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6 October, 2011  ▪  Zhanna Bezpiatchuk

Image-Making or Policy-Making

Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council: “The best thing Ukraine can do to improve its image is to not prosecute the opposition.”

Presenting a diagnosis of the problems of democracy and human rights in post-soviet Eastern Europe is not the top priority of the US in the political context. However, if one undertakes such a task, it must include clear, rational sense – political and even economic. And this emerges when the situation in a specific country is far from being hopeless and when the very concept of "democracy" and "human rights" actually fit into its development program, or is at least officially declared by the government. Taking this into consideration, an analysis of the reality of Belarus continues to be a waste of time. As for an in-depth examination that in Russia – there is absolutely no enthusiasm, since the scheme of the country’s treatment of the above-mentioned concepts passes it by. And lo and behold, flickering between the hopelessness of Belarus and Russia in Eastern Europe is Ukraine. Fortunately, experts in Washington continue to have genuine interest in regards to Ukraine. This is a good sign.

The Ukrainian Week met with Damon Wilson, the Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, who was a co-author of the Freedom House special report, published in April on the status of democracy and human rights in Ukraine, in order to hear the views of Ukraine’s sympathizers from the other side of the Atlantic regarding events in and around Ukraine.


U.W: 18 months ago, in an interview with The Ukrainian Week, you stated that next 10 years would determine Ukrainian’s fate. Time goes by. What can you say about the situation today?

There are number of alarm bells going off right now. If Ukraine truly wants to become a modern, free nation-state and democracy in Europe, it’s doing things half right and half wrong. On the one hand, it is a good sign that the authorities in Kyiv are indeed concerned about in their reputation and image in the world. This underscores the importance of Washington and Brussels continuing to be actively involved in Ukrainian matters, critical when necessary and helpful when possible. So if your government is disenchanted with the criticism which can be heard from these geopolitical centers, it shouldn’t be angry at them, but respond to them with positive changes in domestic policy.

U.W: Should Yulia Tymoshenko be convicted, in you view, how will this affect Ukraine-USA relations?

I think it will cast a really dark shadow on US-Ukraine relations. And this is not because the US has some obligations or sentiments towards Tymoshenko. It has nothing to do with any of this. To be honest, as far as we were concerned, she was a disappointment as a prime-minister and a difficult interlocutor in dialogue on a range of issues. We didn’t see much progress on issues related to energy transparency. Even the negotiations on the EU and Westinghouse agreements were difficult. A lot of things that we have on our bilateral agenda did not make great progress when she was prime-minister. So, it’s not that the US is saying “We pick Yulia Tymoshenko up”, because she was a great partner of the US, that we allegedly want to see her become a president of Ukraine in the future. No. But let us not forget that she is a former head the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, a popular leader, the runner-up in the presidential election, a viable political opposition. The point is that the winner in a democratic race is trying to eliminate the viable opposition. This is really dangerous for an unstable democracy. It destroys incentives for the transfer of power in the future; it creates dynamics that makes it more difficult to pull off a democracy. If John McCain had to worry about going to prison when he was running in the presidential elections against Barack Obama, our system would have been crushed into smithereens. It would become completely dysfunctional. If you only set standards and high requirements only for you political enemies and not your friends, this arouses strong concerns, particularly when talking about democracy where institutions and the judiciary are weak. This is why Tymoshenko’s case is so important.


U.W: Isn’t it time for Ukraine and its friends in the democratic world to clearly articulate and the obvious: “It is on the fate of democracy that will determine its state throughout the whole non-EU region of Eastern European” its foreign political ringtone? In other words, neck or nothing. Or does this sound a little too idealistic?      

Ukraine is an unbelievably important country because of its scale and territory. Obviously, Ukraine has the potential to be one of the most important countries on the continent. However, at present, this is just a hypothetical possibility. When talking about the new Eastern Europe, then the direction of Ukraine’s development is particularly significant for it. We can see steps backward and forwards in Moldova and Georgia. This is important, after all, it is your country that could become a leader in the region and help it to move towards Europe. On the other hand, it could become the “tractor” that pulls the whole region into some post-Soviet fog. So, it does have outside importance. Reforms in the post-Soviet space are not going to be promoted by Moscow. The reforms in this region will be driven by what happens in Chisinau, Tbilisi and Kyiv, and possibly even in Minsk. A flourishing, prosperous democratic free market Ukraine will also influence debates within Russia, regarding its own future.

U.W: How can problems with states budget of the USA and subsequent political crisis influence its foreign policy? Will Eastern Europe become an even lower priority in this respect?

