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29 October, 2011

When Human Rights Turn into a Commodity

What are the moral values of the West? To what extent can European values be betrayed in the name of promulgating them?

Up to Tymoshenko's verdict, Europe was smart with Ukraine, but the situation has changed after the verdict. Many politicians and members of the European Parliament have already expressed their skepticism about the ratification of any document between Ukraine and the European Union under current circumstances. Early this month the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe failed to include the issue of Ukraine into its agenda, although the need to do this was more than clear. Watching the legal system being used to settle scores with political opponents was a painful blow to European values. Indeed, this has happened before in some member states; this time, however, the total failure to react was unprecedented. Stefan Füle, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, was also unexpectedly mild towards Ukraine. He frankly points at former presidential candidates in Belarus as political prisoners but would not deem it proper in the case of Ukraine. We are told that the problem is in the weak legal system or in judges who lack experience, but not in political prisoners as such.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko and Valeriy Ivashchenko remain imprisoned precisely at the time when Ukraine is waiting for the EU to decide on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Is it reasonable to sign an agreement on trade issues and legal acts with a state that has political prisoners? More than doubtful indeed, as the political prestige of Europe would be damaged.

Does Ukraine need an association agreement? Yes, desperately! Ukraine is the pointer of balance between Europe and Russia; the master of geopolitical initiative becomes the one to whom it extends. But that is not all yet; I am not actually a big fan of geopolitical rhetoric. What really matters is the fate of Ukrainians: what kind of future is in store for them, will it be democracy or autocracy; will a citizen be respected or not?

The air is thick with conspiratorial theories. Some say President Yanukovych is sincere in his effort to move towards Europe, but his apparatus, full of Russian FSB agents, has served Ukraine the dirty dish of imprisoned politicians. Others portray the Ukrainian President as a simpleton who cannot stand the temptation to seek personal vengeance upon Ms. Tymoshenko.

These stories are whispered into the ears of European politicians; I heard them too. Fables of this kind are aimed at convincing everyone that Ukraine should not be criticized: just turn a blind eye, at least until the association agreement is signed. And don’t forget that East and West are on the scales.

According to conspiracy theories, Ms. Tymoshenko and other politicians are victims of the Russian FSB who made them political prisoners. Those agents are aiming to sink Ukraine’s hopes to join Europe. Hence, those Europeans who demand the release of Ms.Tymoshenko are naive useful idiots playing into the hands of the FSB.

Experience, however, calls for caution regarding such kind of reasoning. All this has happened before, déjà vu! Each time when Russia’s rulers sinned against human rights we heard the same old excuse: be careful, someone worse may take their place! What is indeed unusual is that there is no such talk now about the third coming of Putin, merely because there is nothing worse to threaten with.

Nearly a decade ago, when the hopes for emerging democracy in Azerbaijan collapsed, new political prisoners filled the cells and the ruling clan took power with an iron grip, there was similar talk: let’s pardon them, let’s turn a blind eye. There was no association agreement at stake, but there was a gas pipeline along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route.

The pipeline was important for Europe then and remains so today. The question, though, is rather one of whether it is possible to buy yourself out of human rights with gas and oil as Azerbaijan hoped then and hopes now? Azerbaijan is a wealthy country and its rulers genuinely believe that selling mineral wealth and doing intensive lobby work can pipe down Western politicians; achieve positive reports and wide support.

With Belarus, the haggling goes another way. Deep in economic troubles, this country is being offered help and loans if political prisoners are released. Such an approach offends human rights activists in Belarus. They ask: what are moral values of the West? How much money per prisoner is gained as ransom? How soon will the authorities pick another group of subversives to capitalize on their release?

The main question for Europe is whether European values can be betrayed in the name of promulgating them and to what extent. But this is exactly what happens when an opposition leader is sentenced to seven years in prison at the time of the signing of an association agreement.


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