Time to Stand Up for Democracy and Human Rights in Ukraine

These days, it is hard to imagine that a decision concerning the European Union can spark a riot.  To the majority of EU citizens, the idea of taking to the barricades to support Brussels would seem absurd. The union, seriously weakened by the recent economic crisis, battling austerity and unemployment and plagued by self-doubt, appears to be losing the faith of many Europeans. But for many Ukrainians the EU is still a political destination worth fighting for. The outcome of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit, held in Vilnius on November 28-29, triggered the largest expression of national anger seen in Ukraine since the days of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

What was going on? According to those who took to the streets in Kiev, at the Vilnius Summit Ukraine missed a key opportunity to transcend its difficult legacy and move towards prosperity, stability and liberal-democratic freedoms. After five years of complicated negotiations aimed at signing a political association and a trade deal with the EU, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to finalize the pact, opting instead for closer relations with Russia.  Yanukovych claimed that Ukraine’s dire economic situation meant he was unable to ignore the pressure exercised by Russia, but he indicated that the country was still on the path towards Europe in the long term. His opponents, however, have reacted furiously, starting mass protests in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.

Above all, the EU should ensure that the prospect of closer association to (if not full membership in) the union remains a credible possibility for Ukraine.

To make matters worse, early in the morning on November 30th, the Berkut (a special Ministry of Interior police unit) attacked demonstrators in downtown Kiev’s Independence Square, generating a large public backlash. Demonstrations continued and grew larger in the following days, despite a hastily-issued court order banning protests in downtown Kiev. Many protesters demand the removal of the president and early elections. At present, it is not clear whether the energy displayed in the streets can be maintained and whether it can be channelled into more meaningful political forms.

The decision to move away from an agreement with the EU comes at a difficult juncture in the life of Ukraine, a country that has long been plagued with misrule and rampant corruption.  Viktor Yushchenko, winner of the democratic revolution that took place a decade ago, was a major disappointment. Yanukovych’s main rival, the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, was also guilty of corruption and abuse as prime minister. And in recent years the Yanukovych government has taken the country close to the brink of financial collapse, even as his oligarchic backers have continued to grow immensely wealthy.

Yanukovych’s main aim appears to be to retain power at the next presidential election in 2015. He seems to think that Vladimir Putin,  rather than European leaders, represents a safer bet for achieving that objective—particularly in a situation in which the benefits of a closer association with the EU appeared more distant and less certain that the short-term rewards and sanctions invoked by Moscow. In this instance, Russia’s hard power (in the form of economic incentives and threats of immediate tangible sanctions should Ukraine pursue closer association with the EU) prevailed over the EU’s soft power.

Following Yanukovych’s choice to turn away from Europe, many in the EU have echoed the disappointment and frustration expressed by protesters in Kiev. EU officials worry that this move will not only undermine democratic prospects in Ukraine but also embolden Moscow to exercise growing pressure on other ex-Soviet republics such as Moldova and Georgia. As a result, the dream of expanding the zone of liberal-democratic freedoms and stability into the former Soviet republics could be compromised, and the EU’s reputation as a ‘normative power’—able to act as a magnet for emerging democracies and socialize them into liberal norms—could be severely undermined.

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Yet we should not let images of protests in Kiev lead us to the conclusion that all Ukrainians are critical of the President’s decision to move closer to Russia and away from the EU. Ukraine has long been divided by language, ethnicity, religion, culture and history. Consequently, Ukrainians have been unable to reach a consensus over the ‘true identity’—and on this basis, the desirable political destination—of their country. For some, Ukraine should head west into a liberal-democratic region of Euro-Atlantic integration; for others (particularly those who hail from the eastern part of the country), Ukraine must remain in the east, joining Putin’s attempt to construct a Moscow-dominated alternative in the space between Russia and the EU. It remains to be seen which of these visions of Ukraine will prevail in the coming years. 

While the major decisions concerning Ukraine’s future should only be made by its citizens, there are several steps the West should take if it wants to retain at least a degree of credibility as a community that defends liberal-democratic values. Above all, the EU should ensure that the prospect of closer association to (if not full membership in) the union remains a credible possibility for Ukraine. Ukrainians need to know that a meaningful partnership with the EU is not just a distant, virtually unattainable dream.

In addition—and more immediately—Canada, the EU and the US should make sure that Ukrainians are given the opportunity to make their political choices in a democratic safe environment. Western officials should make clear to Yanukovych and his cronies that should violence against protestors persist or escalate, they will be punished in the way that hurts them as directly and immediately as possible (through travel bans and bank-account freezes, for example). The country may be in a dire economic situation, but its rulers are not. The oligarchs who exercise so much politico-economic power in Kiev are more likely to react to Western reminders of the importance of respecting democratic principles if those reminders are linked to threats of immediate, highly targeted sanctions. The West should not hesitate to resort to such threats.

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