Where does Europe end? Geographically, this is an easy question to answer. Geopolitically, not so much.
The European Union’s “Eastern Partnership“ initiative was launched in 2009 to bring six post-Soviet countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine—closer to the EU, primarily via trade agreements. The outcome, to be unveiled at a summit in Lithuania later this week, has been disappointing. In September Armenia broke off talks with the EU and announced that it would join the nascent Eurasian Customs Union, alongside Belarus, Kazakhstan and the group’s paymaster, Russia. Last week, Ukraine did the same—a much bigger blow to the EU’s ambitions, given Ukraine’s size, mineral wealth and strategic position. Now, only tiny Georgia and Moldova are expected to sign trade agreements with the EU this week.
Ukraine’s U-turn sparked huge protests in Kiev over the weekend. As many as 100,000 people took to the streets on November 24 in favor of closer integration with the EU. Sporadic clashes between dwindling ranks of protestors and police are continuing; jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko announced a hunger strike yesterday on November 25.
In an unusually blunt statement, the heads of the European Council and European Commission condemned Russia’s threats of retaliation against Ukraine if it signed a deal with the EU. Russia blocked imports of Ukranian chocolate in July, the equivalent of an economic warning shot; a heavier broadside could mean Russia cutting off Ukraine’s gas supplies.
That threat, as well Russian support for Ukraine’s flailing economy, means staying close to Russia was probably a better short-term bet for Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. He is no doubt also counting on Moscow’s support when he faces re-election in 2015.