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Treat Ukraine as a European Democracy

Ukraine faces considerable economic challenges, but democracy is becoming stronger. The upcoming presidential elections could, however, result in more authoritarian politics, which would lessen Western support and increase its vulnerability to Russian coercion. Ukrainian ties with EU and America are vital, warn William Courtney and Denis Corboy
William Courtney
17 November 2009

Presidential elections

 As Ukraine advances to likely free and fair Presidential elections in early 2010, it is becoming a stronger democracy and further escaping Russia’s trajectory.  Ukraine should be treated as a European democracy.  How the EU treats populous and strategically-located Ukraine is important to the future of Europe.  This reality must be faced, not mishandled as in the case of Turkey.

 Democratic development in Ukraine is gradual but steady.  Ukraine is reinforcing a recent record of free and fair elections and allowing open debate.  TV networks are more open to opposing views than, for example, those in Russia or Italy.

 The main candidates for president are running as centrists, not as pro-Russian or pro-Western extremists.  Five years ago Moscow endorsed Viktor Yanukovich, a kiss of death in parts of Ukraine.  He lost an election after the peaceful Orange revolution.  Now Yanukovich touts nonalignment and trade with Europe.  Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko occupies centre ground between Yanukovich and the vocally pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.  Yanukovich and Tymoshenko will likely be the top vote-getters in January’s elections and face each other in a February run-off.

Despite leadership squabbling and frequent central governmental gridlock, Ukraine remains politically stable and socially tolerant.  Although Yushchenko has approval ratings well under 10%, Ukrainians are patiently waiting and preparing for scheduled presidential elections.  A comparably unpopular leader in Russia might have confronted a palace coup, as did Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.  Or in Georgia, faced peaceful street demonstrations and been forced to resign early, as did President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003.

 Economic challenges

Beyond recovering from the severe downturn, Ukraine faces major economic challenges.  Agricultural land, the richest black earth region on the continent, is not yet fully privatized.  Domestic energy prices are far below international levels, incentivizing huge waste.  Stifling corruption is an economic deadweight.  In the 2009 Transparency International index of corruption perceptions -- in which 1 is “not corrupt” and 5, “extremely corrupt” -- Ukraine registers 4.3, higher than, for example, Russia’s 3.9 or Italy’s 3.7. 

Nonetheless, Ukraine has a basis for progress.  As Anders Aslund points out in his insightful new book, How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy, Ukrainian prices and trade are mostly free.  From 2000 to 2007 GDP in current dollars grew by an average of 24% per year.  This surge owed largely to private enterprise, which accounts for over three-fifths of output.

Ukraine's urgent need is to restrain government spending in return for more IMF support to help it recover from the downturn.  Unfortunately, the parliament recently passed and President Yushchenko signed a fiscally irresponsible bill mandating increases in minimum wages and pensions.  This step puts at risk the next tranche of a much-needed IMF loan for Ukraine. 

Democratic transition

Ukraine’s democratic transition will face continued pressure.  A recent 14-nation survey of Central and Eastern European countries by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that Ukraine was the only country where more respondents disapproved than approved of the transition to a multiparty system and market economy.  In 1991 72% of Ukrainians approved of the change to democracy, whereas only 30% now approve. 

Thus, the presidential election may be a vital inflexion point for Ukraine’s future.  If the next president and parliament cooperate to accelerate reform, Ukraine will become a stronger democracy and an engine of sustained economic growth.  If not, Ukraine could succumb to authoritarian politics.  This would make the diverse country more unstable and leave it twisting in the wind with less Western support and more vulnerable to Russian coercion. 

Ukrainians are divided about joining NATO but united in wanting to be Europeans.  The industrialized east has nearly ten million ethnic Russians but they have never voted to secede or join with Russia.  Most have family ties there but seem to prefer a freer Ukraine.

Ukraine is developing a promising regional support network.  It sold weapons to Georgia when Russia threatened.  Ukraine has become the unofficial leader of six countries negotiating with the EU on its Eastern Partnership.  The others are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova.

Ukraine is widening the democracy gap with Russia.  It is also outpacing Georgia, to which it has been linked as a reforming once-Soviet country.  Backsliding on media freedom and arbitrary executive power in Georgia should cause NATO and the EU to decouple the two countries in consideration for membership.

NATO and the EU

What does treating Ukraine as a European democracy mean in practice?

First, the EU ought to offer Ukraine a credible roadmap for eventual admission and complete promising negotiations on a meaningful free trade pact under the Association agreement.  Not giving Ukraine a clear message for the future destabilizes its internal politics.  In two decades its economy may be one of the largest in the EU, which is Ukraine's largest trading partner and donor.

Second, NATO should make clear that Ukraine is nearly ready for admission and can join when it develops a national consensus for this.  Ukraine’s military is substantially reformed and already contributes to NATO.

Third, anxieties over Crimea should not impede Ukraine’s entry into NATO or the EU.  The Kremlin has artificially inflamed two situations there -- the future of the Black Sea Fleet, based at Sevastopol, and disquiet of the majority ethnic Russian population.  President Yushchenko’s demand that the Fleet depart when its lease is up in 2017 has not helped.  The next president should seek a practical solution to the Fleet, some of which is decaying or will relocate eastward.  Crimea is not Abkhazia.  Kyiv has taken key steps to tolerance in Crimea and should do more.  U.S. and European embassies in Kyiv ought to bolster this outreach by opening consulates in Crimea.

Fourth, Europe and America should encourage the new president and parliament to accelerate reform, especially decentralization of power.  The only way Ukraine can become fully European is through comprehensive reform, however politically painful are the decisions required for this.  Ukraine’s ties with Europe and America are a vital anchor to bolster confidence for such decision-making.

William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and Senior Director of the US National Security Council staff for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.  Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. 

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