Iryna Solonenko and Peter Rutland
The publication of a letter from a dozen academics titled “EU should get tough now with Yanukovych ” in the Kyiv Post on June 16 has triggered a lively debate  about Western policy towards Ukraine. Taras Kuzio, Lucan Way, Serhiy Kudelia and half-a-dozen colleagues argue that the West must apply pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych to halt the erosion of democratic freedoms that has taken place since he took office in February 2010. They propose a visa-ban on top Ukrainian officials, and a halt to the introduction of a free-trade area with the European Union, unless what they see as the politically inspired trials of former officials such as ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko are dropped. In response, Alexander Motyl  and Adrian Karatnycky  have argued that keeping Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit should be the main priority shaping Western policy. They argue that the application of sanctions would merely help Yanukovych consolidate his authoritarian regime and push him even further in the direction of close ties with Russia.
“It is not unusual for Western foreign policy to be pulled between promoting democratic values on one hand and defending the West’s geopolitical interests on the other. However, the debate over Ukraine has an artificial quality in that it contributes to the over-personalization of politics in this country of 46 million people, reducing it to a personal battle between Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko.”
Even though most of the initial letters’ signatories are based in North America, it is interesting that they focus their call for sanctions on the European Union and not the US government. This reflects the perception that nowadays Brussels, not Washington, holds the key to Ukraine.
The context for this debate is that by the end of this year the EU and Ukraine are supposed to conclude talks on an Association Agreement  (AA) that have been under way for four years. The advocates of sanctions are concerned that such an agreement would give the Yanukovych government a free hand to manipulate the parliamentary elections that will take place in fall 2012.
It is not unusual for Western foreign policy to be pulled in two directions, between promoting democratic values on one hand and defending the West’s geopolitical interests on the other. However, the debate over Ukraine has an artificial quality in that it contributes to the over-personalization of politics in this country of 46 million people, reducing it to a personal battle between Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko. This is not to deny that a gross miscarriage of justice does seem to be under way in the Tymoshenko trial  – just that this factor alone should not bring Western policy towards Ukraine to a grinding halt.
The international record on sanctions of all types has been mixed, at best: on average, they work about half the time. One relevant success story would be the sanctions imposed on Slovakia before 1998. They did succeed in triggering a social mobilization that ousted Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar and set Slovakia on the path to EU entry.
At this juncture, however, the chances that sanctions on Ukraine’s top leaders would cause a radical shift in their political style, or mobilize society against them, are slim. The sanctions advocates don’t really explain why they think these sanctions would work. Conditionality only works if the benefits of complying with external requirements outweigh the costs of reforms. Ukraine’s ruling elites (like politicians everywhere) think short-term. In the short-term perspective the incumbent elites might consider they have more to lose from having free elections than they will gain from the long-term benefits the AA offers. Indeed, it would take up to 10-15 years for the deep and comprehensive free trade area between the EU and Ukraine, a core component of the AA, to become a reality, while in the short run the costs of adaptation will need to be paid. Added to which, Moscow can also exercise leverage, and try to neutralize Western initiatives.
Rather than play the carrots and sticks game, trying to influence leaders’ decisions, it is better to wager on society. This means seeing through to their conclusion the negotiations. The sanctions debate overlooks the potential transformative effect the AA will have on Ukraine. Signing the agreement would mean that Ukraine enters serious commitments to reform itself. Since the major barriers to EU-Ukraine bilateral trade are non-tariff, access to the EU market will require Ukraine to adopt up to 1,500 pages of acquis communautaire regulations. The AA will be a legally binding arrangement, meaning that the EU and European companies can bring Ukraine to the European Court of Justice if provisions of the agreement have been violated, and vice versa.
This type of engagement will encourage domestic reform-minded actors to push for change from inside. It will unlock the potential of numerous groups and individuals that are interested in reform, but have limited tools to push for them under present conditions. These actors include both civil society groups and businesses, who will be able to use the AA procedures to push for a more competitive environment and above all a fairer judicial process in Ukraine.
It is true that the EU runs the risk of being seen as compromising the values on which it wants the partnership with neighboring countries be based. When announcing the successful conclusion of AA talks this December, the EU should make it clear that it expects democratic norms to be upheld in Ukraine. But refusing to sign the agreement altogether would likely bring no policy change at all.
Failure to conclude the AA would not only be a blow to Ukraine, but also a nail in the coffin of the EU’s already embattled Eastern Neighborhood Policy – which is built on the premise that there are common values uniting the EU and its eastern neighbors.
Smart engagement, including increased flows of trade, mobility of people and growing interdependence, which the AA offers, is the way to go. Post-war Europe started with functional and technocratic integration, with no sign of political union in sight. What the EU is today, even with the current crisis, is still impressive. This tried and proven path of long-term integration is the best hope for success with Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors. Engagement will produce a critical mass of institutions, practices and individuals that will inevitably challenge the current regimes in the longer run. There is no short-term quick fix to the deficiencies in Ukraine’s political culture.
This article was originally published by our partner organization, Open Democracy, 4 August 2011 and is reissued here with permission.