Ukraine: blackmail and bluff

Under the direction of the new Polish presidency, the EU has dangled a huge integration carrot in front of Ukraine’s misbehaving political elite. The rationale, no doubt, is to win out in an us-or-Russia scenario. But Mykola Ryabchuk remains unconvinced the Yanukovych clan needs persuading which way to turn.

For at least a decade, I have been hearing from my Polish friends – journalists, scholars, and politicians – a recurrent phrase: “You know, we cannot care more for Ukraine than Ukrainians themselves.” Yet, they still try.

When Poland assumed its six-month presidency of the European Union on 1 July, its leaders declared candidly that one of their priorities was the promotion of Ukraine to associate membership of the EU and finalizing, by the end of the year, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) as part of it. The desire seems to be so strong that the Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski did not hesitate, back in June at the Global Forum in Wroclaw, to praise Ukraine’s democratization and European integration efforts.

It is very unlikely that Polish president or any other European leader has been unaware of what is really going on in Ukraine. No doubt, they have good advisers, savvy regional experts, and competent staff in their embassies. They have certainly noticed that in the eighteen months of Viktor Yankovych’s rule all civic freedoms in Ukraine have shrunk, corruption has skyrocketed, and justice has descended from low to zero. Actually, all these processes are aptly reflected in the annual reports of reputable international organizations like Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, Transparency International, and some others. All of them have significantly downgraded Ukraine’s score in every area.

"So, why the rush? Why should a country that is steadily sliding down to Russian-style or even Belarusian-style authoritarianism be embraced by a European Union that presents itself as a community of values?"

The political trials with absurd criminal accusations against the leaders of the opposition and members of the former government are only the tip of the iceberg, even though they seem to have caught most of the attention in Europe. There are much more worrisome developments in Ukraine that remain much less discernible and are virtually unaddressed by the European partners. First of all, there is a very high number of people from Donbas, very often with criminal records or facing allegations, placed in various leading positions all over Ukraine, primarily in Kyiv and especially in the courts, the police, the taxation administration, and prosecutors’ offices. Secondly, the number of tax police and security service raids against disloyal businesses, including mass media companies, has escalated dramatically. People are often searched, detained, and interrogated without any legal grounds or documentation. The Kharkiv Human Rights Group, which tries to monitor all violations of this kind, has recorded a significant increase in the number of cases of torture and unexplained deaths in custody. And finally, there are more and more unidentified “hooligans” and Zimbabwe-style paramilitary gangs that intimidate and assault and destroy property of anyone who openly supports the opposition, especially in the provincial areas of central and south eastern Ukraine. Even Ukrainian priests and believers are targeted in order to “persuade” them to join the Moscow patriarchate favored by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Why the rush?

So, why the rush? Why should a country that is steadily sliding down to Russian-style or even Belarusian-style authoritarianism be embraced by a European Union that presents itself as a community of values? Why should a regime that violates national laws and the constitution on a daily basis, emasculates the courts and renders them a mere appendage of the executive, rigs elections and extinguishes opposition, be encouraged in this activity and rewarded by the EU with an association agreement?

Ukraine_EU_Moscow?

What’s better for Ukraine? Russia or European Union?

Alexander Motyl gives a good, though hardly definitive, explanation for the EU’s pending appeasement of Yanukovych (http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/new/blogs/motyl/Integrating_an_Authoritarian_Ukraine_into_Democratic_Europe). The major rationale for this policy, shared, inter alia, by many pro-Western Ukrainians and pro-Ukrainian Westerners, including Prof. Motyl himself, is the strategic importance of pulling Ukraine into the Western orbit and preventing it from sinking further into the Russian sphere of influence. The first option means that even though “Ukraine won’t become fully democratic and market-oriented overnight… it will creep in that direction, as Ukrainians travel to Europe, as European economic ties with Ukraine are strengthened, as Ukrainian elites are forced to walk and talk like Europeans, as Ukraine slowly enters the European vocabulary and consciousness, and as European values slowly enter the Ukrainian vocabulary and consciousness.”

The second option, Motyl argues, means “an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine will only become more authoritarian and more oligarchic as part of any economic and political association led by today’s authoritarian and oligarchic Russia. Indeed, such an outcome would condemn Ukraine to economic backwardness for decades to come, as Ukraine would be transformed into Russia’s hinterland. And since Russia is the hinterland of the West, that would make Ukraine the hinterland of a hinterland.”

The alternative is clear-cut and hardly debatable. The first option is apparently preferable for both Ukrainians and European and ultimately, as Prof. Motyl argues, for Russians. So, he concludes, “strategic goals should guide strategic choices,” which means “even an authoritarian Ukraine should be integrated into European institutions.”

