How Ukraine Might Blow Its Historic Opportunity

February 22, 2013 Topic: European UnionGlobal Governance Region: Ukraine

How Ukraine Might Blow Its Historic Opportunity

Kiev has a chance to move toward the European Union, but its political closure could prevent that.

The freeing of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister controversially convicted for transgression of competencies, will have to be part of Ukraine’s image-improvement campaign. One could even argue that for reasons of state this should happen whether Tymoshenko is guilty or not. Her imprisonment is a risky endeavor and political poker game, as it further polarizes an already divided country and sets a dangerous precedent of political losers ending up in prison. Tymoshenko’s incarceration has, for many Europeans, become the major symbol of Ukraine’s clinging to the Soviet past. To the average European, putting a country’s major opposition leader—especially a female one—behind bars is by itself unacceptable. It looks even more dubious when seen in combination with various other regressions of Yanukovich’s regime, like the change of constitution or formation of a turncoats’ coalition, both in the newly elected President’s favor, in 2010. Some Western observers, to be sure, have claimed that Tymoshenko’s behavior may not have always been impeccable. Yet, even among these critics, there would be hardly any who doubt that the opposition leader’s arrest, trial and imprisonment are manifestations of Ukraine’s authoritarianism rather than rule of law.

The simultaneous imprisonment of another opposition leader, Yurii Lutsenko, Ukraine’s former interior minister, has been raising even more eyebrows among Western Ukraine watchers than the arrest of the former prime minister. In Tymoshenko’s case, at least, the court’s accusations had been grave—although they were not dealt with, as the EU argues, in a properly law-based court trial. In the case of Lutsenko, however, his sentence always appeared as grossly disproportionate to his supposed misdoings—even if they had all been true. The Ukrainian leadership has become a victim of its own propaganda: in its suppression of political opposition it has lost sight of any proportion, and talked itself into an alternate reality of EU-Ukraine relations.

While Ukraine has a unique chance with the scheduled signing of the agreement this year, it simultaneously faces enormous risks until the next presidential elections in 2015. Whether economic growth, financial stability, interethnic relations, energy security, social cohesion or relations with Russia, Ukraine will be confronted with daring challenges that may bring the country to the verge of collapse. For the nascent Ukrainian state to hold together in stormy times, a signed EU Association Agreement could provide a rallying point and glimpse of hope.

Ukraine’s European integration is, to one degree or another, supported by all major Ukrainian political forces, large swaths of the population and almost the entire intellectual elite. It would be sad—and, in a worst-case scenario, catastrophic—if the Ukrainians miss this opportunity to finally determine their destiny.

Dr. Andreas Umland is DAAD Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of “Kiev-Mohyla Academy,” a member of the Valdai Discussion Club, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society”.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fry1989. CC BY-SA 3.0.