”It’s so good that you hold free elections now. But why so often?” The joke, making the rounds these days in Kiev, encapsulates the past five years of western disenchantment towards Ukraine. However, closer scrutiny has much to tell us about what has gone so badly wrong in Europe's policy towards its large neighbour, with its population of 46 million.
There is a reason why the “Orange revolution” that spectacularly swept President Viktor Yushchenko to power has faded away. It is because Ukraine has proved to be ungovernable. The presidential elections that ushered in the revolution took place in 2004-2005; parliamentary elections were called in 2006; then early parliamentary elections were held in 2007. This plethora of elections is telling.
On Sunday 7 February, the run-off presidential election will tell us whether Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko or former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovic will make it to the highest post. We can only hope for a clear outcome. The alternative will be further chaos.
Either way, Kiev is still marred by what British scholar Andrew Wilson calls “virtual politics:” Free and fair election do take place regularly now, and this is by no means a small feat. Yet, from the ability of the government to implement policies, to the quality of the public services and the level of corruption, Ukraine’s record remains disappointing. According to the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, Kiev’s performance on these issues has been worse than that of some North African autocracies.
As it happens, improving Ukraine’s governance standards was supposed to be the paramount objective of European policy.
At the time of the Orange Revolution, EU High Representative Javier Solana and the then presidents of Poland and Lithuania proved highly reactive when it came to defusing the brewing crisis. Their engagement helped broker an agreement that led to the presidential election being re-run, and then to the highpoint of this bloodless upheaval.
The troubles for Brussels came after those outstanding events. All that the EU was able to offer in the immediate aftermath of the revolution was a ten-point update to a technical “Action Plan” that had been negotiated by Yushchenko’s predecessor. Since then, the EU has stepped up its assistance; it has launched new initiatives and offered more money. But it has not properly accounted for the fact that the Orange revolutionaries have plunged the country into utter disarray.
Part of the problem is that the EU watered down its conditions. Europe's principal mechanism by way of supporting a partner country’s domestic transformation has been a rigorous set of penalties and incentives. However, in the case of Ukraine, the EU has not suspended agreements or cut off funding when Kiev strayed from its commitments.
On the other hand, Brussels has been vague about what Ukraine can aspire to if it complies with EU rules. Crucially, the EU has always stopped short of offering the one thing most Ukrainians yearn for: the prospect of membership in the EU.
Make no mistake about it: the squabbling of its politicians and the cosy relationship between business and government are problems of Ukraine’s own making. Brussels cannot be blamed. Yet the two most significant reasons behind Europe's ambiguous policy on Ukraine have remarkably little to do with that country.
The first concerns Europe’s enlargement “fatigue”. The 2004 expansion of the EU into Central Europe generated worries about the Union’s decision-making processes and its legitimacy. In 2010 we may no longer hear European policy makers claiming that bringing Ukraine into the EU would be like the United States taking in Mexico, as then Commissioner Günther Verheugen put it. Even so, the EU has not moved away from its vague formulas, which basically tell Kiev that the door is neither open nor shut.
The second reason, which is not unrelated, is Russia, of course. European engagement has never really been about replacing Russia, whose ties to Ukraine are historical and cultural, as much as they are economic and political. However, some European countries have been concerned by the aftershocks of Ukraine’s European aspirations.
The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia provided the most blatant example of possible aftershocks. In Ukraine’s case, the consequences have most notably concerned energy politics. The disruption of gas deliveries from Russia first hit news in January 2006, when supplies to Europe plunged by a third in one day. Ever since then, Ukraine—through which about 80% of Russian gas exports to Europe pass—has been at the centre of endless squabbles with Moscow over energy transit.
Between pipeline geopolitics and obscure middlemen, energy has never been an easy target for reform in Eastern Europe. But Europe has moved slowly and without much coordination over such a strategically crucial issue,.
Above all, Europe’s failure has been tangible for those in Ukraine who most deserve to benefit from closer ties to the EU: the men and women in the street.
European angst about the economy and immigration has undermined the millions of Euros thrown at improving the welfare of this and other large neighbours.
The point is illustrated by a little story that appeared in the European media a couple of years ago. It was about twenty kids from the Ukrainian countryside who braved the freezing winter and travelled 500 kilometers to Kiev at their own expense to apply for EU visas. There they were asked to sing outside the consulate buildings in order to prove that they really were a folk choir invited to a European festival, as they claimed.
The episode may be crude, but only as crude as the moral of these past five years: As long as Europeans continue to look inward, as long as those just outside it feel as if they have been left behind, whatever the EU does beyond its borders risks being pointless. Worse still, it may end up being counterproductive.
Fabrizio Tassinari, is Head of Foreign Policy and EU studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of Why Europe Fears Its Neighbors, Praeger,2009