“If [Ukraine] signs a free-trade agreement with the EU and moves toward associate membership, its chances of becoming democratic, market-oriented, modern, and Western will grow. If it does not move toward Europe, Ukraine will either remain isolated in that no-man’s-land [between Russia and the EU] or, far more likely, move toward the Russia-led Customs Union, membership in which guarantees that Ukraine will become authoritarian, oligarchic, backward, and anti-Western. (…) So take your pick—creeping Europeanization or rapid hinterlandization.”

The “either/or” approach, however, is the major flaw of Motyl’s otherwise brilliant argument. Such a tricky alternative is exactly what the regime would like to sell to the EU: “Either you accept us as ugly (authoritarian and corrupt) as we are, or we move away to Russia.” First of all, this is a cynical blackmail that should be rejected in principle – if principles have any importance in the EU. And secondly, this is not only blackmail but also a bluff. The Ukrainian oligarchs are not going to Russia anyway because they know well – and even Mr. Yanukovych seems to have learnt this already – that Russia would never be satisfied with whatever concessions they make, until they are suffocated completely.

What’s better for Ukraine?

There is no good reason to believe that Mr. Yanukovych and his oligarchs are willing and ready to submit themselves to Russian suzerainty or are less able to withstand Russian pressure than the arguably “pro-Russian” to his boots Mr. Lukashenko. Even less likely is it that they would ever reject their beloved idea of “European integration” (see my earlier article: http://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/virtual-euro-integration/ ) for the sake of anything Russia-led, and turn their backs on that very space in which all their vital interests are located.

So, when Alexander Motyl poses a rhetorical question: “What’s better for Ukraine? That Ukrainian oligarchs should hobnob with the rich and mighty in Davos or in Minsk? That Regionnaire elites should negotiate with Brussels or with Moscow? Where are they more likely to learn, or be forced to adapt to, democracy and markets?” – he offers a false alternative. In fact, the Ukrainian oligarchs made their choice long ago. And none of them is going to switch Davos for Minsk and Brussels for Moscow—not because they feel it is better for Ukraine but simply because they know perfectly well what is in their own best interests.

Hence, we should get rid of these pernicious “either/or” arguments and radically change the discourse. The only efficient and viable negotiation paradigm is simple: more for more, and less for less. If Kyiv sticks to the rules, it will get more carrots. If it keeps tampering with the rules, it will get more sticks. There are many ways to hit the corrupted elite where it really hurts them: by denying hard currency credits, withholding visas, or checking illegal property and bank accounts. The EU should focus on this. And the Ukrainian oligarchs would certainly be upset if their focus was limited to the Russian hinterland and know full well the relative value of Davos versus Minsk.

"The Ukrainian oligarchs made their choice long ago. And none of them is going to switch Davos for Minsk and Brussels for Moscow—not because they feel it is better for Ukraine but simply because they know perfectly well what is in their own best interests."

Ukraine should not be rejected outright but the process of integration must be more clearly and unambiguously stated. No final decision on the DCFTA is advisable until the current negative trends are reversed and clear proof of this is given in the 2012 parliamentary elections. This should be the real litmus test: either the Ukrainian authorities are serious about their European commitments or they consider the Europeans feckless idiots who can be easily tricked with bluff and blackmailed by smart Eurasian guys.

Even less advisable is ratification of the association agreement – preferably it should be delayed until the presidential elections of 2015 that should be recognized indubitably as free and fair. Otherwise, if the Polish plan and oligarchic dream are accomplished by the end of 2011, the Ukrainian authorities would receive a carte-blanche to destroy the opposition, to pass a highly perfidious and manipulative election law, to rig elections, create a constitutional majority in the parliament, and make the future election of any president within this body a pure formality.

So far, Viktor Yanukovych and his “Regionnaires” are apparently transforming Ukraine into another Belarus, albeit with a treacherous pro-European rhetoric. If the EU accepts this at face value, it may ultimately face the problem how to impose Lukashenko-style sanctions upon leaders who are associate members of the EU and ostensibly espouse the same values.

About the author

Mykola Riabchuk is a senior research fellow at the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies, in Kyiv, and co-founder and member of the editorial board of Krytyka, a leading Ukrainian intellectual magazine.

Read On

European Union External Action: Ukraine

BBC Country Profile: Ukraine

The negotiations on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Russia, Center For Eastern Studies, Warsaw, Poland, Apr. 13, 2011

Ukraine Will Be a Bridge Between East and West, by Victor Yanukovich, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2010

Understanding Ukraine’s Foreign Policy, by Steven Pifer, Apr. 23, 2010, The Brookings Institution’s website

Ukraine's Orange Blues. Integrating an Authoritarian Ukraine into Democratic Europe? by Alexander Motyl, World Affairs, June 24, 2011
The Kharkiv Human Rights Group, web site

Pifer Steven, Averting Crisis in Ukraine, Council for Foreign Relations Press 2010

Wilson Andrew, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, Yale University Press 2009

How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy, by Anders Aslund, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009, 312 pages