Ukrainian steam engine heading West

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MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti.)

Two factors prevent Ukraine's integration into the European Union. First of all, the country does not meet either economic or military standards required of united Europe's members. Secondly, the EU is not ready to admit Ukraine: it needs a break after the mass accession of East and Central European countries, and has to deal with more pressing issues, such as how to handle the immigration problem in the wake of the tragic events in France.

It may appear at first that these two factors completely block Ukraine's road to the West and that the failure of its government, which linked its future to this scenario of the nation's development, will soon become evident. But the situation is more complex than that. In its attitude toward Ukraine, the West has adopted the 'one step at a time' approach, which is intended to show that it is slowly but surely progressing toward its new home in Europe. Metaphorically, if Poland and the Czech Republic arrived in Europe by a modern diesel locomotive, Ukraine is traveling by an early 20th century steam engine. But it is moving nevertheless.

During her visit to Kiev this week, Condoleezza Rice could have conveyed a more encouraging message to the Ukrainian authorities, confirming that sooner or later the country would join the West. This would have provided grounds for optimism ahead of the parliamentary election due next year.

Shortly before her visit, the Ukrainian engine passed several stations on its way to Europe. First of all, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Ukraine. Not many people remember today that the amendment was adopted during the Cold War as a way of protesting against the Soviet ban for Jews to leave the country. The ban was abolished fifteen years ago, as Russian-based Jewish organizations keep reminding the Americans. But the amendment is still in place. Its abolition seems to be a sign that a country has passed the democracy exam with flying colors. The examiners are, of course, the U.S. Congress.

The second station on the way to Europe was the status of a market economy, which Ukraine failed to secure under Leonid Kuchma, although Kiev maintained that there were objective reasons for this. No one in Europe was interested in helping Kuchma and his Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich win political points. Pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko is another matter, all the more so as any success at the beginning of the election campaign is especially important.

The third station was Ukraine's full membership in the Ministerial Council of South-East Europe set up ten years ago on the U.S. initiative. The organization comprises Italy, Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia and Albania. It is easy to see that this is a regional branch of NATO: the first six countries on the list are already full members of the bloc, and the rest are moving in this direction.

The fourth station was the foundation of the Union of Democratic Choice, which comprises both NATO members and potential candidates. Its membership in the Union makes Ukraine look like the leader of CIS member states that have made pro-Western foreign policies their priority. Moreover, this structure can influence political processes in Belarus, where presidential elections will be held next year. For President Lukashenko's opponents it is important to emphasize that they are supported not only by the West, but also by a Slavic Orthodox state like Ukraine. It is no coincidence that Alexander Milinkevich, a candidate from united Belarussian opposition, attended the Union's forum in Kiev to emphasize that he was backed by Ukraine.

What other stations is Ukraine to pass on its way to the West? Its accession to the World Trade Organization is coming up: Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov has already requested support on this issue from EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson. Kiev was eager to join the WTO this year, but has failed to carry out its ambitious plan. Next year seems much more plausible. The market economy status and WTO membership are necessary requirements to starts talks on establishing a free trade zone between Ukraine and the European Union.

Does all this mean that Ukraine's journey to the EU will be idyllic, although longer than other countries had? This is unlikely, taking into account that Kiev's pro-Western policies have earned the understandable disapproval of Russia, which has a number of arguments to try to adjust the stance of the Ukrainian authorities. The latter do want to join the West, but with low gas prices and continued bilateral cooperation with Moscow in the defense industry, which is vital for the nation's economy. Membership in Europe is an attractive goal, but in its pursuit Ukraine needs to avoid bankruptcy. After all, the West is not ready to provide for one of Europe's largest countries, even if it does have a market economy status and top marks in the democracy exam.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy director general of the Center of Political Technologies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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