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Why Europe Cannot Let Down Ukraine

Why are closer relations with Europe crucial to Ukraine's future?

December 15, 2011

Why are closer relations with Europe crucial to Ukraine's future?

Now that even Moscow is seeing large protests, why are Ukrainians not protesting en masse against their government’s undemocratic actions and politically motivated imprisonment of the opposition?

This question is increasingly being asked by observers in light of the current crisis in EU-Ukrainian relations, which stems from President Viktor Yanukovych’s jailing of his archrival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

In October 2011, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly exceeding her constitutional powers in signing a gas deal with Russia. Conveniently for the current administration, she will most likely stay incarcerated during the 2012 parliamentary elections scheduled for next fall.

Even though people may sympathize with her fate, for many Ukrainians the jailing of Tymoshenko — who is embroiled in various scandals — is part of a power struggle between two equally corrupt politico-economic clans.

Notably, according to the recent polls published by various agencies, the rating of Tymoshenko’s party has not increased significantly, and is still below or only slightly higher than that of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology recently put support for Tymoshenko’s bloc at 20%, compared with 25% for the ruling party.

At this moment in time, keeping Tymoshenko behind bars is more advantageous for Yanukovych than is Ukraine’s integration with Europe. He has not forgotten the feeling of humiliation he suffered at the hands of the 2004 Orange revolutionaries, who were led by Tymoshenko. He is still afraid of her skill at mobilizing protest movements.

While becoming ever more deeply involved in various business schemes with friendly oligarchs, Yanukovych has also enriched himself and his personal clan enormously since he came to power. He now owns a parcel of land in the Kyiv suburbs that is the size of London’s Hyde Park, where he built the house of his dreams. Yanukovych and his entourage are now more concerned about how to keep their wealth and power rather than about possible rejection by the West.

Although the current setback in relations with the EU does not frustrate President Yanukovych and Company, it does have a major impact on ordinary Ukrainians. This is because we see our personal and professional as well as our children’s future with Europe. And despite bitterness about our “unrequited love,” around 60% of Ukrainians support their country’s integration with Europe, as recent polls conducted by Kyiv’s Razumkov Center show.

After the failed EU-Ukraine summit in October 2011, almost 2,000 Kyivans, mostly professionals, civic activists and journalists, formed a Facebook group, “We — Europeans.” They started to organize weekly gatherings on the streets to show their support for closer ties with the EU.

There are also signs of massive citizen mobilization, even in the heartlands of Yanukovych’s power — such as in places like Donetsk, which saw large public protests led by socially vulnerable segments of the population, including pensioners, Afghan war veterans and former Chernobyl cleanup workers.

The EU should consider full reengagement with Ukraine as a way to support Ukrainian citizens’ growing activism and to harness the democratic energy of the Ukrainian people.

To this end, the EU Association Agreement can become an important new lever, as well as a psychological milestone for Ukrainian society. It would extend the European free trade area to Ukraine and open the large EU market to Ukrainian goods and businesses. It would also help pave the way for a visa-free regime, something that so many Ukrainians long for. Above all, it would place Ukraine firmly on the path of integration with Europe.

The EU agreement may include a suspension mechanism in case the Ukrainian government backtracks on fundamental democratic principles. That would give Ukrainians a much-needed marker to hold their government accountable. And contrary to fears of some European leaders about losing leverage over Ukrainian politics, the agreement with the EU can become for Ukrainians what the accession process was for the societies of Central Europe — a vital beacon to help guide the country in the right direction.

Although December 19, the anticipated date of the Ukraine-EU summit, is quickly approaching, nobody has yet blinked. There is nothing like a bit of political suspense or, even better, diplomatic intrigue.

Brussels holds the trigger on the Association Agreement, which was negotiated with Kyiv over a period of four years. However, the poker-faced Ukrainian president holds the key to the lock in the prison door behind which Tymoshenko is jailed.

The EU officials have warned that no Association Agreement will be signed — and that the doors to closer cooperation with the EU bloc will shut unless Tymoshenko is freed. For his part, Yanukovych has hinted that he may go to Moscow rather than wait for the top EU officials to show up in Kyiv. This certainly sounds like another political gambit. When Brussels had cancelled the EU-Ukraine meeting last time in October, the Ukrainian president flew to Cuba.

Tymoshenko and her imprisonment have intensified diplomatic tensions to the level of a geopolitical choice for Ukraine and Ukrainians. For her part, Tymoshenko, in a letter from prison, asked the European Union not to cancel or postpone signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Doing so would not really harm Yanukovych and his government, but rather punish millions of Ukrainians.

Among many Ukrainians, there is a feeling of deep frustration with Europe and European officials. For 20 years, Ukraine was a relatively free country during which time the EU offered her participation in the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy — and later in the Eastern Partnership program. Yet, the EU extended the same cooperation frameworks to such manifestly authoritarian countries as Azerbaijan and Belarus.

For too many years, Ukrainians have also, as individuals, felt unwelcome in Europe. Every year, millions of Ukrainians go through the arduous process of applying for travel visas at European consulates, standing in lines and dealing with the whims and likes of consular bureaucracies. This has been the experience that makes Ukrainians feel like second-class Europeans.

In contrast, travel to Russia has been hassle-free, as no visas are required.


Ukrainians see their personal and professional as well as their children's future with Europe.

For too many years, Ukrainians have, as individuals, felt unwelcome in Europe.

The EU should consider full reengagement with Ukraine as a way to harness the democratic energy of the Ukrainian people.

Poker-faced Victor Yanukovych holds the key to the lock in the prison door behind which Tymoshenko is jailed.