FIRE, smoke, fights, barricades. For the the past two months, Ukraine has resembled a country at war. While observers claim the political solution of the crisis in Ukraine is in everybody’s interest, they admit further escalation of tension could mean problems for Ukraine’s immediate neighbour – Slovakia.

Slovakia and Ukraine share a short (98km) but heavily protected border, which serves as a border for the Schengen Zone, the European Union’s visa-free travel area. The western regions of Ukraine near the border were the first to break away from the control of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government of loyalists. Even as the Ukrainian parliament scrapped the anti-protest laws that were put in place in mid-January, and the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on January 28, concerns about future developments in Ukraine remain.

Reactions of the international community sharpened after reports that riot police had been shooting at protesters and beating journalists. At least three protesters appeared to have been killed. Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry too issued a joint statement with its three counterparts in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland on January 23, expressing their shock over the news.

“We strongly condemn the killing of demonstrators, which cannot be justified by any reason,” the statement reads. The four countries, grouped within the Visegrad Group (V4), voiced their concern about the fast escalation of the conflict, and called on all parties to “refrain from further violence as well as to enter into meaningful and credible dialogue”.

Ways to intervene

Calling on the parties of the conflict to stop violence is one of the few things that Slovakia and other countries have left to do, said Alexander Duleba, analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA).
“It is in the hands of the Ukrainians now,” Duleba told The Slovak Spectator.

Matej Navrátil, a researcher at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University in Bratislava, mentions sanctions as an option that the EU can still use to influence the course of events in Ukraine.

“But the problem with sanctions for the whole country is that they are directed against all Ukrainians,” Navrátil told The Slovak Spectator, and therefore called for targeting sanctions at Yanukovych and his allies, for example, by freezing their accounts in European banks or banning them from its territory in the way that the United States did.

“I would recommend to limit visas for the ruling group, but continue issuing visas for ordinary Ukrainians travelling to the EU,” Navrátil said. “By doing so, the EU would send a signal that it is not against Ukraine, but only against the current regime and the people who represent it.”

Slovakia, as part of the EU, should coordinate its foreign policy with other member states, Navrátil said, adding that it is important to maintain the cohesion of the EU so that a consistent signal is sent.

“Slovakia as a part of the union has the right to give its opinions and stances, but the question is to what extent Slovakia can compare itself for instance with Poland, who has been advocating closer cooperation with Ukraine in the long run,” Navrátil said. “Poland is much better established in this than Slovakia and Ukrainians consider it as a more salient player, compared to Slovakia.”

Security concerns

Analysts agree that the situation in Ukraine is unpredictable, especially after Yanukovych, in a surprising move, offered the post of the prime minister to the opposition.

For the moment, there are several possible scenarios, but little disagreement that political compromises are the means to solving the crisis.

When it comes to Slovakia’s security situation, observers do not expect the conflict in Ukraine, even if it escalates, to have a direct impact in the sense that the protests and unrest could diffuse to the territory of Slovakia. Problems could arise though if protesters attacked oil pipes in Ukraine, given the fact that Ukraine is a key transit country for transport to Slovakia and the entire EU, Navrátil noted.

“But I don’t expect such a development, because the anger of the protesters is directed against the ruling powers in Ukraine,” Navrátil said.

The main issue for Slovakia would be if Ukrainians started leaving their home country en masse, because many of them would have to cross the Schengen border between Slovakia and Ukraine. Massive emigration could be expected either if the conflict continues escalating and the immediate threat of war prevails, or if the Ukrainian regime becomes increasingly heavy handed.

“Then there is the question of how Slovakia would handle the fact that it would be forced to secure some social and economic resources for the refugees,” Navrátil said.

Status quo at the border

There has been no increase in the number of visa or residence applicants from Ukraine for now, according to Denisa Baloghová, the Police Presidium spokeswoman.

The situation in Ukraine has not required any special restrictions at the Schengen border for now, and the security situation on the border between Slovakia and Ukraine remains unchanged, Baloghová told The Slovak Spectator. However, police continue to monitor the situation.

“We have a sufficient number of forces and tools at our disposal and should the need arise, we will take adequate measures,” Baloghová said.

Stability is needed

Analysts agree that it is in the best interest of Slovakia for Ukraine to be stable again, not only because the two countries are immediate neighbours.

“These things need to be seen through the lens of the EU,” Navrátil said. “Slovakia’s EU membership means that it is not only in our interest to have stable neighbours, but it should be a priority for other member states too.”

The stability of countries that border the EU is a priority for the whole union, and the EU has been making efforts to secure the stability of its neighbours, be it those in North Africa or in Eastern Europe, through its neighbourhood policy.

“But the problem is the EU member states have a nuanced approach towards the EU’s common foreign policy, which consequently creates different dynamics in the way we approach our neighbours,” Navrátil said. “That can paradoxically lead to what we have seen in Ukraine now, where the old practices and way of doing things is attacked by new practices and challenges from the EU.”