Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ukraine Elections: Is there really a choice?

(bit of a serious post this time)

As Ukraine looks back with disappointment to the ‘Orange Revolution’ of five years ago, and ahead to this month’s presidential election, was the real failure of the Orange Revolution to allow Ukrainians to believe that they had a choice?

Amid the heavy snow and minus temperatures in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and with just 1 day to go before the first round of the presidential contest, there is a peculiarly sleepy air to what should be the vociferous climax to a pluralist election campaign. Uniform tents, differing only in slogans and colour scheme, line up outside the city’s metro stations, staffed by seed-chewing babushkas and bored students who do not seem to exude much passion for their cause. These are likely paid some small sum for their troubles, and realistically, in a country hit harder than most by the global economic downturn, it should not be surprising if people feel they have better things to do than canvass on behalf of what are seen to be self-interested politicians. One should make it clear that the self-interest is an order of magnitude greater than anything seen in the MPs expenses scandal in the UK-being in the right place at the right time will get you a country dacha outside the city limits, and perhaps even a nice dual carriageway road to get there, of the kind that much of the country is crying out for.

If you believe the poles, this comes down to a clear fight between the glamorous Yuila Tymoshenko and the proverbial back from the dead Terminator of Ukrainian politics, Viktor Yanukovych. The idealistic Yushchenko is widely seen to be heading for the political dustbin. The pragmatic Tihipko could be the dark horse, having been an advisor in the past to both leading candidates and having no particular enemies in East or West. Arseniy Yatsenyuks intelligent technocractic style seems to go over the heads of most Ukrainians, and a poorly-conceived campaign hasn’t helped. Still, one would hope there might be a cabinet job in the new administration for such a capable mind. However, the choice, whoever wins, will be a limited one. In his infamous letter to Yushchenko , Russian President Medvedev issued an apparent three line whip to whoever becomes president, covering such questions as NATO membership, Russian jurisdiction over the naval base facility in Sevastopol and even interpretation of the country’s history (Yushchenko having done much to publicise and commemorate the Holodomor of 1932-33, the artificially contrived Soviet famine that killed millions of ethnic Ukrainians).

Ukrainians it seems can only dream what would seem quite a reasonable dream, that their country, might become a normal European country, as the former Warsaw pact states of Central Europe and the Baltic States have done. One piece of good news for Ukraine at the end of 2009 was the confirmation that it will after all co-host the 2012 European football championships with Poland in the cities of Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Although to many westerners, this is a co-hosting between simply two Eastern European countries, on visiting these two countries, the contrast between the two is stark.

Although westerners tend to exaggerate the impact of the structural funds their taxes have paid for (countries such as Hungary and Czech Republic achieved massive amounts before they ever joined the EU) the difference can, at least in part, be attributed to the EU. More generally, the prize of EU membership provided a consensus for reform, modernisation, and the ability to resist the temptation towards small-minded crony capitalism.

In truth, Ukraine’s ‘non-European’ future was more or less sealed in the early 1990s. It was generally agreed that Eastern enlargement of the EU would end at the former Soviet border. This stance was then slightly modified to allow the Baltic States to join the process, a difficult and brave step even at a time when Russia was weak and still reeling from the USSR’s collapse. EU commissioner Gunter Verheugen has likened the idea of Ukraine joining the EU to that of ‘Mexico joining the United States’. That comment is rather telling. The previously friendly relations with countries such as Poland have now become, at least on a day to day basis, a trial for any Ukrainian attempting to go west.

The enlargement of the Schengen free travel area has been a catastrophe for Ukraine’s citizens. Whereas previously Ukrainians could travel freely to countries such as Poland, they now require the ever more elusive Schengen visa. The levels of rejections of visa applications by many EU states are dispiritingly high and stories abound of maltreatment of Ukrainian citizens in the EU. Even if you have the visa, the problems may not end there. I was recently told of a friend invited to Poland and in possession of the visa, but who instead had to spend 2 days effectively jailed at Katowice airport before being deported back to Ukraine, for no apparent good reason. This situation contrasts sharply with that of Serbia, whose citizens have from the beginning of this year been granted the visa-free keys to the Schengen zone. For a country where many have not been able to travel freely for years, travel to the Schengen zone ought to convince any doubters that the EU’s western liberal economic path is the one to follow. In Ukraine, this epiphany seems more remote even than it did 5 years ago. Whereas Serbia is slowly being enticed away from the Russian sphere of influence, Ukraine is being pushed firmly back into it, whether they like it or not.

The EU’s response to the Orange Revolution has been as big a failure as Yushchenko’s presidency. The message is that the club is full. Ukraine is a European country, but some countries are more European than others. The fact can also be laid bare that (as with the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership bid) that the core of the ‘old EU’ (Germany, Italy and France) value their relationships with Russia above the interests of any of the many states in between, least of all Ukraine, it seems. This is a world away from the EU that took in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece in order to shield them from sliding back into authoritarianism. In the latter case, we have a country that has taken 20 years to get up to speed as a functioning member of the EU, but we are all the better for not having left the Greeks exposed and fragile.

The west should have supported Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions for another clear reason. A modernising investment-friendly Ukraine would start to get visiting Russians thinking, perhaps even questioning whether their leaders are giving them the best deal. That process of re-evaluation, were it to eventually take root in Russia itself could make them easier to deal with in the long run. It is in our best interests that no country on our continent backslides into authoritarianism. That is why we should be respecting the Ukrainian people’s choice of 5 years ago, regardless of what takes place in the next couple of weeks.


Unknown said...

It's all right. And it's all been thought and said before. So where are we heading to from here?

Jonathan Hibberd said...

Fair enough. Nowhere fast I could say. Still, I'm not hearing the pro-EU voices enough from either the Ukraine or EU side so that's my motivation for writing. I still think the EU is (or rather would be) the key in Ukraine turning the corner. At least with Turkey there's a 'Turkey debate'. With Ukraine we don't even have the debate yet within Europe,, and we should be having it IMO. Thanks for reading anyway-sorry if it's nothing earth-shatteringly new. :)