By ROMAN SOHN
KIEV – EU capitals are beginning to reassess the Ukrainian people’s European aspirations, with attitudes shifting from wary “acknowledgements” to consideration of a real enlargement perspective.
The EU is still divided, but more positive messages from Berlin and Brussels, as well as Budapest, Warsaw, and Vilnius, reflect the importance of the popular uprising in Ukraine for the future of the continent.
It is high time: The EU’s language of “concern” has worn thin on the cold streets of Kiev.
Without a geostrategic vision for post-Soviet Europe, the EU’s “wait and see” policy has aggravated the risk of instability in the region.
It has been shown, time and again, that if you leave a country in Russia’s sphere of influence, there is no chance of modernisation or democracy. But the “EuroMaidan” movement also shows that Ukrainians are not willing to be a buffer zone between the Eurasian Union and the European Union.
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a recent interview the West underestimated Russian determination on Ukraine.
Ukrainian opposition leaders are warning that Russian interference will stop at nothing, even if it risks breaking Ukraine apart.
How could EU governments let things get so bad on their own doorstep?
After the Orange Revolution, when President Viktor Yushchenko came to power in 2005, his genuine devotion to democracy and euro-integration was ‘rewarded’ by a cold shoulder from leading EU governments.
Surviving a failed power grab by Yulia Tymoshenko in September 2005, continuous threats of impeachment and blackmail on account of his health, and political assaults by Moscow, Yushchenko managed to steer the country to become a stronghold of democracy in the region.
In a very short time, freedom of speech and assembly, free media, free elections, a free, transparent, and competitive politics came to be taken for granted.
Ukrainians got used to the new reality: limited presidential powers; coalition governments; political responsibility; early elections; and opposition parties winning elections.
Their economic well-being also improved dramatically.
Some failed to appreciate what they had: Ukraine’s post-totalitarian, post-genocidal, and post-colonial society finds it hard to fully digest modernity.
But, at the same time, it would be hard for anyone outside Ukraine to imagine the onslaught on ‘orange’ democracy that we have witnessed over the past five years.
From dawn till dusk, the new democratic norms have been portrayed by their opponents as chaos, disorder, Western colonisation, betrayal of traditional values, fascism.
At times, even those who claimed to support democracy made attacks on the new order.
I am thinking of the”behind closed doors” deal between the Block of Yulia Tymoshenko and today’s ruling party, the Party of Regions, to rewrite the constitution in order to establish full control – what we call the “PRyBYut.”
I am also thinking of the infamous TV appearance by the then PM Yulia Tymoshenko in which she hinted that Ukrainians desire to live in a dictatorship.
The almost empty streets of Kiev the day she was arrested speak louder than EU capitals’ eulogies in her name. A former US ambassador to Ukraine, John E. Herbst, recently told Ukrainska Pravda, a leading independent publication, that he considers her an oligarch no different to the oligarchs of Ukraine’s lawless 1990s.
Meanwhile, Russia, which has a very strong media presence in Ukraine, has done all it can to discredit colour revolutions lest they disturb its own stale, authoritarian atmosphere.
Its pay-offs to pro-Russian groups, gas and trade wars, and the military intervention and occupation in Georgia, have all done their damage.
It is hardly mentioned in European media that the EuroMaidan protests are known in Ukraine as a revolution “against-alls” – a term reflecting the fact that many Ukrainians voted against both President Viktor Yanukovych and Tymoshenko in 2010 because they do not trust either of them.
During the whole ‘orange’ period, EU leaders, for the most part, played the role of bystanders.
Were they hoping Ukraine could make it on its own? That Yushchenko’s personal determination would be enough when its application for a Nato Membership Action Plan was rejected in 2008? When talks over the EU association agreement dragged out endlessly? When Russian pressure turned to gas and trade wars? When Russia invaded Ukraine’s fellow EU and Nato aspirant, Georgia?
EU pragmatism in the region did not reflect the Union’s values.
Needless to say, those Ukrainians who support European integration felt betrayed.
We must concede that the authoritarian relapse in Ukraine happened, in no small part, because EU governments declined to offer instrumental support for nascent democracy.
And so, in recent years, European integration has become a hard sell in Ukraine.
We have watched the EU contort and eat itself in the economic crisis. We have heard nothing but the Big Lies of Russian propaganda: that the EU represents moral degradation, sin, catastrophe, conspiracy, and enslavement.
The Eastern Partnership policy, launched five years ago, was too little too late.
In the current situation, the EU should go beyond the rhetoric of the association treaty on Ukraine’s European identity: It should offer a clear prospect of future EU membership.
It should also show good will on visa-free travel, at the least for students and civil society. Ukraine itself abolished visas for EU citizens in 2005, and opponents of EU integration have used this asymmetry to claim that Ukrainians are more welcome, that they belong more, in the east than in the west.
EU governments should also help the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg to speed up its work.
We are still waiting for a decision in the landmark case on Tymoshenko. Over 1,200 other cases involving Ukrainian citizens are pending. A more effective ECHR would make a big difference to their lives.
Beyond this, the international community needs to develop a comprehensive package of measures to help transitional states hold the line against regressive forces.
Ukraine is a model case for how national institutions fail on their own: When anti-democratic forces take power, they turn state machinery on its head. They rewrite the law to put their opponents outside the law. They use the state apparatus – be it judicial, financial, or the more vulgar force of police and intelligence services – to crush people on the other side.
Our perverted institutions are loyal to their new masters. Ukrainians have no legal way to bring about change, and this is why some of the protests turned violent.
Stolen from the people
Ukraine has been stolen from the people by a political mafia.
Its independent media has published report after report, at grave personal risk to the investigative journalists who do the work, on how the elite launders its ill-gotten gains in European banks: names; figures; dates; documents; organigrammes. But we have not seen a single criminal investigation from the EU side.
The Ukraine crisis shows the failure of pragmatism in EU foreign policy.
Its tender solicitude for Russian and EU economic interests has facilitated the rise of a neo-Soviet Eurasian Union which poses a genuine threat to European stability.
Its attempts to pick favourites in Ukrainian politics, turning a blind eye to their abuses, has aggravated the division between the Ukrainian elite and the Ukrainian people.
Credible news emerged in recent days of secret talks between Yanukovych’s chief-of-staff and Tymoshenko. She has denied it, but it is stoking fears of a new PRyBYut pact.
The EuroMaidan does not want Western darlings with criminal pasts, who bring “stability.”
It wants true democratic change and a new generation of leaders.
The EU in its essence is a Union of values. But even from a reapolitik point of view, the EU’s mishandling of the Ukraine crisis poses a threat to its own interests.
We are talking here about a country of 46 million people. If the situation spirals into civil war, it will be very bad news for neighboring EU states. According to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, his government is already making preparations on how to deal with Ukrainian refugees.
Bold measures – an enlargement perspective, visa-free travel, an EU crackdown on Eurasian criminality – are needed for the sake of the Ukrainian people and EU self-interest.
Kwasniewski recently said: “Ukraine is not an ideal country, nor will it be one for a long time to come.” The EU is not ideal either.
But the EuroMaidan shows that Ukrainian people are ready to do their homework and that the EU is worth fighting for.
The writer is an activist and a columnist, who is a frequent contributor to Ukrainska Pravda, an independent online publication in Ukraine