Christian Caryl

Ukraine’s Hostage Crisis

How one woman's fate is derailing Ukraine's European dream.


Homer sang of Helen of Troy, the woman whose "face launched a thousand ships." This week it’s time to write, somewhat more modestly, of another woman — a flamboyant politician by the name of Yulia Tymoshenko, who played a starring role in Ukraine’s storied Orange Revolution a few years ago. Now her fate seems to be determining whether her country’s 46 million people take a historic step closer to Europe or slide back into the embrace of the Kremlin.

Next week a group of high-ranking politicians from the European Union and Eastern Europe will be meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to decide on the prospects of several countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. The small republics of Moldova and Georgia both have good chances of signing agreements with the European Union that will open up paths to expanded trade and travel. That’s because both countries have gone a long way toward demonstrating their respect for European values of tolerance, freedom, and the rule of law.

Moscow won’t be happy to see these two countries orient themselves to the West — especially Georgia, which occupies a strategically sensitive spot between Europe and resource-rich Central Asia. But Vladimir Putin and his friends in Moscow undoubtedly know that there’s little they can really do to frustrate the European dreams of these smaller countries. Despite intense economic (and military) pressure from Russia, neither Georgia nor Moldova has shown much inclination to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, a rival bloc that embodies Putin’s effort to revive the old USSR (and, along with it, Russia’s dream of regional dominance).

But Georgia and Moldova, whose combined population is about the same as London’s, aren’t really the headliners at Vilnius. That role belongs to Ukraine, the giant stepchild of European politics. Ukraine, too, was also supposed to sign some far-reaching documents at next week’s Vilnius summit. That’s because its population of 46 million (about the same as Spain’s) and its considerable human and natural resources make Ukraine a potentially attractive member of the European family. At the same time, though, Ukraine is a monumental mess — to an extent that would make it hard to deal with even under normal circumstances.

And circumstances are far from normal. Ukraine is a country of myriad problems. Strictly speaking it’s a democracy, since it does have regular competitive elections, a relative degree of media freedom, and a surprisingly vibrant civil society. Yet these pluses are more often than not obscured by entrenched corruption, the nefarious doings of organized crime groups and politically connected business tycoons, and the still-powerful security service, which traces its ancestry straight back to the old Soviet KGB. At the top of it all sits Viktor Yanukovych, an elected president who tends to act more like an entitled monarch.

Yanukovych never tires of repeating his desire to see Ukraine move closer to Europe. Yet he’s probably done more than anyone else to complicate his country’s progress toward that goal. Since he became president in 2010, Yanukovych has systematically undercut the rule of law. He’s pressured the courts and the media, engaged in parliamentary strong-arm tactics, and exacerbated the country’s oligarchic system by rewarding his cronies with vast economic privileges. Meanwhile, he’s done almost nothing to dry out the morass of corruption.

Yanukovych doesn’t necessarily see it that way, of course. He would argue that he’s set a positive signal against sleaze by arresting several leading politicians on corruption charges. The problem is that the politicians in question also happen to be his main political opponents. One of them, Yulia Tymoshenko, is the leader of the Fatherland Party, the core of the opposition alliance that campaigned against Yanukovych in the presidential election three years ago and lost. Her fiery rhetoric and trademark wraparound braid (see photo above) have made her Ukraine’s most recognizable political figure — even despite the fact that she’s been in jail since October 2011.

The European Union doesn’t accept Yanukovych’s argument that Tymoshenko simply ran afoul of the law. Brussels says that she’s a victim of "selective justice," jailed less for her alleged abuses of power than for her role as the leader of the opposition. Few serious observers of Ukrainian politics would probably disagree with that (though those who know Ukraine well wonder whether she’s entirely above reproach, given her past high-ranking position in the notoriously corrupt natural gas sector and her considerable personal wealth).

The EU has made Ukraine’s invitation to sign the two documents on offer at Vilnius — a mainly political "Association Agreement" as well as a "deep and comprehensive" agreement on trade — conditional on Tymoshenko’s release (preferably under the guise of allowing her to travel to the West for medical treatment). Some EU governments insist that she should be granted a full-blown pardon, which Yanukovych has persistently refused to grant, since that might allow her a political comeback that could threaten his own hold on power. Given the enormous focus on her role, it’s small wonder that many observers (including Tymoshenko herself) have referred to her as a "hostage."

