Kyiv's crisis: the EU role

On the eve of Ukraine’s election, Andreas Umland rebukes Europe for its indecisive policy towards Ukraine. By refusing to offer Ukraine a clear prospect of eventual EU membership, the EU has exacerbated the country’s political problems in ways which could prove disastrous.
Andreas Umland
16 January 2010

At the beginning of November 2009 the Pew Global Attitudes Project published the results of their survey in post-Soviet countries.  The findings on Ukraine were sobering. 

Across the board they showed rising Ukrainian disappointment at the democratic path of development which had been so resoundingly taken in 2004, at the Orange Revolution. The popularity of democracy had fallen in Ukraine by 42% between 1991-2009, the sharpest fall in all the post-Soviet countries where surveys had been carried out.  The 30% who still supported democracy in 2009 was the lowest figure of all the countries in the study.

Two contributory factors for this growing discontent with their political system have been underestimated both in Ukraine and in the West.  The first is the semi-presidential structure of Ukrainian democracy.  The second are recent EU policies towards Ukraine. Although these appear to relate solely to the country’s foreign relations, they relate indirectly to the domestic crisis and particularly to the ongoing divisions among Ukraine’s elite.  If these are not addressed, they will continue to affect politics domestically, as well as Ukraine’s attitudes towards the West and Russia .  Prospects for 2010 and thereafter will remain unclear.

The semi-presidential cul de sac

 One of the main problems of the political system since the Orange Revolution are the destructive repercussions of the hasty constitutional reforms carried out at the end of 2004. 

At the height of the uprising a political compromise between pro- and anti-Orange groupings was arrived at in an extremely short period of time. As a result, from early 2006 the semi-presidential balance between the president and the prime minister became set in concrete, rather than just nominal, as it had been under Leonid Kuchma.  This semi-presidential form of government is problematic for societies in transition, not least for Eastern European countries, as has been amply demonstrated (see for example Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe ed. Robert Elgie, Sophia Moestrup, Manchester University Press 2008).  Ukrainian attitudes to democracy and the international reputations of their politicans have been negatively affected by the conflict inherent in a divided executive.  The new division of power between government leaders and the state and the parliamentary-presidential system which came into force on 1 January 2006 were important, if not the chief, conditions which resulted in the prolonged standoffs between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister(s) Yanukovych or Tymoshenko.

The failure to understand these reasons and the nature of the political crisis has not only distorted Ukrainian attitudes to their young democracy in recent years, but also the opinion of some foreign commentators, not familiar with recent political research.  The effects of semi-presidentialism on this post-totalitarian, state has compelled many people to question the suitability of democracy for Ukraine or Ukrainians for democracy.

While Ukraine’s current semi-presidential system may be relatively democratic, government powers within this system are fractured. Since the semi-presidency in Weimar fell in 1930-31, many comparative studies have shown that a divided executive is ineffectual, especially in countries in transition.  But outside the narrow circle of international political analysts, this thesis is rarely recognised as being a problem relating to Ukraine not specific to this post-Soviet country.

Widespread dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s government at home and abroad has bred fatalism.  The strange political spectacles in Kyiv during the past few years are seen as reflecting the political immaturity of the Ukrainian elite, or even the whole population.  What is often ignored is that from 1991 to 2004 Ukraine has achieved one of the most impressive processes of democratisation in recent European history, and done so in the teeth of tremendous difficulties.  It was only in 1998, for instance, that the Germans removed a leader, Chancellor Kohl, for the first time in a general election. (In 1969 Chancellor Kiesinger also stood down after Bundestag elections, but his party CDU/CSU had actually won these election, unlike in 1998.)  In 1994 the Ukrainians removed their first president,  Kravchuk, who had been elected in 1991.  In doing this they met the criterion which is so important for political scientists in determining the maturity of a democracy.

EU membership unlikely and the disintegration of the Ukrainian political class

Another factor seriously underestimated by the West is the EU’s own role in the ongoing political confusion in Ukraine.

