An EU court in Luxembourg has annulled sanctions on Ukraine’s former regime in a symbolic blow to European foreign policy in the former Soviet region.

Asset freezes imposed on Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, his son Oleksandr, and five others in the ruling clan that was ousted from power in a revolution five years ago breached their “fundamental rights” on “effective judicial protection”, the EU’s General Court said on Thursday (11 July).

The EU sanctions were based on “letters” sent to the EU Council in Brussels by the post-revolutionary authorities in Kiev.

But “none of the information contained in the letters … makes it possible to consider that the Council had sufficient information to verify that those rights had been complied with,” the court noted.

The other five members of the Yanukovych regime cleared by the ruling were his former revenues minister Oleksandr Klymenko, former prime minister Sergej Arbuzov, former prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka and his son Artem, as well as Yanukovych’s former chief of staff Andriy Klyuyev.

Ukraine sought their EU listing because they were accused of embezzling billions from the state.

There is little doubt they were guilty after raids on their luxury homes found piles of cash and gold bullion.

The EU verdict said nothing on their actual culpability and any money frozen in EU states will remain so, because the court annulled sanctions imposed between 2014 and 2018 only, but not their latest renewal – until March 2020.

The EU Council can also appeal the General Court ruling at its highest tribunal, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, in the next two months and 10 days.

And the EU foreign service said on Thursday: “We will analyse carefully the judgments and decide on … the way forward”.

Symbolism

But despite its limitations, the verdict dented EU soft power in the six former Soviet states on its eastern flank – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

An EU plan, the so-called ‘Eastern Partnership’, launched in 2009, envisaged signing political and economic “association treaties” designed to put relations with those countries on as close a footing as the EU enjoyed with Norway or Switzerland.

When Yanukovych refused to sign, he faced a popular uprising, which saw him flee to Russia.

Russia then pushed back by invading Crimea and east Ukraine, starting a conflict which has claimed 13,000 lives and which shows no sign of ending despite EU diplomacy.

For his part, Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy phoned Russian president Vladimir Putin also on Thursday to propose a peace summit in Minsk with Russia, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.

“We never refused to hold any kind of talks, including the expansion of the Normandy process,” Putin said the same day in Moscow, referring to former peace summits in the so-called ‘Normandy format’, which had included Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany only.

The Russian leader wanted to wait until Britain had a new prime minister and until EU powers and US had made clear their intentions, however.

“What was the reaction of the US administration? We don’t know. How will German and France respond? These are the questions that need answers,” Putin said.

Ukraine aside, the Eastern Partnership process has also struggled in the other five countries in the past decade.

Armenia and Belarus joined Putin’s “Eurasian Union” instead under Russian duress.

Georgia and Moldova are under partial Russian occupation in three breakaway ‘republics’ and Azerbaijan is ruled by a petro-dictator who has no interest in pro-European reforms.

Blessing

Some progress was made in the teeth of obstacles, EU Council president Donald Tusk said also on Thursday.

“When looking at the Eastern Partnership’s first 10 years, it is evident that thanks to it and through it, our relations have become deeper, more structured, and more predictable”, he said in Batumi, Georgia.

“You remember when the Russian president said in 2005: ‘We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’?,” Tusk added.

“Today in Georgia I want to say loud and clear: the collapse of the Soviet Union was a blessing to Georgians, Poles, and Ukrainians, as well as to the whole of central and eastern Europe. And I’m convinced that also to Russians,” he said.

Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine want to join the EU.

And Tusk said that future “EU membership … remains currently on the agenda” in the former Soviet region.

But he warned that “there are many in Europe who have doubts about further enlargement”, referring to French and Dutch-led opposition to expanding the EU for now.

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