I was in Chicago last week to attend a conference on Ukraine. I was part of a panel that discussed “Perceptions of Ukraine in a Strategic Framework,” including Ukrainian-EU relations, at the Assessing Ukraine/NATO relations on the eve of the Chicago NATO Summit conference.
The situation is depressing, with relations in a crisis, increasingly politicized and likely to deteriorate further, with talk of isolation and sanctions.
The decision by a Ukrainian court in 2011 to jail former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of power while in office, along with a number of her former colleagues, has dominated relations for the last year. These developments have been widely condemned in the West as politically motivated, and Kyiv has been told it must “buck this trend.” This includes bringing an end to selective justice, carrying out judicial reform, strengthening the rule of law, fighting corruption and holding parliamentary elections in October that are deemed up to international standards. If this does not happen, at the very least the signature of an Association Agreement, including an integral Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that Ukraine and the EU have spent the last five years negotiating, will remain on ice. This was underlined again earlier this week in a new European Parliament Resolution. Indeed, Ukraine’s relations with the EU today have become a one-issue affair. Interestingly, the Tymoshenko issue has been given far more attention outside of Ukraine than inside, where the population remains disillusioned with all its politicians.
Ukraine is a beautiful county, and a geostrategic lynchpin. It is rich in natural resources with vast potential. However, Ukraine is also a complex, vulnerable country with deep divisions. These divisions have played into this vulnerability, which has had a considerable impact on Ukraine’s development. The country has spent much of the last 20 years standing still, which has hobbled its modernization and helped preserve a Soviet culture. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s political elites have done little to help their country. For much of the last two decades, Ukraine has been cursed by corrupt politicians more interested in pursuing their own interests than helping their citizens. This has been exacerbated by Russia, which still has great influence on Ukraine and whose leadership still views Ukraine as almost an extension of itself. The EU has maintained an ambiguous approach to deepening ties with Ukraine, which declared its geostrategic choice as Europe years ago. Rather, it has been something of a dialogue of the deaf, each speaking over the other.
In two weeks, Ukraine will co-host the Euro 2012 football championship with Poland. Ukrainians have been looking forward to this for a long time. Unfortunately, the occasion has “lost its shine” because of a decision by numerous European officials to boycott it -- principally as a consequence of the Tymoshenko case. Tymoshenko is currently in the Ukrainian Railway Hospital under the supervision of a German doctor, following months of concern over her health and the treatment she was receiving. To me, such a boycott simply serves to undermine the positive image of the EU amongst ordinary Ukrainians, many of whom cannot understand why the EU is linking politics with sport and spoiling their moment in the sun.
Recent efforts by Ukraine to re-launch EU-related reforms have been swept aside, while Kyiv’s numerous efforts to try to explain itself have not been successful. Today, there is little interest in hearing any more explanations from Kyiv; rather, the EU wants concrete action. Recent promises made to the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov have offered a glimmer of hope. Azarov committed to allowing Shultz to send an independent medical team and a legal expert who, according to Azarov, would have access to the Tymoshenko dossier and be able to closely monitor the ongoing legal proceedings. The Ministry of Justice has also announced the recruitment of American law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to review the Tymoshenko case.
While there may be good reason to criticize Ukraine, some in the EU seem to have gone too far. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that Ukraine is a dictatorship was, in my opinion, too much, yet very much in-line with the policy Germany has adopted regarding Ukraine for years. Yes, there are worrying trends in Ukraine that need to be addressed, but Ukraine is not a dictatorship. Civil society remains strong; there remains an active and vocal opposition and freedom of speech still exists. One only has to switch on a television or read one of the many articles that are published in the newspapers every day, criticizing the government.
Ukraine’s leadership has a difficult task ahead of it if it is to exit the wilderness it has taken itself into. If it does not, the future looks very bleak. Yet isolating Ukraine is not the answer. Ukraine needs to be engaged because the EU needs to give some sort of perspective to Ukrainian citizens; this should include the continuation of negotiations for visa liberalization that have so far not been affected.