 Zbigniew Brzezinski’s dictum that without Ukraine Russia is no longer an empire is well-known in Europe.  But its political relevance for international security today is less often given serious consideration.  While the EU cannot directly influence relations between Russia and Ukraine, any more than it can solve her problems, its Ukrainian policy does none the less affect these relations indirectly.

The EU has an important influence on the whole process of Ukraine’s post-Soviet transformation, whether it likes or not.  The successful Central European transformations of the 90s sometimes led pro-European observers to overestimate the relative weight of EU membership conditions. But for Ukraine today the Brussels-Kyiv relationship and the policies of the EU Delegation in Kyiv have an impact that goes far beyond mere foreign relations. While the EU is supporting current Ukrainian reforms with various programmes and agreements, Kyiv is still being denied any official hope of membership.

For EU politicians and officials the difference between intensive cooperation and targeted preparation for joining may seem semantic. But for Kyiv’s elite, as for many Ukrainians, the difference between an official “yes” and “no” is considerable.  It is also very relevant for the preservation of Ukrainian statehood, as it is for the security of Eastern Europe as a whole.

For aspiration to full EU membership is one of the few goals which still unites almost all Ukrainian politicians at a national level, as indeed it does large sectors of the population in the east and west of the country. Issues like NATO membership, Russian as a second national language or interpretations of the history of World War II may deeply divide the country. But the goal of EU membership enjoys wide support, not only in western Ukraine, but in the east too (though less in the south).  Recently, however, the enthusiasm of Ukrainians who were once outspokenly pro-European has started to wane, presumably because of the EU’s restrictive visa policy, and the way it has continued to distance itself (see Elena Gnedina: EU running on empty in Ukraine in Euobserver 16.11.2009, http://euobserver.com/9/2988). 

But the prospect of EU membership could still serve to link up the main political camps in Kyiv, which are at loggerheads on all other issues. However,  while this aspiration to unity still obtains, it could fade if the EU remains vague about its intentions in Ukraine.  The results could, in the worst case scenario have a negative impact not only on Ukraine, but on Europe’s security too.

There is no alternative to Ukrainian integration in the EU

In the long term, Ukraine is too weak economically, militarily and politically to exist as a neutral state in the buffer zone between the West and Russia.  Given the country's geographical location and the growing ideological differences between the West and Russia, the «Swiss model» which is discussed from time to time in Kyiv, seems ever less relevant for Ukraine today.   

Sooner or later Ukraine will have choose one of the politico-economic blocs.  Kyiv will be unable to carry on for very long with its current many-vector policies, although the EU is pressing it to do just that.  NATO in its turn cannot in the short term offer Kyiv an alternative integration model:  for several years the possibility of NATO membership has, unlike EU membership, been refused by more than half the population.  In the immediate future the question of NATO membership will clearly provoke such heated argument that any participation in the Membership Action Plan is more likely to decrease, than increase, Ukraine's security.

There is unfortunately some danger of this in respect of EU membership too.  If the EU continues to lose favour in Ukraine, part of the population, especially the political and economic elites of the east and south, might start supporting a new alliance with Russia.  This might seem acceptable, even desirable, to some Western observers and EU officials, but it could be a risky development, and not only for Ukraine.

Scepticism, if not antipathy, towards the current Russian government is deeply rooted in many important western Ukrainians and Kyivans active in political and cultural life, because of the two countries' controversial history.  More and more Ukrainians, especially the young, also see a resumption of the Russian connection as being unacceptable, and not just for national and historical reasons.  These people have become socialised under democratic conditions:  they have pluralistic views and recognise that the current authoritarian Russian model of development has no future and that Russia as a long-term partner is not reliable.  The potential pro-Russian re-orientation of the leaders of eastern and southern Ukraine would find no support with a significant part of both the elite and the population, even if Brussels continues to equivocate.  Thus the rapprochement between eastern and southern Ukraine and Russia would deepen the split in the country and could threaten the state with disintegration.

Some Western observers, who regard themselves as «realists», along with a few self-styled “pragmatic” Ukrainian commentators consider that in such circumstances Ukraine could and should formally divide.  This is, of course, a scenario much discussed in Moscow. But such a «two state solution» only appears realistic at first glance, because in the event of a split, the question would arise as to where the border between the two new states should lie. This would be insoluble. It would be impossible to determine clearly where the «pro-Western» and «pro-Russian» parts of the country began and ended.

