Steven Pifer: The West now views Ukraine as a country that has gone off the democratic track
Steven Pifer, long-time diplomat and US Ambassador to Ukraine in 1998-2000, has been known for reserved comments on the Ukrainian government. However, in his latest interview for The Ukrainian Week, Mr. Pifer sharply criticized the backslide on democracy in Ukraine and outlined the impact the October parliamentary election might have on the Ukrainian government’s future relationship with the West.
UW: Can you comment on the statement from the US State Department and the reaction of other Western countries regarding the Ukrainian election?
If you look at how the US State Department, the EU and most European capitals reacted, it was pretty much a sense of disappointment about this election. It is not so much about what happened on Sunday (October 28, the election day – Ed.) because the voting looked like it went fairly well. It’s what happened before, like the abuse of administrative resources, uneven access to the media, questions about the transparency of the Central Election Commission’s operations. And, of course two of the main opposition leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko, were in jail. Compared to the presidential election in 2010 or parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007, this election was a significant step backwards.
UW: So, now that election is over and the State Department has commented on it, what’s next?
I think we will have to wait and see. The Yanukovych Administration had the chance to run a good election and get good marks. Some were ready to say that would have been enough for us to engage Ukraine in a more positive way. That argument can’t be made now because the election process was not seen as a step forward. I think Washington and other capitals will see this as just another piece of evidence of the Yanukovych Administration moving away from a democratic course. It cannot be good for Ukraine’s relations with the US and Europe.
UW: Could you explain the latest statement from the State Department and the resolution from the US Congress and Senate? What do they mean?
Both resolutions reflect what the Congress really thinks about Ukraine. Administration officials have said that they are not considering sanctions against Ukraine at this point. However, the most recent resolution put forward by Senator Richard Durbin and approved by the Senate in September, called for visa sanctions against specific Ukrainians. I know that some in Ukraine said that the process was not correct or that it was not legitimate (among others, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued such a statement – Ed.). The most striking thing about that was that not a single senator spoke out against the resolution — and the US Congress has been very friendly towards Ukraine for the past 20 years. Now no-one is ready to defend the Ukrainian government. That suggests that the Congress now views Ukraine as a country that has gone off the democratic track. That’s a real problem.
UW: What do you mean when you talk about sanctions?
I’d like to make it clear that there is a separation between the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. The resolutions targeted specific individuals who are responsible for the democratic regression that we are witnessing. I think it is still too early to talk about the application of real sanctions by the Congress. What Kyiv should find worrisome is the fact that this conversation was not even being held just a year-and-a-half ago.
UW: Has there been a precedent of applying similar sanctions? The Congress has just passed the Magnitsky Act, but the Senate has not. What does this mean?
The House of Representatives voted on November 16 to pass the Magnitsky Act. The Administration had said that it already put a number of people connected to the case on a no-visa list. It did so partly because it would have liked to retain the right to impose this sort of sanction as an administrative decision, rather than as a result of Congressional action. Ten years ago, the US applied visa sanctions against some people from Belarus. So, there have been cases when the US government resorted to this, but it preferred to do so via administrative or executive decisions, rather than through the law. Ukraine is certainly not Belarus so far, but it is moving in that direction. Look at the very negative reaction from Moscow to the talk about applying sanctions in the Magnitsky Act. I think these kinds of sanctions do have an impact. And I think some people in the Congress are ready to use that approach as a potential tool if Ukraine continues to regress from the democratic path.
UW: Besides the election, what else could trigger sanctions?
There are many different problems with democracy in Ukraine. One is the conduct of elections – the 2012 parliamentary election and the 2010 local election. In both cases, the processes seemed to be not as good as the presidential election in early 2010 or the parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007. Another concern is the way that the Constitutional Court just decided to tear up the Constitution it had been operating under for five years, and change it to grant more power to the President. There is also concern about how the Verkhovna Rada has operated, and the arrests of other members of the previous government that are now in jail. That is something that never happened in Ukraine before. Only under this Administration have you had cases where officials from a previous government that lost went to jail. When it comes to charges against Tymoshenko for abuse of power because she allegedly cut a bad gas deal with Russia, the argument in the West would be that that was a political decision and she should be punished for it politically. And she was when she lost the election in 2010. Nobody in the West sees this as a criminal matter. And, certainly, the way the trial was conducted was seen as a farce in the West. No matter how much we are told that this was under Ukrainian legal procedures, this will not persuade the West. I regret to say all this. In 2010, I was one of the people who said that we ought to give Yanukovych a chance. He was elected in a free and fair process back then. He had an opportunity. But, unfortunately, we’ve been seeing consistent regression on democracy. After Yanukovych became president, there was an assumption in Washington that Ukraine did not want to join NATO. It seemed pretty clear that the Ukrainian population was not interested in joining NATO. And that was fine – that was a decision for Ukraine. I think Washington concluded in 2010 that the best way for Ukraine to draw closer to Europe back then was to get closer to the EU. But this democratic regression is making it harder and harder.
UW: How will Obama’s victory affect US relations with Ukraine? Many experts claim that the White House is ready to view Ukraine as Russia’s sphere of influence as a result of the US-Russia relations reboot.
I think the Administration of Barack Obama has been quite critical of Russia. The number of statements made by the White House and the State Department concerning democracy developments in Russia within the past four years has been striking. You will probably find more statements by the Obama Administration than you did from the Bush Administration. Ukraine should not only be considered in the context of relations with Russia. Ukraine may be held to a different standard than Russia, for two reasons. One may seem somewhat unfair. When the US is engaged in negotiations with Russia, there are a lot of other really big issues for the US Government, such as arms control, Iran and Afghanistan. In this sense, democracy in Russia is just one of many issues. There are probably not so many big issues on Washington or Europe’s agenda where Ukraine comes up, so democracy may get more attention. That’s not fair to Ukraine. The other difference - this one fair enough - is that Yanukovych has been saying consistently that he wants to join Europe and see Ukraine as a modern European state. So, Ukraine is held to a different standard than Russia, because Ukraine has articulated the goal of joining Europe. Unfortunately, having set that bar so high, the Ukrainian government is falling short of that standard under President Yanukovych. And it may be bad geopolitically for the West if Ukraine aligns more closely with Russia. But that threat doesn’t have any weight in the US or Europe. Closer integration with Russia may be a lot worse for Ukraine.
Steven Pifer was the United States Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000. He is now Senior Advisor with the Washington-based Brookings Institution focusing on arm controls in Ukraine and Russia. He served at the State Department for over 25 years and the US embassies in London, Moscow, Geneva and Warsaw. In 1996-1997, Mr. Pifer was special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.