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21 May, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

A Taste of Isolation

Bankova Street’s hopes to manipulate the EU have crashed. Europe has let Ukraine know that it cannot integrate with its current government, but the issue of an efficient alternative remains open

It is becoming increasingly clear that Bankova Street's[1] hopes to turn the Euro 2012 championship into proof of its “European character” and a trump card for its election campaign are going to fail. Europe will do everything possible to clearly and unambiguously show Ukrainians that their current government is what is driving the country into isolation. 

The Yulia Tymoshenko case has finally forced Europeans to abandon their “diplomatic correctness” (for which Ukrainian leaders had much hope as they consistently ignored “non-binding European recommendations”) even earlier than could have been expected. Moreover, Kyiv has actively precipitated the change by playing the all-sides-are-equal game and pursuing what was essentially its own version of “sovereign democracy.” Ukraine’s State Penitentiary Service turned down a request from Francois Zimeray, French ambassador-at-large for human rights, to meet with Tymoshenko on 19 April, and Rebecca Harms, co-chair of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, received a similar denial on 27 April. That same day she and the other co-president of the group, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, asked UEFA President Michel Platini to make a statement about the political situation in Ukraine, arguing that “it appears to be impossible to attend the tournament … while Yulia Tymoshenko remains in prison and while she is being refused access to medical assistance provided by doctors she can trust.”

However, what carries more weight for Viktor Yanukovych, who after all heads the Ukrainian state rather than Ukraine’s Football Federation, are the demarches by political leaders – presidents, heads of governments and ministers of a number of European countries, including the key player Germany, and the leadership of pan-European and transatlantic structures.


Invitations to participate in the Yalta Summit of Central European heads of state, which was scheduled to take place on 11-12 May, were turned down almost at the same time by the presidents of Germany, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Italy. These officials were gradually joined by the leaders of most of the other countries that have traditionally participated in the summit: Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

As of 8 May, only four presidents – of Poland, Slovakia, Moldova and Lithuania – had confirmed their participation. In Lithuania, the prime minister met with the president and asked her to use the summit to openly criticise Yanukovych for the way he has handled Tymoshenko. Subsequently, the Ukrainian government was forced to essentially admit its isolation and scrap the summit three days before its scheduled beginning. (Formally, it was postponed indefinitely due to most presidents being unable to participate.)


President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and a number of European commissioners have already refused to attend Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he will not be able to come to Ukraine during the championship, and a scheduled visit of a NATO delegation to Kyiv was cancelled altogether. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representatives of royal families and governments of Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain said they could cancel their trips to the European football championship in Ukraine if there were no positive changes in the Tymoshenko case. Prince William of Britain, who is the president of England’s Football Association, announced his decision not to come to Ukraine. Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said in an interview for ABC newspaper that the Spanish national team could refuse to come onto the field in Kyiv if it makes it to the final. According to him, this scenario is already being discussed with Germany and Poland, but it may only be implemented as part of a concerted boycott by all European national teams.

And this is just the beginning. With the tournament just weeks away, we are already counting those “likely to not come.” The situation may eventually change so drastically that we will be counting those “likely to come” – as was the case with the Yalta Summit. Now should any influential European leader publicly choose to visit Ukraine during the tournament, he will have to explain why he has gone to Ukraine rather than why he refused to go. Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, has already said that European politicians that dare come to Ukraine during the Euro 2012 tournament “must be careful not to become cheerleaders for the regime… If you have any doubt, you should not visit the country,” he said. His party is a member of a group of European Socialists in the European Parliament which was until recently partners with the Party of Regions and tried to defend it in conflicts with European institutions.


Employees of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry had to make fools of themselves as they denied obvious facts, often causing even sharper messages from the EU. For example, Oleh Voloshyn, chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Information Policy, said that the refusal of European politicians to participate in the Yalta Summit should not be perceived as a demarche. Information about Merkel’s possible refusal to come to Ukraine for Euro 2012 was dismissed as a 'canard'. In response, German government spokesman Georg Streiter confirmed the information on 30 April and emphasised that “any visit to Ukraine will depend on Tymoshenko’s future and honouring human rights and freedoms.”

