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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » July 13, 2016
Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation
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Germany’s Eastern Policy: Focus on Ukraine
July 13, 2016   
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When a united Germany and a postcommunist Poland signed their Treaty of Good Neighborly Relations and Friendly Cooperation 25 years ago, the geopolitical situation in Europe was still dominated by the East-West conflict.

In August 1991, a coup staged by Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanayev initiated the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was formally dissolved on Dec. 31, 1991. The most important challenge for Germany as it approached reunification was to regulate its relations with Poland, its eastern neighbor.

The demise of the Soviet Union was watched with great concern. This is why the announcement of the independence of Ukraine on Aug. 24, 1991, after the collapse of Yanayev’s coup and the communist hardliners, was received with considerable apprehension in Germany. Poland recognized Ukraine’s independence days after the country declared it. Germany established diplomatic relations with Ukraine at the beginning of 1992, after the official breakup of the Soviet Union. Germany was dominated by a fear of the political and economic implications of the collapse of the USSR, and Poland was dominated by a fear of a strong Russia seeking to revive Soviet imperialism.

After Germany reunited in 1991, politics in the country was dominated by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His personal relationships with President Gorbachev dominated political and economic relations between the newly reunited Germany and the declining Soviet Union. The year 1991 was marked by the unification of Germany, but after the coup against Gorbachev and his reforms, a wave of independence declarations swept through Soviet republics. These processes were watched with growing skepticism by the German public, but also by experts and diplomats. Gorbachev was still perceived as a leader who guaranteed a civilized dialogue with the nuclear superpower.

The breakup of the USSR was received with surprise and even disbelief in Germany. Before Russian President Boris Yeltsin took over from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Dec. 25, 1991, Germany recognized the independence of the Baltic states, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. This took place immediately after the coup, in August 1991. At the beginning of 1992, Germany recognized the independence of Ukraine and established diplomatic relations with that country and with all other former Soviet republics.

After the collapse of the USSR, the attention of politicians focused on Russia. However, German diplomacy at the same time focused on opening diplomatic posts in post-Soviet states. From the summer of 1991, Ukraine became an important partner. Diplomatic relations were established on Jan. 17, 1992. In Germany, however, there was still no concept for a policy with regard to the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Ukraine was perceived exclusively in terms of a potential risk of nuclear proliferation. It was not until 1993 that the situation changed—due to a symbolic gesture in the form of the introduction of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, on the day of Chancellor Kohl’s visit in June. The visit marked the final phase of establishing a new strategy toward Kiev. Ukraine’s position changed from that of being a “risk to the region” to a “key factor of stability and security in Europe.” During Kohl’s visit, a declaration was signed on the foundations of bilateral relations, along with a number of agreements on political, social and economic relations that shaped bilateral relations in the 1990s. In 1998, a decision was made to hold intergovernmental consultations that to this day are conducted every year. Cooperation at the nongovernmental level also continued to develop, and in 1999 a German-Ukrainian Forum—which brought together nongovernmental organizations, partner cities and business representatives interested in German-Ukrainian cooperation—was established. In the eyes of German leaders, but also the general public, Ukraine was perceived at that time as an important country in Eastern Europe. The “Orange Revolution” played an important role in this process, strengthened by major international events, such as the 2005 Eurovision Contest and the Euro 2012 soccer championships successfully hosted by Ukraine together with Poland. However, both the Maidan events in Kiev and the annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014, came as a surprise to the German public. This changed the attitude of Germans to Ukraine and the image of Russia in Germany. Twenty-five years after the breakup of the USSR, Ukraine is treated in Germany as an important EU neighborhood country whose membership aspirations depend on reforms and modernization.

In the current situation, a key issue is the so-called Minsk process in which Germany and France play a key role. The implementation of this agreement will determine not only further support for Ukraine but also the development of German-Russian relations. The German media has been presenting various concepts of the country’s Eastern policy, but the official position of the government is that the implementation of the Minsk agreements is a condition for withdrawing Europe’s sanctions against Russia.

An important issue in the EU’s cooperation with Ukraine is environmental protection, in particular the need to secure the ruins of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. Thirty years after the disaster this is one of the most significant challenges faced by the EU in its cooperation with Ukraine. Moreover, cooperation in agriculture and technical assistance for internal reforms in that country play an important role. A German advisory group has been working in Kiev since 1994, providing advice and experience to the Ukrainian government in implementing economic reforms. At the center of the consultations and advisory support is the macroeconomic stabilization of the state and the budget, along with restructuring and deregulation in the economy, reforms in the banking system, support for private businesses, and the creation of independent structures in agriculture.

The interests of German businesses in Kiev have been represented by the German Economic Bureau since 1993. Ukraine is an important partner for German companies, particularly for those that rely on exports to Eastern Europe. Demand for German goods in Ukraine runs high, but the crisis is clearly felt, particularly in German goods exports. Germany is still the most important trading partner for Ukraine in the EU. For Germany, Ukraine is also the second-largest trading partner in Eastern Europe, after Russia.

Cooperation with NATO and relations with the EU are the most important aspects of cooperation with Ukraine. Each Ukrainian government has so far sought to deepen its relations with the EU. Despite the complicated internal situation in the country, this process continues. A partnership agreement with the EU has been in place since 1998, and in 2015 this partnership was enhanced by the Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

German and Polish strategy toward Ukraine

The Orange Revolution was a turning point in EU-Ukraine relations. Until May 2004 there were practically no differences between the positions of Germany and Poland toward Ukraine. The objective of the policy vis-à-vis Ukraine was to support reforms in that country and help Ukraine move closer to European and Transatlantic structures. The peaceful change of power in Kiev, despite electoral manipulations, met with a positive response from political leaders in Europe. Poland was also praised in this context. Just a few months after joining the European Union, Poland had become one of the main players in the east of Europe. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was hailed in EU capitals as a hero of the bloodless revolution. Yushchenko gave a fiery speech in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament in Berlin, calling for Ukraine to be admitted to the European Union. However, support for Ukraine’s aspirations was much lower in Germany than in Poland and other Central European countries. Poland was in favor of a prompt Ukrainian EU entry, and clear differences could be seen between the German and the Polish positions with regard to Ukraine after the Orange Revolution.