Clearly we have major serious domestic issues related to our budget and how to overcome its deficit. It’s not as if we have never had serious debates on immigration policy and social security in the G.W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan or Carter administrations. However today’s disagreements in Washington are absorbing all the oxygen, if you will, in the political space of America. So, foreign political issues are very much secondary today. I personally am concerned about what it means in terms of sustaining US engagements around the world. At the same time we are superpower. We live in a reality in which our president has a lot more freedom to act in the international arena, that in domestic policy. So, what you see with the American presidency is that it’s very difficult for it to move on its domestic agenda, when Congress has to be involved in the process. This is actually why a president tends to play a very active role in foreign policy, because it is easier to act independently. If you think about this in relation to Ukraine, you are right; it’s not going to be on the top of president’s agenda. But Ukraine has a lot of friends in Washington. There is a strong community here in the US that wants to see Ukraine succeed. Specialists in the White House, State Department and Pentagon – they all intend to continue working on US-Ukrainian relations, regardless of what it going on in the domestic policy of your country.

U.W: This year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine published a strategy for improving Ukraine’s image abroad. What recommendations could you give to change it for the better, particularly in Washington?

It’s not just the problem of image; it’s a problem of policy. I would like to say that your Ministry of Foreign Affairshas a very experienced Foreign Minister right now, it is very professional Ministry but the issues that are the problem for Ukraine on the international stage have nothing to do with the Foreign Ministry. They have to do with the Prosecutor General, Ministry of Justice, Constitutional Court and the Verkhovna Rada. So, I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairsis in difficult spot. But if you assess Ukraine in terms of foreign policy it does quite well. I think quite interesting how seriously Ukraine has handled relations with the EU, has continued to maintain its strategic partnership with Poland and has got better about not negating and managing its relationships with Russia in a constructive way. Your Ministry has been working effectively on issues of energy cooperation with the USA, foreign investments, and tax issues faced by American citizens in Ukraine or how to deal with highly enriched uranium. The foreign policy of Ukraine has been pretty good. The problem lies in your domestic policy which is viewed negatively around the world. And this cannot be fixed with a PR plan to improve its image abroad. This can only be fixed with the aid of internal reforms, transparency at home and ensuring the independence of the judiciary system. The best thing that Ukraine can do today to improve its image in Washington – to find a solution and the criminal persecution of high-profile representatives of the political opposition, beginning with Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko. In addition, it is important to your hand on the pulse of issues that are of a strategic nature in US-Ukrainian relations. We have some backsliding in negotiations how to handle high-grade uranium. If Ukraine is unable to continue it effectively, it will lose a huge opportunity in relations with this White House. These things strike me as being the most important for the perception of Ukraine here in Washington.

U.W: What about next elections in Ukraine?

There has only been one election under this administration – last year’s local elections which were conducted badly. They represented the first step back since 2005. Will this government be able to ensure an electoral process that is free, honest and transparent? This is truly the number one task. It is also a test. Ukraine has the potential to slide down the path towards kleptocracy and autocracy - if this government blocks the way towards free elections.

U.W: You were one of the first experts who, after the signing of the Kharkiv Treaty on the Black Sea Fleet, acknowledged that it would restrict Ukraine’s ability to approve independent political issues. Have you personally seen confirmation of this in the time since then?

I have to admit, that to this day, I still have a pretty negative view of the Kharkiv deal. I stand by my original concern about it in terms of what it represents for long-term Ukrainian control and sovereignty. But I also think that this Ukrainian government has performed admirably in relations with Russia since the Kharkiv deal. I think many in the Ukrainian Government have learnt a lesson “the more you give, the more Moscow demands” and Ukraine is simply incapable of satiating the appetite of the Russian government on certain issues”. The Kharkiv treaties were a low point. But from then on, one way or another, the government was able to prove that it was prepared to do that, which is first and foremost needed by Ukraine. And that’s a good thing.

I think that President Yanukovych has realized that it is much more enjoyable to be the president of an independent country rather than a vassal state. Look how he responded to the challenge of choosing between the free trade agreement with the EU and the Customs Union with Russia. I think the Ukrainian government handled this well, and by doing so, asserted its strategic choice to move forward in negotiations with the EU. Even though good political and economic relations with Russia are very important, they cannot develop at the expense of turning away from the possibilities of your future in Europe.


Damon Wilson is an American foreign policy advisor and the current director of the International Security program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a foreign and public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, Wilson served as Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council during President George W. Bush's second term.

Wilson completed his master’s degree (MPA) at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1998. While there, he taught an undergraduate policy workshop on Implementing NATO Expansion with Dr. Richard Ullman and was selected for a Presidential Management Fellowship. As a fellow, Wilson worked on the State Department's China desk and at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

From January 2004 to November 2006, as Director for Central, Eastern and Northern European Affairs at the National Security Council, Wilson strengthened ties with the German Chancellery, coordinated interagency policy in support of reform in Ukraine, including the time during the Orange Revolution.

From December 2007 to January 2009 Wilson worked as a Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council. Since early 2009 to present, Wilson directs the International Security program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, a foreign and public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on NATO transformation, European defense, emerging global security challenges and transatlantic defense and intelligence cooperation. He frequently speaks and writes on European foreign policy and security issues.

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