On 1 May, Ukraine’s representative to the EU Kostiantyn Yeliseev said calls to boycott Euro 2012 “translate political dialogue into the language of ultimatums.” However, he left unanswered the question of what European leaders are to do as the current Ukrainian government has on multiple occasions demonstrated that it does not understand civilised language. Instead, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry published statements in the style of soviet propaganda: “An attack against a grand hope undermines chances of former members of the socialist camp to prove that in terms of economic, human and scientific potential they are already prepared to turn from Europe's debtors into new engines of its development.”

Official Kyiv has decided to go into attack mode, accusing European politicians of “disrespect for millions of Ukrainians”: Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry claims that calls to boycott the championship will in practice hurt the image of this grand sports event and will damage the interests of millions of ordinary Ukrainians who support different parties or take no interest in politics at all. Mykola Azarov has tried to lay the Ukrainian government’s fault at Europe’s door by arguing that Europeans “want to humiliate our entire people and our country.”

However, the EU is already developing alternative strategies that would show Ukrainians who is the real barrier between them and the EU. Names are being called out openly. Specifically, Carl Bildt, Foreign Affairs Minister of Sweden, a country that joined Poland in lobbying for the Eastern Partnership initiative and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, said straightforwardly: “We would like to appeal to President Yanukovych to unblock the European future of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian nation. He is blocking it himself… We are interested in bringing Ukraine back to Europe, and this is why we want to help Tymoshenko.”

At a meeting with Bundestag’s Christian Democratic MPs, Chancellor Merkel discussed the idea that instead of boycotting the championship, European politicians could come to Ukraine but sit with ordinary fans in the stadiums, avoiding VIP seats. This would be a visible sign of distancing themselves from the Yanukovych government and a symbol of union with the Ukrainian people. Westerwelle even warned that “politicians, athletes, the mass media and fans will not waste any opportunity to express their attitude toward human rights violations in Ukraine” during the European football championship.

In any case, it is already clear that the hopes Bankova Street pinned on Euro 2012 – macroeconomic, advertising and political – are failing. Moreover, the European public is beginning to view Yanukovych as an odious figure alongside with Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Gaddafi and Alexander Lukashenko. Soon he will not be able to shed this negative image no matter how much he wants to. The reaction of European political elites to the Ukrainian government's refusal to release repressed members of the opposition and give them access to political life, albeit partly forced, has been unexpectedly sharp and, most importantly, steadily growing. It is also a warning that “guided” parliamentary elections in autumn will be unacceptable and an indicator of the scale of the EU’s possible reaction.


The impression is that Yanukovych’s inner circle is stubbornly ignoring the fact that it is impossible to play the self-sufficiency game in the international arena when you are, in essence, the poorest country in Europe and one whose government employs Lukashenka-style methods and enjoys the support of less than 20 per cent of the population. Alternatively, someone in his inner circle may be diligently working his tail off to earn a salary paid by Russia while skilfully pushing his formal leader into an abyss. The championship will come and go, while Yanukovych’s isolation and leaders' reluctance to shake hands with him will stay. (Incidentally, Philipp Lahm, captain of Germany’s national football team, has already called on UEFA President Michel Platini to clearly declare his position on the situation in Ukraine, because he himself would “do some serious thinking” before holding out his hand to Yanukovych if the latter happened to appear at a match.)

Attempts to manipulate Europeans through cynical claims about “the independence of Ukrainian judicial and law enforcement systems from the executive government” or by blackmailing them with a possible change of Ukraine's foreign-policy course have proved to be unsuccessful. The EU does not need “its own Lukashenka." President Yanukovych's authoritarian evolution has been so evident and even demonstrative that European politicians can no longer ignore it. This is because in truly democratic societies, in contrast to Ukraine, public opinion normally sways a political leader. In light of this, more “practical” sanctions may ensue depending on how the situation develops.

