s that which emanates from the EU funds, which are already often spent in an ineffective or even irregular fashion. For the twentieth time in succession the European Court of Auditors has refused to approve the EU’s accounts. Allowing European money to flood into Ukraine is asking for trouble. The training of independent judges, aiding in establishing a decent revenue service and strengthening the free press and the trade union movement would do a great deal more to combat corruption than will this treaty. For those things, this Association Agreement isn’t needed.

Misunderstanding 4: This treaty must be supported on grounds of international solidarity

International solidarity is a fine principle, but can also sometimes be confusing. Supporters of the Association Agreement like to point to the Maidan Square demonstrators; the question, however, is what that motley community was looking to achieve when it took to the streets. Whatever else, people were demonstrating against the incumbent President Yanukovych, who had of course, however, come to power via free and fair elections. At those elections, held in 2010, I was one of the observers for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

We should show solidarity with all groups in Ukraine and not only those who would like to belong to our part of the world. It tells us a great deal that nobody has been convicted of the arson attack on the trade union centre in Odessa, which resulted in dozens of opponents of the new rulers in Kiev losing their lives. Why shouldn’t the opponents of the present government in Kiev be able to count on our support?

Misunderstanding 5: Opponents of the treaty are aiding Putin.

NATO’s enlargement eastwards is taken by Russia to be a direct threat to its own security. Putin last year gave orders for the country’s security strategy to be renewed. In this new strategy NATO is considered to be the “greatest threat to national security”, greater even than the violence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, greater than ISIS.

Not do long ago NATO and the EU was trying to cooperate with Russia, and stability in the region made progress. In 2008, however, NATO committed the historic mistake of stating that Ukraine and Georgia would one day be members of the organisation. Following this, long frozen conflicts were brought back to life and the struggle around the Crimea and eastern Ukraine was just one of a series of these. The chance that violence will break out in Moldavia and possibly even in the Baltic states is dangerously great. That struggle suits Putin’s agenda very well and it is therefore the treaty’s supporters who are playing into his hands. It would be a great deal better if Ukraine were to remain a buffer state between east and west.

The treaty is neoliberal in character

There are a lot more things which serve to offer reasons to vote ‘no’ on April 6th. As a socialist it speaks for itself that I reject the neoliberal character of this treaty, a treaty which is of course fervently desired by international corporate business. The agreement provides for the privatisation of state-owned companies in Ukraine and the liberalisation of markets. It includes a ban on state aids (art.262) and prescribes the promotion of exports to the EU by the EU itself (art 379). Dutch truckers have previously lost jobs to Polish drivers posted here. Those who survived will soon lose out to Ukrainian drivers.

Operators like George Soros stand to make big money in Ukraine and that explains why he is prepared to pump thousands of euros into the ‘yes’-campaign. Undoubtedly his European counterparts also look longingly towards Ukraine’s 45 million consumers.

The voter must make his or her own mind up and what does that for me is that I find the internal and external stability of Ukraine of decisive importance. It is not a part of the world in which we can conduct political experiments the outcome of which we do not know. We have our hands full with problems within and on the periphery of the European Union. First and foremost, we must concentrate our attention on those.

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on the website of the Internationale Spectator. 


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