The expectations of the political leaders in Kiev were very high, and the hopes for quick integration with the EU were supported by Polish politicians. In Germany, however, a wait-and-see attitude prevailed, with calls for making the integration process dependent on the new Ukrainian government going ahead with reforms in the country. An internal blockade of the main actors of the Orange Revolution led to more skepticism about Ukraine in Germany. A scandal surrounding the issuance of visas by the consulate in Kiev added to the negative picture of Ukraine in the German media. German politicians were increasingly divided in their assessment of the processes taking place in Ukraine. There was somewhat more interest and involvement among politicians in eastern Germany, who had a better understanding of the processes taking place in Eastern Europe than their counterparts in western Germany. Moreover, corruption scandals rocking Viktor Yanukovych’s government and the instrumental use of Ukraine’s European policy from 2010 to 2013 led to the loss of trust in Ukraine’s elites in Germany.

The Orange Revolution and the five-year hold on power by the “Orange” government did not lead to Ukraine entering a direct path to the EU. In 2004 Ukrainian leaders reached a compromise based on amending the constitution and transferring powers from the presidential administration to the government and parliament. The prime minister and the government relied on the parliamentary majority. The five-year-long conflict between the president and the prime minister blocked reforms in the country. Despite this, Polish governments supported Ukraine’s European aspirations throughout this period. There were differences of opinion between German and Polish politicians because the German strategy depended on reforms in Ukraine, which, however, were abandoned. During his presidency, Yanukovych defined EU membership as a key objective of Ukraine’s foreign policy, but at the same time he conducted negotiations with Russia. An agreement with Russia on the Black Sea Fleet and on gas deliveries from Russia to Ukraine triggered negative reactions in EU countries, and Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the DCFTA agreement at an Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013 became the direct reason for the Maidan demonstrations and Yanukovych’s collapse.

Germany’s policy toward the CIS developed on two planes until Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Germany tried to maintain good relations with Russia, its most important partner in the East, and supported the development of the EU’s partnership with Russia, while not neglecting contacts with other CIS countries. One example was support for the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. On the political level, Germany tried to reinforce the EU’s position in contacts with CIS countries. As a result of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, German policy toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia changed dramatically. Germany was and remains a driving force in shaping the EU’s policy toward Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel became personally involved in this area and Germany was a guarantor of the EU’s sanctions against Russia. Together with French President Francois Hollande and supported by Brussels, Merkel secured the negotiation of the Minsk-2 treaty in an attempt to guarantee Ukraine’s independence.

Improved EU relations with Russia depend mainly on Russia’s further policy toward Ukraine. The position of Germany and Poland toward Ukraine is slowly becoming similar. Germany is pragmatic about the process of Ukraine edging closer to the EU, and Poland believes that support for Ukraine should depend on internal reforms in that country. Moreover, both countries have been working together to develop the EU’s policy toward Ukraine. In this context, it is understandable that Poland was disillusioned when it turned out that it would not be able to send its representatives to negotiations with Russia and Ukraine, but Germany did not motion for Poland to be excluded from the “Normandy format.” The course and pace of events in the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2015 were why Poland was left out of the negotiations.

In recent years, the political and economic situation in Europe has changed significantly. Russia has created new security policy challenges for the EU and the Western world as a whole, and the NATO summit in Warsaw is a response to these challenges. At the same time, Russia remains a trade and energy partner. The situation in Ukraine and Belarus indicates that Russia’s influence on post-Soviet states will continue to grow. In this situation, the question is how Germany and Poland can shape the EU’s policy toward Ukraine and Russia.

Although the war in eastern Ukraine exacerbated the situation with regard to Russia in 2015 and 2016, the financial and economic crisis in Russia had a far more significant impact on Russia’s further strategy. Russia cannot afford to continue its aggressive policy toward Ukraine because this policy has its economic consequences. The sanctions against Russia may become milder, but they will not be lifted. Unfortunately, work to implement the Minsk agreements has ground to a halt. Instead corruption continues to thrive in Kiev, and there is a continued lack of political and economic reforms. The European Union is facing challenges connected with the lack of an agreement on migration policy. Poland and Germany have different positions in this area. The role of Britain in Europe depends on the outcome of a referendum on staying in the EU. The specter of a Brexit is blocking all other decisions in the European Union. The financial crisis in southern EU countries remains unresolved, as a result of which Brussels and the EU member states are devoting less and less time and energy to Ukraine. This does not augur well for Ukraine as the country does not have energy for further reforms two years after the Maidan revolution. For Europe, this means a growing number of internal and external challenges. The role of Germany continues to decrease in this situation, while expectations are growing. Recent years show that a single state has less and less influence on how the situation develops in Europe and beyond.

All this adds up to a complicated picture of the world in 2016, especially considering the stagnation in the United States ahead of presidential elections. Ukraine may drop out of the list of the top 10 global challenges, though this is not up to either Germany or Poland to decide.

Cornelius Ochmann

The writer is a political scientist, an expert on Eastern Europe, and the director of the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation since 2013.
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