A failed deal, riots, a high death count, an emergency meeting of the European Council, multiple NATO discussions, threats of sanctions - this would be a short summary of the events that have taken place in Ukraine in the past month. And there is a good chance that a new emergency meeting of the European Council will be called in the coming week, because, despite what some people had hoped, the conflict in Ukraine is not settling. On the contrary, it is escalating.
As I was welcomed into the office of my interviewee, Mr. Michal Czaplicki, who works in the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies (DG ExPo), I noticed a print-out of the photo I had seen some time ago on the internet –an image of Alina Kabaeva, Vladimir Putin's new wife, sitting in the Duma and looking at her co-worker with a frightened face while the text above the image reads “I swear I asked him for cream, not Crimea for the 8th of March”. The wordplay in Russian is perfect and proves once again that Russians can make a joke out of any political situation, no matter how serious or tragic it might be in reality.
Mr. Czaplicki enthusiastically indicated that he could talk about this issue for hours, but I started with a rather practical question – What does DG ExPo do? He explained that the Directorate-General for External Policies of the Union is responsible for organizing the work of the Parliament's committees and inter-parliamentary delegations in the field of external policies. It assists the work of the Parliament’s delegations, committees and their chairmen as well as coordinates relations and cooperation with the other institutions, national parliaments and foreign bodies. It is a purely neutral advisory service and does not take action.
When asked about how the current level of communication with Ukraine’s interim government is, Mr Czaplicki explained that in reality the EU has always had contact with Ukraine, even with the previous government. Also, both the Ukrainian government and the opposition were involved in EU-Ukraine talks over the past year and both sides had always shown interest in working together with the EU. Even during the last meeting with the European Parliament which took place on the 26th of March of this year in Kiev, both parties were present.
The EU considers a strategic partnership with Russia and a greater engagement with Central Asia as priorities. For most of these states, relations with the EU are framed by Partnership and Cooperation Agreements. In recent years, worrying developments within Russia, coupled with Moscow's policies in the neighborhood that Russia shares with the EU, have presented challenges for EU-Russia relations, impinging on new agreements. Relations and communication with Russia were becoming more difficult even before the riots in Ukraine started. During the last meeting of the PCC (Parliamentary Cooperation Committee) with Russia in Strasbourg, no mutual agreement was found due to Russia’s unreasonable demands and unwillingness to compromise. When asked what were the points on which Russia was not prepared to compromise, Mr Czaplicki explained that it was actually a lot of small things and the complete lack of flexibility which made it very difficult to find a common text. In short – Russia did not meet the EU half way. As a result, the working group between Russia and the EU has been suspended and future cooperation will not be re-evaluated and re-defined until later this September.
Mr Czaplicki and I also discussed the issue of the EU-Ukraine negotiations that many see as the underlying reason of the current conflict. Mr Czaplicki agreed that there was too much focus on imposing reforms in Ukraine, not enough emphasis on their costs and no consideration on whether the EU could provide financial support. However, he added that this explanation is too simplistic. In fact, he said, only one week before the riots started in Kiev, a meeting was held between the EU and Ukraine where both the government and the opposition were present. As for all the reforms that Ukraine needs to implement before it can be considered a candidate for membership to the European Union, they are necessary because Ukraine is unfortunately the second most corrupt country on the European continent and sometimes even challenges its neighbour Russia for the first place. The country is also on the verge of bankruptcy and the previous government contributed to worsening the situation with the ‘loss’ of 70 billion Euros.
Mr. Czaplicki confirmed that the European Parliament wants and is ready to help Ukraine whether it is in the form of financial aid, cooperation or political monitoring and advising. Ukraine seems to be interested and has already asked the European Parliament to assist with and monitor the upcoming elections in Kiev. This topic is a priority for the Parliament right now. Six Parliamentary Resolutions have been drafted since August last year and it is quite clear that the European Parliament takes a firm stand in opposing Russian action and demanding sanctions against its government. Recently, Estonian Member of the Parliament, Mrs Kristiina Ojuland, gathered MEPs’ support in favour of visa sanctions again Russia. However Mr. Czaplicki agreed that this conflict has taken many by surprise because European countries are no longer used to dealing with armed conflicts on the continent. Apart from the conflict in the Balkans, most European countries have not really been involved in the resolution of an armed conflict for more than sixty years.
Mr Czaplicki did not agree with the comparison between Crimea and Kosovo because unlike Kosovo, which is recognized as a state by the majority of countries in the world, Crimea is only recognized by five states, including Russia. For him, the situation with Crimea is more comparable to events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose independence is recognized only by a handful of states. And two of these states have since then even retracted their statement, saying that the recognition was a mistake made by their former governments. Mr Czaplicki also pointed out a number of practical problems the Crimean people will be facing. As Vladimir Putin is now eager to distribute Russian passports to Crimean citizens, these people will face difficulties in getting a visa to travel abroad. According to EU law, a visa must be issued in a country’s capital and since the EU does not recognize the independence of Crimea, their visa must be issued in Kiev, which would most likely be impossible with a Russian passport. As a result, just like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Crimea will be isolated from a large part of the world.
As a final question, I asked Mr Czaplicki whether a war is possible. Unfortunately the answer is not a ‘no’: indeed war at the borders of Europe is a possibility and a possibility that should not be taken lightly.
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Source photo: European Parliament, flickr