A Farewell to Russia

Democracy may not be the stuff of Viktor Yanukovich's dreams, but the Ukrainian president is quietly strengthening ties with the European Union.


There’s no love lost between Europe and Ukraine’s ruling regime — or certainly between the Western press and Kiev. Indeed, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who unseated the pro-Western leaders of the Orange Revolution, is commonly depicted outside his country as an oppressive and reflexively pro-Russian figure. But while there’s certainly something to this unflattering characterization, there’s a bit more to the man — and a lot more happening in Ukraine than the authoritarian picture most commentators paint.

It’s certainly true that democracy in Ukraine is now under severe pressure. My conversations with Ukrainian civic leaders and investigative journalists during a visit last month left little doubt that they feel squeezed. The government gives them significantly less leeway to probe hot-button issues such as pervasive corruption than they had under the previous administration. Journalists who run afoul of the government often get called in for "chats" with the authorities, and their organizations are subjected to audits and inspections that hinder their work. What’s worse, in the long term, there is no countervailing force to check Yanukovich and company should they decide to become even more undemocratic.

The 2012 parliamentary elections will be an important test of Yanukovich’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms. Civic leaders worry that the government will game the outcome by instituting election rules that favor the ruling party and by packing the election committees with party loyalists. The opposition is on the defensive: Divided and demoralized, it has little popular appeal. The trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is also widely seen as politically motivated and based on flimsy evidence, though there is little sign that the opposition will be able to transform it into an issue that mobilizes public protests.

Still, Ukraine continues to have a lively press and a plethora of civic organizations. And there’s an incongruent combination in the public sphere: Apathy abounds, but polls reveal that 45 percent of the citizenry is willing to join street demonstrations. So Ukrainian democracy, while under duress, is by no means demolished.

There’s no doubt the president and his Party of Regions, which enjoys a stronghold in Ukraine’s Russophone east, have worked to reverse what they considered the gratuitous anti-Russian stance of the previous president, Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich’s cabinet contains vociferously pro-Russian individuals, the school curriculum is being revised to de-emphasize the Orange Revolution, and official foreign-policy pronouncements are invariably positive toward Russia. Yanukovich also made it clear that Ukraine would not join NATO — a concession he made flat-out, without seeking anything in exchange.

Perhaps most controversially, within two months of his inauguration, Yanukovich signed the Kharkiv Agreement with Moscow, which extended Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s lease on the base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol by 25 years, with an additional five-year option.

Yanukovich’s decision to ink the deal wasn’t simply a sign of submission to his powerful eastern neighbor. He did so in exchange for a favorable deal on Russian gas, which seemed at the time as if it could shave $3 billion off its gas import bill. (Alas, the deal may not have been all that he hoped for: Ukraine, which abuts Russia and buys more Russian gas than any European country — almost 40 billion cubic meters, about two-thirds of its consumption — still pays more than European importers do.)

There’s another part of Ukraine’s foreign policy, meanwhile, and it doesn’t get covered as much. Ukraine’s current leaders, despite their authoritarian bent and Moscow’s clear opposition, are in negotiations with the European Union on an accord called the "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" (DCFTA). (Yes, it’s an ungainly moniker, but we’re talking about the EU bureaucracy, after all.)

The DCFTA tends to be mislabeled as a plan to phase out tariffs in EU-Ukraine trade. It is actually about much more. Aside from trade liberalization, it envisages regulatory convergence on a raft of issues, ranging from the environment and energy policy to intellectual property rights. It also includes benchmarks on democracy and good governance.

The EU monitors Ukraine’s progress in compliance with the DCFTA’s provisions. Could Yanukovich sign and then renege on implementation? Sure. Democracy and transparency are not the stuff of his dreams. But doing so would lead to a fracas between the EU and Ukraine at a time when Yanukovich needs to demonstrate economic achievements in the run-up to the 2012 elections. In the event of gross noncompliance, the DCFTA could withhold tariff benefits and investment to Ukraine — losses that will affect the common man in Ukraine and possibly the course of the election campaign.

But my discussions with Ukrainian officials leave little doubt that, on balance, Yanukovich’s government is serious about the DCFTA and understands that Ukraine won’t be allowed to breeze in. Moreover, despite Russian urging — and, some Ukrainian officials say, outright pressure — Kiev has spurned the Customs Union (CU) that binds Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan for the EU.

What explains the choice?

For all his limitations — and there are many — Yanukovich relishes being feted in Europe’s halls of power. His first trip abroad as president was to Brussels, the EU’s seat of power, not Moscow. He is said to dislike Vladimir Putin, and may dream of being hailed, and remembered, as the man who moved Ukraine into Europe. Joining the CU will reduce him to a Russian satrap — or, as one Kiev-based diplomat put it, the governor of a Russian province. While some Ukrainian oligarchs have extensive business ties to Russia, others worry that their Russian counterparts will gobble them up if Ukraine joins the CU. Those calling the shots in Ukraine these days may not be democrats, but they’re not dumb.

The DCFTA discussions could easily run aground, or raise unrealistic hopes even if they succeed. If Tymoshenko is jailed after a kangaroo court proceeding, there’s bound to be blowback from the EU, and that could delay, even derail, the agreement. Moreover, many of the items that appear on Ukrainians’ wish list for the DCFTA — visa-free travel to EU countries, for example — won’t happen anytime soon, and could lead to disappointment. For now, though, Ukrainian officials and senior EU diplomats insist that the DCFTA will be signed by year’s end.

One big question remains: How will Russia react to what is undoubtedly a signal strategic choice by Ukraine to integrate with Europe? Moscow has been pleased with Yanukovich’s changes so far, welcoming the replacement of the anti-Russian Orange team and making signs that it hopes to draw Ukraine closer. Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is the most frequent high-level visitor to Ukraine; he favors a pan-Slavic community that accepts Russia as its leader and Orthodox Christianity as it faith.

Russia’s political influence and economic presence in Ukraine — a neighboring country to which it has centuries-long cultural and religious ties, and that contains 7 million ethnic Russians — will surely diminish if Ukraine joins the DCFTA. A case in point: The DCFTA’s regulations will create major barriers that stymie Russia’s long-standing efforts to acquire the Ukrainian state energy and pipeline company, Naftohaz Ukrainy. Yet Moscow has shown that it has various means to turn the heat up — or down, by cutting off crucial natural gas supplies — when dealing with uppity neighbors.

The negotiations under way between Ukraine and the EU demonstrate that "democracy under duress" is not the only headline Ukraine offers these days. The country is making a choice that will shape its future trajectory — and Europe’s as well. Just as Americans now say that it took Nixon to go to China, Ukrainians may someday admit that it took Yanukovich to go to Brussels.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of international relations at the Powell School at the City College of New York, senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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