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian parliament deliberated over a proposed law that would have allowed for Tymoshenko, who’s suffered from ill health during her imprisonment, to seek medical treatment abroad. The deputies voted "no" — effectively quashing a compromise that would have allowed Ukraine to sign the agreement in Vilnius. No one should have any doubts that the lawmakers who scotched the bill were following the preferences of their president. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions dominates parliament, and its members uniformly voted for keeping Tymoshenko in jail. EU emissary, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski thereupon announced that the deal was off. The Ukrainian parliament has thus effectively derailed Ukraine from its European track.

This is a tragedy. There’s no question that Ukraine’s citizens would be better off by embracing the EU — which is probably why a majority of Ukrainians favor closer ties with Europe. About as much of Ukraine’s trade now goes to Europe as it does to Russia. Every Ukrai
nian government for the past 15 years has made closer ties with Europe a priority. All this demonstrates that many Ukrainians understand that having incentives to live up to EU norms can only improve governance and reduce corruption at home.

Russia’s reaction to this mess is noteworthy. Since the Ukrainian parliamentary vote Putin has accused the European Union of "pressuring" and "blackmailing" the Ukrainians with its demands. This is a cynical inversion of the actual state of affairs. If anything, Europe has "pressured" Ukraine merely to live up to the high standards of European law.

The Russians, by contrast, have made no secret of their willingness to hit Ukraine with every sanction they can muster in the event that Kiev should sign the Vilnius agreement. Echoing similar actions against other countries that seeking intensifed relations with Europe, Moscow has imposed a harsh customs regime on Ukrainian imports that could cost Kiev as much as $2.5 billion in losses by the end of the year. A Russian minister has spoken openly of supporting separatists in the Russian-majority eastern provinces of Ukraine. Russian operatives have organized a campaign that claims that closer EU ties will bring same-sex marriage to Ukraine, a policy opposed by a majority of Ukrainians. Yanukovych has held at least three closed-door meetings with Putin in recent weeks, which have put a notable damper on the Ukrainian president’s pro-Europe zeal. (Among other things Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, which Moscow has used in the past as a lever for enforcing its will. One can only imagine that Putin made a point of wielding that threat again.)

Given such pressure, Ukraine might have found other excuses for not signing the deal in Vilnius. Yet it’s the Tymoshenko issue that has given Europe’s opponents in Kiev a perfect excuse for sabotaging the agreement. Europe’s leaders certainly deserve praise for demonstrating their high standards of adherence to human rights by elevating Tymoshenko’s cause to such prominence. But has turning her case into a deal-breaker really helped the ideals such advocacy was designed to advance? If Ukraine slips back into Russia’s embrace as a result, 46 million people who might have otherwise seen a notable improvement in governance and human rights will find their hopes betrayed. (This is precisely why Tymoshenko herself has said that her cause should not be used to thwart closer ties with Europe.)

And yes, I know. The likelihood that Ukraine will actually join the EU — particularly at a time when Europeans are still struggling to overcome their own economic malaise — is small. Skeptics point out that Turkey, another big European aspirant with imperfect democratic institutions, signed its own Association Agreement back in 1963, and its membership has yet to materialize.

Yet the case of Turkey also demonstrates how taking the desire to join Europe seriously can prove beneficial in itself. Over the past few years Turkey has done a great deal to make its economy Europe-compatible, fueling dramatic growth, and has taken enormous steps to reform governance, reducing corruption and promoting the rule of law. No one would argue that the situation in Turkey is flawless — but compare it to where the country was 10 years ago and it’s very hard to make a case for a return to the past.

Ukraine deserves a similar chance. Contrary to a lot of the reporting this week, Kiev’s decision doesn’t mean an end to Ukraine’s European prospects. There will still be options for helping Ukraine to move in the direction that’s really conducive to its interests. The West needs to do everything it can to make that happen.

 Twitter: @ccaryl