Ukraine's contentious relationship with the European Union continued on Tuesday; the European bloc and the strategically located former Soviet state are still struggling to find their respective identities. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich traveled to Poland, where he will join a summit of the heads of state of the Visegrad Group, which includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. However, just one day earlier, Lithuania's ambassador in Kiev said that Ukraine is not ready to sign a key integration agreement with the European Union.
Each of these developments viewed separately is not particularly significant. European summits such as the Visegrad meeting happen quite frequently, and statements from ambassadors of small Eastern European countries rarely grab headlines. But taken together, these advancements do reveal one thing: that despite the ongoing crisis in Europe, certain EU countries do still care about the largely neglected periphery of the bloc, of which Ukraine is one of the largest and most important countries.
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It is also no coincidence that the countries that do care about Ukraine happen to be peripheral to the European Union — even if they are members. All four Visegrad states were satellites of the Soviet Union just 25 years ago. Each displayed an interest in cooperating and integrating with the European Union once the Iron Curtain fell, and all four share an interest in extending those same prospects for former Soviet countries farther east.
This interest is particularly acute in Poland and is shared by Lithuania. This is because these two states, for hundreds of years, ruled over much of the territory that is now known as Ukraine under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was the commonwealth's partition by the Russians, Austrians and Germans in the late 18th century that led to two centuries of occupation and eventually laid the foundation for the Visegrad and Baltic states' "return to Europe" at the beginning of the 20th century.
But while Estonia and Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, and were followed in 2007 by Romania and Bulgaria, Ukraine, for various reasons, has not returned to Europe. While the chaos in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union gave the Central Europeans room to maneuver westward, Moscow was not prepared to loosen its grip over Kiev. After all, Ukraine from Russia's point of view is most strategic part of the former Soviet Union — losing Kiev to Western blocs such as the European Union or NATO poses an existential risk for Moscow.
But Ukraine has also held back its own readiness to join the European Union. Kiev lagged far behind its Central European counterparts in transitional reforms on issues such as democracy, free market capitalism and independent legal institutions, and these factors continue to stall Ukraine's integration with Europe. Indeed, it is the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko that has kept Ukraine from signing association and free trade agreements with the EU, and Yanukovich, heedless of EU legal norms, has not been willing to compromise on the issue.
This points to one of Ukraine's key characteristics: its borderland status. It is neither part of the East nor part of the West. Ukraine's foreign policy under Yanukovich, which seeks to build ties with both Brussels and Moscow without getting too close to either, is directly impacted by the country's geography. As it has for centuries, Ukraine struggles to maintain its sovereignty, just as it struggles to find an identity.
The European Union has a similar struggle. While Poland and Lithuania are interested in bringing Ukraine into the EU's orbit, other members in the bloc are not so sure. Portugal and Spain have no historical interests in Ukraine and are struggling just to stay afloat, with unemployment figures rising by the month. In the meantime, Germany and France need to keep the union together and pave the way forward for the eurozone; they are hardly interested in EU enlargement. Even Hungary is entertaining closer ties to the Russians as the crisis in Europe deepens. The European Union is just as confused about what it is and what it is supposed to be as Ukraine is in its place between Russia and the West. Under these circumstances, Ukraine and the European Union do not show promising signs of growing closer. Instead, they continue to travel separate paths searching for their respective identities.