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6 June, 2011  ▪  Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich

With Democracy on Their Lips

Western leaders' selective approach to “defending civic rights” plays into the hands of Yanukovych

On Friday, May 27, 20 presidents of European countries came to Warsaw to attend the 17th summit of Central and Eastern European countries. U.S. President Barack Obama joined them in the evening to kick off his two-day visit to Poland.

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski spoke about democracy on numerous occasions during the two days of the summit, but Warsaw looked more like a heavily guarded bulwark in the era of stagnant communist during a visit of, say, Kim Il-sung, than a European capital welcoming friends. The locals were shooed away having their bus route changed and were kept out of places where the presidents were scheduled to stop or spent the night. The guests speed back and forth in motorcades with sirens a-blazing. You would think that half the Poles had joined al-Qaida to revenge the death of bin Laden.

Serbian President Boris Tadić was conspicuously absent – he was outraged that an invitation was also extended to Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo, whose country remains unrecognized by many countries. The Slovak and Romanian leaders wanted to turn down their invitations for the same reason, but Ivan Gašparovič “let himself be persuaded.” The president of Ukraine was, in contrast, held in special respect: Mr. Komorowski, who greeted each guest in front of the Royal Castle, took more time to speak with Czech President Václav Klaus and the most with Viktor Yanukovych. He announced that the next summit would take place in Kyiv, adding: “This is important for Ukraine’s European aspirations which Poland supports.”

On Friday noon, before the dinner of European presidents with Mr. Obama, Mr. Komorowski had three personal meetings, including one with Mr. Yanukovych. An official announcement was made that during Polish presidency in the EU, which is scheduled to start on July 1, Poland will work toward signing an EU-Ukraine association agreement. For some reason, Mr. Yanukovych tended to appear before TV cameras more often than others. When Mr. Obama had just arrived and found himself within an arm’s reach from Mr. Yanukovych, the latter simply grabbed him, pulled him closer and motioned to the photographer. How the U.S. president reacted remains unknown, because a mysterious palm covered the camera’s lens.

That same day, after the joint dinner with the European leaders, Mr. Obama found time to meet with Mr. Yanukovych in the presence of just Mr. Komorowski. Strange information was immediately leaked: “The chief of the Polish president’s press bureau informed about this unscheduled conversation among the three presidents.” The chancellery had no further details to offer. Prior to the summit there was unofficial information from government circles that the recent attempt to arrest Yulia Tymoshenko could be raised in Warsaw. However, Andrii Honcharuk, counsellor to Mr. Yanukovych for international affairs, argued that he would be speaking about the growth of democracy in Ukraine rather than explaining the Tymoshenko case. Now wrap your head around this: the meeting was unscheduled, but the topic for discussion was known in advance? Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the summit a rumor was circulating that Ukrainian diplomats had exerted a great effort to make this “unscheduled” meeting happen and that Mr. Komorowski had spoken “warmly” with Ms. Tymoshenko over the telephone.

The internal Ukrainian face-off reached Warsaw in the form of a warning about a possible provocation allegedly prepared by Ukrainian special services to damage Ukrainian-Polish relations and thus cool the latter’s zeal to drag Ukraine into the EU. The warning was issued by MP Taras Chornovil, first deputy head of the VR Committee for Foreign Affairs. Hanna Herman hurried to dismiss this information as “absurd.”

The summit’s venue was the Royal Castle and the participants sat around a round table at which the Polish communist leadership and Solidarity representatives launched the negotiations on transforming the country back in 1989. Mr. Komorowski emphasized that in 1955 the Warsaw Treaty was signed in the nearby Presidential Palace. Speaking about things that unite Central and Eastern European countries, he pointed to a “transition from totalitarianism to democracy.” “It resembled Hyde Park,” said one the participants, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The speeches were interesting, but the main idea was missing. Three directions have been singled out in which joint action needs to be taken: Eastern Europe, where there is regress from democracy; the Balkan states where everything is moving too slowly; and North Africa where we are just looking for ideas about how we can help.”

Alexander Lukashenko was the anti-hero of the summit. (He was, of course, absent.) Mr. Komorowski, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Mr. Obama all criticized him during a brief press conference, especially underscoring the fact that Andrei Pochobut, a reporter with the leading Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and a citizen of Belarus, was put behind bars. However, for some reason no one spoke out loud about the patent and unceremonious clampdown on democracy on the part of Mr. Yanukovych, which is something the central Polish newspapers wrote about on the first day of the summit. Rzeczpospolita said: “Slowly but systematically, the opposition on the Dnieper River is being destroyed; the rights of small businesses are being curtailed; the stranglehold on the mass media critical of the government is tightening; and finally, work is underway to fight NGOs.”

Mr. Komorowski’s conduct suggests that the dismal present of Ukraine’s democracy described by the Polish journalists means much less to him than involving Ukraine in the EU only to pull it away from Moscow. Reporters of Rzechpospolita warn: “May usnot be fooled by the (specific) talks with the EU. Ukraine is simply playing its multi-vector game, and this is what it plays best.” To Mr. Obama, the fact that Mr. Yanukovych is the first Ukrainian president to agree to get rid of enriched uranium within two years is more important than a U.S. Department of State report about a radical curtailment of civic freedoms in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the lazy attitude of Western leaders to the destruction of democracy in Russia or even the “resetting” of US-Russia relations is yet more proof to Mr. Yanukovych that he is free to continue down the path of authoritarianism.

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