East or West? The two faces of Ukraine.

Article published on Dec. 30, 2002
community published
Article published on Dec. 30, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The EU could have major influence and a positive impact on the everyday lives of the people living in Ukraine. It could use its power positively to make sure that democracy takes root, that durable institutions are constructed, that basic freedoms are ensured. So, is the EU doing what it can? Or is Ukraine too close for comfort?

A presidential regime racked by scandal

After the iron curtain fell, and the ex-Soviet States had in quick succession declared their independence, most of these made clear their choice either to forge closer relations with their western European partners or to focus their attentions on close relations with the CIS and Russia. For countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, now accession States in the European Union, the European choice was clear. For others further afield like Uzbekistan and Krygystan, the Russian choice was obvious. But somewhere in the middle lie Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova - for these countries the choice is more difficult.

The president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, is more pro-Russian in his outlook. Although he pays lip-service to the country's European aspirations, he has done little to really pursue them. Proof of this, on a basic level, is that the great majority of Ukraine's trade is with the CIS and Russia in particular, and that the border between Russia and Ukraine has still not been officially agreed.

More significant are the scandals that have racked Kuchma throughout his two presidential terms. A few examples. In November 2000 the headless body of journalist Georgy Gongadze was found in woods in a suburb of Kiev. Subsequently, tapes were uncovered of Kuchma telling someone to "deal with" Mr Gongadze. He was an investigative journalist critical of the president. A more recent example is the Kolchuga scandal, where Ukraine was accused of selling the Kolchuga early-warning detection system to Iraq. Kuchma denies this, but ended up having to gatecrash the recent NATO summit in Prague, where he was in any case universally snubbed.

The respect of Western European democratic ideals are hardly evident. Kuchma has introduced constitutional amendments to strengthen his position compared to that of the Parliament and the prime minister. Opposition leaders have been ousted and harrassed, for example opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was arrested in February 2001, and two months later the then pro-European prime minister Yushchenko's Parliament fell. Since then, the president's faction has taken power in the Parliament - but not in a transparent or (apparently) fair way. Observers of the elections that took place in March 2002 found thousands of polling stations understaffed, names of dead people still on the electoral register, and campaign propaganda in public buildings - but only for certain candidates. Opposition leaders were involved in inexplicable car accidents throughout the campaign. Since the elections Kuchma has "forced businessmen to join his United Ukraine faction to make it the largest as a way to have the head of the presidential administration elected speaker" (Taras Kuzio, 'Ukraine-EU: A Troubled Relationship, Russia and Eurasia Review, 1:3 2002).

Mixed messages from the EU

The basis for Ukraine's adopting European democratic institutions and values is the Partnership & Co-operation Agreement (PCA) signed with the EU in June 1994. The EU was as quick as it can be (i.e. not very) in signing these agreements with ex-Soviet States as a good will gesture following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The agreement provides for bilateral institutions, where meetings are held between ministers, civil servants, and parliamentarians of the two signatories. The apparent aim of the agreement is to stimulate trade between the two, and to provide "a framework for political relations based on democratic values". The agreement was followed up with an EU Common Strategy on Ukraine in December 1999 which, among other things, was supposed to support the development of a durable democracy and democratic institutions in Ukraine.

However, little has been done on either side to really work towards the goals of either agreement. As seen already, there is scant evidence of a true effort for reform by Kuchma in Ukraine, and the EU has done little to condemn the situation there, or to force the reform agenda by giving clear promises as an incentive. As so many have said before, the EU should at least give the Ukraine a straight answer. So far, Ukraine's 'European aspirations' have not formally been acknowledged. Every few weeks it seems that a contradictory message is seen in the press from one Member State leader, Commissioner, or Parliamentarian. The latest was Romano Prodi's announcement in Italian newspaper La Stampa that Ukraine would never become a member. As well as these contradictory messages, the EU is demanding that accession countries strengthen their borders, which in Poland's case means strengthening the border with Ukraine. What kind of message does that give when coupled with the noble words on co-operation, strategic partnership and so on of the PCA?

This may be explained by the fact that Kuchma's presidency will draw to an end in 2004 - the Ukraine's Constitution only allowing a president to serve two terms. It appears that those in high places see Kuchma as the main obstacle to any real partnership between the EU and Ukraine. Perhaps nothing is being done in the hope of a pro-European figure like Yushchenko becoming president. Or perhaps the reason for the lack of a clear position is the depressing one that the EU cares much more about her (strategically more important) relations with Russia. Any formal recognition of Ukraine's desire to accede or at least become a full partner of the EU could damage those relations.

Too close for comfort?

Stepping away from the intricacies and above all the geography of this problem makes it much clearer. We are asking ourselves how the EU can have a positive influence on a developing democracy. This can be done in many different ways, albeit debatable in their effectiveness. It can be done through punishment of repressive regimes through travel bans as has been seen with Zimbabwe. It can be done through opening up the EU market to exports as long as certain criteria are fulfilled, as with the Everything But Arms Initiative. It can be done by giving accession dates, as with the 10 countries who will join the EU in 2004. Or it can be done through properly implemented partnership agreements, through conditional promises of a free trade area, through financial assistance... There is certainly no shortage of suggestions.

When applying these ideas to the Ukraine, however, geography seems to get in the way. The fact that the EU should try and help peoples whose basic freedoms are in jeopardy no matter where they are in the world seems to be forgotten when the problem is too close to home. All debate on how to ensure real democracy in the Ukraine through an EU effort seems to be bogged down with the question of whether or not they should be allowed to join the Union one day, on what choice they have made between east and west. We end up talking about geography - where does Europe end, is it from the Atlantic to the Urals? If Ukraine joins can Russia join? And then we generally end up talking about Turkey..

As many others do, I personally believe in Europe as an idea rather than a simple geographical unit or a trade organisation. And if we believe in European democracy, and in helping our fellow man, then we have to drop all this debate and do something to promote durable democracy in Ukraine. And Belarus, and Moldova. Because regardless of whether they ever join the Union or not, they must still have the right to basic freedoms. The efforts of the Union should not be dependent on a choice between Russia and Europe, a choice that would in any case be false because none of these countries could ignore a neighbour and a close economic partner of such importance. In conclusion then - forget about geography, think about the people. Whatever really happened to Georgy Gongadze, it should never happen again.