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30 January, 2012  ▪  Ivan Halaichenko

A Soft Wall

The Ukrainian government may lose its last allies in Europe with its intransigence on human rights and political repression

The Ukrainian government has essentially refused to satisfy demands to cease repression and respect human rights and this is prompting the West to launch mechanisms that will condition all of Ukraine’s foreign initiatives by the state of democracy inside the country. This issue has demonstrated, once again, the mental abyss dividing our leadership and Western officials and diplomats.

STICK OR CARROT?

It was with some apprehension that Kyiv awaited Europe’s reaction to Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest. When it was not followed with sanctions, such as no-entry or frozen accounts, it relaxed and began to view the West as incapable of “serious” influence.

Meanwhile, the EU and its frontrunners, as well as the leadership of other European agencies, are pursuing a long-term scenario of guiding Ukraine in the right direction by applying “soft pressure”. It is as if they are saying: If you don’t want to meet your commitments before Europe and insist on your right to establish a Russian-style regime and put European integration on the back-burner, fine, that is your right. But don’t come asking us for help then. And if you do, be prepared to first report on your progress in honoring your commitments.

From inside Ukraine this approach appears inefficient and even somewhat strange: our government has not experienced any palpable pressure in the first several months after Europe took this approach. Even to the contrary, it continues to make decisions which Europe has opposed most vigorously as if bragging.

Europe’s strategy is aimed at a long-term goal and permits Europeans to work out an adequate approach to our country, which is not very high on the European agenda at the moment. It also lets Ukrainian leaders feel what it is like to slide to the margins of European life and into the company of Aleksandr Lukashenka. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had the chance to experience it in full measure when he goes to Davos.

AGAINST THE WALL

Reshuffles in the leadership of a series of European institutions will not be conducive to the Ukrainian government as it attempts to pull itself out of the diplomatic trap into which it has voluntarily plunged. Jean-Claude Mignon of France replaced the loyal Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey as PACE President. Moreover, France supported some of the most stringent sanctions against Ukraine in connection with the Tymoshenko case, and Mignon is a member of the European People’s Party, which has been one of Europe’s most active advocates of Tymoshenko and other political prisoners. Naturally, the office of the PACE President involves making use of decision-making mechanisms and agreements between factions, but the chairman still has a strong impact on procedures and processes in the Assembly.

Furthermore, the experienced and ambitious Serhiy Holovaty has been replaced by Yulia Lovochkina as Ukraine’s representative to the monitoring committee. While this appears to boost the “international representation” of Yanukovych’s inner circle, it may also open a veritable “second front” in its rear. The “Orange” Ukrainian government saw for itself in 2007 that Holovaty does not let anyone frustrate his ambitions, and he is sure to take action against the Party of Regions in PACE.

Another representative body that holds sway with European bureaucrats, the European Parliament, has also got a new leader. Jerzy Buzek of Poland, who had contacts with various political forces in Ukraine, has been replaced by German Social Democrat Martin Schulz. Observers believe that Schulz will be paying more attention to the EU’s internal issues.

Some in the Party of Regions even hastened to applaud the changes, thinking that the flow of statements and demands addressed to the Ukrainian government over repressions in Ukraine may decline. Moreover, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament has a cooperation agreement with the Party of Regions.

However, this group’s spokesmen recently began to speak about an “evaluation” of this agreement and expectations of a “strong signal” from the Party of Regions regarding “progress in the protection of human rights and the rule of law which are the foundations of European integration.” Otherwise the cooperation agreement may be called into question.

Because no such signals, either strong or weak, are expected, for obvious reasons the European socialists may have to make a choice. Now, choosing between a sense of consensus with other factions (needed to pass difficult anti-crisis decisions) and partnership with the Party of Regions is a no brainer.

Consequently, the Ukrainian government finds itself pressed against a wall: representative bodies of European institutions will continue to generate, or will even step up, their statements and demands, pointing out the undemocratic nature of the Ukrainian leadership. The appeal to release Tymoshenko, Lutsenko and others is repeated like a refrain in communication between European politicians and our officials. Against this informational and political background, it is impossible for Yanukovych & Co. to obtain any decisions in Europe that would benefit them.

HOW STRONG IS “SOFT POWER”?
Of course, this situation poses no direct threat to the business or administrative interests of the Ukrainian establishment. However, it has an important far-reaching effect. Above all, the refrain about “Tymoshenko, Lutsenko and others” is something not only European officials but also citizens have come to associate with the state of Ukraine.

Thus, the leading EU members and the European Union in general can enter into any meaningful cooperation with Ukraine only after Kyiv has fundamentally changed its position. It is becoming increasingly apparent that cooperation is possible only after the political composition of the Ukrainian authorities changes. And this will lead to further consequences.

Among other things, the budget may not receive the currency influx from European tourists because few of them will come. That the absolute majority of soccer teams decided to lodge in Poland for Euro 2012 may be a warning: fans could follow suit.

The perception of Ukraine as a non-free country dictates a similar view on elections. Our opposition will have no problem convincing Europeans that its “victory has been stolen” if, of course, it does not discredit itself with infighting or other unfortunate moves during the parliamentary race.

In 2004, the world’s attitude to events in Ukraine was one of the powerful factors that mobilized Ukrainian citizens and confirmed the international legitimacy of their struggle. Now the government’s actions again make the opposition’s protests appear as a struggle for freedom. In this case, attempts to forcefully suppress them, even if successful, will pave the way to the direct and palpable visa and financial sanctions that the Ukrainian government feared in connection with the Tymoshenko case.

There is no way out of this trap for the Ukrainian authorities. More precisely, a solution does exist, but it will require an about-face in their attitude to society, the opposition and international commitments. As the past two years have shown, such hopes are utopian. Therefore, Europeans may be right from their perspective when, instead of expending their nerves and resources to “restrain” the Ukrainian leaders, they are softly pushing them into a dead end.


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