Western isolation comes at a time when Ukraine’s relations with Russia are essentially frozen. Moreover, Moscow has delivered several blows against Yanukovych. First, it has already condemned the way in which he has handled his political opponents. Moscow has pronounced it to be too compromising even for a country with “rich totalitarian traditions”, as Dmitry Medvedev chose to put it. Second, Russia has followed Germany in offering to provide medical treatment to Tymoshenko on its territory. Moreover, the Kremlin insists that there was nothing criminal in Tymoshenko’s actions when she signed gas agreements with Moscow and that her conviction is unjustified.

Two years after the first Kharkiv Treaties were signed, gas contracts have yet to be revised. Moreover, observers have reason to expect Vladimir Putin to step up pressure on Ukraine during his next presidential term. Given the mounting discontent inside Russia and the absence of prospects for improving Russia's own socioeconomic well-being, foreign-policy expansion remains the only possible argument that the Russian president has in order to stay in power. At the same time, support for Yanukovych among the pro-Russian electorate is constantly dropping, freeing up space for a new Moscow-oriented and Kremlin-controlled political project.

Under these circumstances, the growing isolation of the Yanukovych administration by the EU and the United States will make it even more vulnerable to Russian pressure, but this realisation is unlikely to influence the Western policy on Ukraine. The reason is the same: the Ukrainian president is decreasingly seen as an acceptable partner. So Europe will provoke Ukraine's pro-Russian drift by searching for ways to dethrone Yanukovych as a barrier to EU-Ukraine relations rather than by its competition with Russia over Ukraine.

Observers have increasingly noted that the special psychological mindset of Yanukovych and his inner circle prevents them from coming to a rational decision to seek compromise with the civilised world. They are used to following "notions" (of the criminal world) and are afraid of appearing weak to their own men: one who yields to pressure and shows weakness, can no longer be a leader. European pressure is set to grow and the true correlation of forces will stay the same, which will aggravate the inadequacy and psychological incompatibility of the Ukrainian president with European politicians.

Yanukovych's mindset is pushing him into the hands of Putin's inner circle, which is intimately familiar with this type of world view. In the context of Putin's expansionist policy, Ukraine may soon face the dilemma of choosing between Putin and Yanukovych. And then the Russian leader may prove to be a more acceptable option to pro-Russian Ukrainians.


Therefore, it is vital for the opposition to fill the vacuum after the Yanukovych regime is deposed and do so by proposing a transformation of the country that meets Europe's expectations rather than by mechanically replacing the outgoing government. Otherwise the edifice of the state may fall together with the Donetsk leadership.

The problem is that the opposition is not up to the task at the moment. It lacks an awareness of the need to dismantle the post-Soviet oligarchic-monopolist model of society together with the unfair justice administration system. Instead of raising the level of political culture, preparing people for assuming responsibility for their own future and fostering civil self-organisation and activity, the opposition is churning out populist slogans and messianic, paternalistic illusions: it only needs the right and good tsar on the throne; as if a couple of extraordinary personalities with their professionalism and high moral virtues are able to compensate for inefficient mechanisms. The opposition lacks a clear plan of immediate steps to be taken in the first 10, 100 and 500 days after obtaining power. Furthermore, opposition forces are not prepared to support and fulfil a plan regardless of who will lead the government, parliament and individual ministries.


For their part, European leaders should not limit themselves to statements that the Ukrainian elite is authoritarian and failing to meet their expectations or fulfil the modernisation and European integration tasks the country faces. European politicians ought to make a clear commitment to provide comprehensive support to politicians who prove they are mature enough to carry out fundamental transformations in Ukraine. This is needed in order to avoid mistakes and waste opportunities, as was the case in 2005-2006. They have to realise that in a transitional society that must constantly resist a force pulling it back to the USSR, support for healthy forces by the majority of a pauperised society is short-lived. If the new leaders fail to make irreversible changes quick enough, disillusionment may lead to a revanche of reactionary forces, such as in 2006 and 2010. At the same time, if Ukraine is pulled into Putin's authoritarian project, this will spell not only a fiasco for the Eastern Partnership policy but will also make the Russian model more attractive to certain formerly socialist countries and further spur the Kremlin to expansion, this time in detriment to a crisis-stricken European Union.


[1] Presidential Administration

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