A bridge between the West and the East?

In recent years, Ukraine has been the prize that Russia has sought to win in an integration race with the European Union. Members of the European Parliament and European leaders have equally shown hope for Ukraine becoming a part of the EU, although they have been clear they will only accept it in view of considerable democratic progress.

The state of affairs often gets painted in black and white: either Ukraine's president Yanukovych reforms the country's election process, relinquishes selective justice and restructures its economy in order to gain access to the European community, or Ukraine gives up on these hopes, regresses into corruption and takes part in the Eurasian Customs Union.  As far as many EU representatives have been concerned, participation in one excludes membership with the other.

Is this really the case though? Is there not an outside chance that Moscow and Brussels are just like-minded enough for Ukraine to become a bridge between the two, defusing the tensions between these major European players?

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According to former Italian Prime Minister and ex-President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, such a development is not out of the question - and would be an extremely positive step for all parties.

In a guest post for the Financial Times, Prodi wrote: "Ukraine can be a channel for European values and ties that will work to decrease mutual suspicion and build a more lasting peace."

He remarked that the ten new states added to the EU in 2004, mostly ex-Soviet nations, are now "bulwarks of Europe," adding, "If Europe's leaders take this opportunity, Ukraine is clearly determined to be even more - a catalyst for Europe, a bridge to Russia, and a testament to European values in its own right."

Certainly, Brussels does not want its borders to become an economic battlefront.

Certain European leaders, German chancellor Angela Merkel included, have remained unconvinced that Ukraine is ready to improve ties with the EU, let alone become a bridge for democratic values. After all, concerns of selective justice in the country have still yet to be settled; ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's release is under negotiation, but remains unconfirmed.

Merkel has yet to acknowledge President Yanukovych's governance with a visit to the country, concentrating instead on Europe's continuing economic crisis.

However, Ukraine is getting closer to Europe all the time. A majority of EU decision makers, including Polish president Bronisław Komorowski, are rooting for the nation to achieve the requisite levels of democracy and take greater part in European affairs. At the Central and Eastern European Leaders summit held June 12-13 this year, the future signing of an association agreement with Ukraine was high up on the agenda.

If the ex-communist country has advanced fast enough, an accord could be signed as early as this November. Once the nation is placed securely at the democratic breast of the European Union, it may be possible for Kiev to explore relations with Russia within the context of its Western European loyalty. As president, Yanukovych pledged he would endeavor "to build a bridge between both, not a one-way street in either direction."

The EU's current stance is naturally very cautious about such developments; certainly for the moment, the focus will remain on writing up the ties between Brussels and the Yanukovych governance before getting ambitious about the future. 

Nonetheless, the thought sparks hope. Should Ukraine take part in both Western and Eastern European developments, it may allow for a level of depolarization across the continent. The tension between Russia and Western powers has long been a defining trait in international relations, and Ukraine's integration could finally present a much-needed intermediary.

Chambres writes on European affairs and is based in Paris.