Western commentators often forget that the main protagonists of the Orange Revolution – Yushchenko and Tymoshenko – were not born in western or even central Ukraine.  They both come from the east.  It is difficult to imagine that these two politicians, or other pro-Western political leaders with east Ukrainian origins, would agree to any deal where their native regions would once more fall into the sphere of influence of an increasingly anti-Western Russia.  So the idea of dividing up the country is not just absurd, but  dangerous.  Any such scenario could lead to civil war.  Russia would probably become involved and the consequences for the continent of Europe as a whole would be unpredictable.

Worrying though this sounds, such a development cannot be completely ruled out. The deepening crisis in Ukraine combined with continued EU uncertainty could lead more and more Ukrainians to question their country's ability, in isolation, to continue operating as an effective state.  This would encourage separatist tendences in places like Crimea, for example, where most of the population is of Russian extraction and feels ambivalent about their peninsula being part of the Ukrainian state.  Were tensions to escalate, ethnic Russians, not to mention Russian citizens, could be drawn in and this could lead to Kremlin intervention along the lines of the Georgian conflict of August 2008. 

Why Russia might precipitate this ‘Anschluss’

This catastrophic scenario is, of course, by no means inevitable.  Mainstream Russian politicians sometimes play with the idea that Crimea, or at the very least Sevastopol, “actually belongs to Russia”.  But for the time being the Kremlin gives no evidence of seriously considering reuniting Crimea with Russia – not least because the price of such an Anschluss would be so enormous that it would do more harm than good to the Russian state.  There are not many democrats in the current Russian leadership, but it can still be classified as a corporation that functions more or less rationally.

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Russian political landscape contains ultra-nationalist groupings with connections in the State Duma, the government and the presidential administration.  Two of the most significant – though by no means the only ones– are Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Alexander Dugin’s International “Eurasian Movement”.  It is safe to assume that even these ultra-nationalist Russians recognise that military confrontation with Ukraine, over Crimea for example, would be pointless.  

However, they and their ilk would derive political benefit from escalating tension in eastern and southern Ukraine, from Russia’s subsequent military intervention and the resulting massive confrontation with the West.  The logic of political competition between the ideological camps in Moscow might tempt Russian right-wing extremists to inflame national differences in Ukraine with the help of its supporter organisations and political allies in Crimea or Donbass.

The conclusion for the EU:  open up the prospect of membership

Hence, for the EU the question of Ukraine’s future is more than a question of foreign policy. The threat to its own security has been insufficiently recognised.  The continuing lack of clarity in policies towards Ukraine  - “the door isn’t open, but it’s not shut either” -  is not just unwelcome in Kyiv.   The risks of pursuing this strategy run counter to the basic interests of the EU and its member states. The simple reduction of the complicated controversy around EU membership for Ukraine to a confrontation between “Ukrainophiles” and “Ukrainosceptics” is based on an imperfect understanding of this country’s significance for Europe as a whole.

Given how uncomfortable the alternatives are to offering Ukraine the prospect of EU membership, current EU policy seems short-sighted.  Neutrality, a new liaison with Russia, division of the country: none of these are acceptable futures for the second biggest state in Europe.  Were Ukraine to disintegrate, this would probably ignite Russian irredentism and at worst it would lead to the resurrection of the Russian Empire as prophesied by Brzezinski.  The consequences for European, and probably world, security would be far-reaching. 

For these reasons the EU has no alternative but officially to «take Ukraine under its wing». It should do so sooner, rather than later.  The prospect of joining the EU in the not too distant future could unite the opposing camps of the Ukrainian elite and rally the culturally divided people of Ukraine under one banner.   The carrot of future membership would also allow the EU to apply the stick of demands for more active constitutional, administrative, economic and educational reforms. The EU could, for instance, make it a condition of Ukraine's candidacy for membership that the existing presidential system be replaced by a parliamentary republic.  In this way the EU would both render service to its member states and extend the reach of its system of values.

Dr Andreas Umland is general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.html )


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