Ukraine is facing a difficult choice between moving nearer to the European Union or toward closer cooperation with previous partner Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin's Eurasian customs union.
The matter is further complicated by Ukrainian politics, in part between the country's Ukrainian and Russian speakers. The EU has upped the ante by making the release from prison of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the longtime rival of President Viktor Yanukovych, part of the price for moving on discussions with Kiev.
For the EU, admitting Ukraine as a member would carry a high price, in political and financial terms. The country of 46 million is an economic basket case which would require EU aid to bring it up to EU standards. It is underdeveloped and stunningly corrupt, and the EU is already stretched by the financial problems of members such as Greece, Greek Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy.
Apart from Russia, Ukraine is the largest region of Europe outside the EU. Russia and Mr. Putin might be greatly annoyed if their neighboring satrapy Ukraine went waltzing off toward the EU.
From Ukraine's point of view, the choice could have benefits either way. A closer relationship with Russia would bring lower natural gas prices, perhaps even some forgiveness of already incurred gas bills. Mr. Yanukovych in any case has traditionally had the support of Ukraine's Russian-speakers and is not as uncomfortable as Ms. Tymoshenko and other Ukrainian leaders with close relations with Mr. Putin and Russia.
Eventual membership in the EU, however, could spell the end of both underdevelopment and political insecurity for Ukraine. Mr. Putin's Eurasian customs union, a favored-trade association, offers little by contrast and claims such members as non-superstars Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Letting Ms. Tymoshenko go would be painful to Mr. Yanukovych, but he may be offered a way out as she appears to be in need of better medical care than Ukraine's lockup can provide and may be off to Germany.
Economic good sense says that Ukraine should opt for the EU route. In the past, Ukraine has not always chosen the most sensible alternative, and the picture this time is so cloudy as to leave the outcome in question.
First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM