Under Western Eyes


Mykola Riabchuk

Ironically, the annual EU-Ukraine summit held in Kyiv on December 19 overshadowed all other political events in Ukraine over the past few weeks, even though its actual results were close to zero. Moreover, the meager results had been rather predictable since the Ukrainian government had not indicated any intention to ease its multifaceted pressure on civil society, nor had the EU looked ready to condone Kyiv’s increasingly authoritarian behavior.

Yet, the drama under the title “Ukraine–EU Association Agreement” had been played for so long and by so many actors, that most of the viewers could not merely give it up. Some expected a miracle, but many more simply watched the ship sinking, taking down with it sheaves of toughly negotiated documents.

Still, the Ukrainian crew looked surprisingly cheerful and the foreign guests apparently unworried. Unlike the viewers, all the participants of the performance had got what they wished. Ukraine’s friends like Poland or Sweden left the door open, i.e., the Agreement negotiations pending, albeit at the lowest speed possible and with the slimmest chance of being completed in any form in the foreseeable future. Ukraine’s opponents, like France and Germany, got a plausible excuse not to initial the Agreement they had not wanted to sign anyway. And the Ukrainian president got one more opportunity for publicity photographs with the EU Big Bosses and could display them ad nauseam on all the loyalist TV channels and newspapers. Now, he can continue his “European” rhetoric with even greater confidence.

Very few people believe in this rhetoric but this is of little importance. The main goal of president’s talks is not to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, but rather to prevent his own and his cronies’ expulsion from this prestigious club. Most of them, on a personal level, integrated into the EU long ago, with their families, businesses, bank accounts, and all the daily habits like shopping, holidaying, or health and relaxation. They may dupe Moscow, Brussels, and their own electorate with ideas of a Russian-led Customs Union, Single Economic Space, or Eurasian integration. This is for fools’ consumption—for ‘lokhi’, as they say. But for the real men, the “krutye patsany,” as they define themselves, there is a much better place called “Europe.” And they have already joined it—with no action plans and association agreements, merely with some stolen assets, laundered money, and diplomatic passports that allow them, unlike common Ukrainian “lokhi,” to enter the Schengen fortress without visas.

“Lokhi’,” i.e. Ukrainian society, seems to be the only loser in this whimsical game between the Ukrainian government and EU bureaucracy. Half-measures and general incoherence badly hamper EU policies everywhere, not only in Ukraine. On the one hand, the EU was right to postpone the initialing of the Agreement for some technical reasons, and to condition its signing and eventual ratification with clear demands for restoration of democratic practices in Ukraine. On the other hand, this reasonable decision was not buttressed by a set of additional sticks and carrots. EU politicians seem to believe that the Association Agreement per se is a sufficient bonus for the Ukrainian leaders to strive toward. This might have been true if Mr Yanukovych et al cared a little about something they barely understand: the national interest. This is hardly the case, however. Therefore, a tougher approach is needed, something the feckless EU fails to apply even against bloody dictators from Central Asia.

Such an approach was clearly outlined by Andrew Wilson, a leading expert on Ukrainian affairs, in his policy memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations. He suggested the EU leaders adopt a twin-track approach: “The agreements cannot be formally signed, but should be kept alive until Ukraine is ready to implement the conditionality laid out in resolutions by the European Parliament and other bodies. But lecturing Ukraine on human rights at the summit will have little effect. The EU should also move towards sanctions that show its red lines have not been dropped; targeting the individuals most responsible for democratic backsliding and signaling more general vigilance against the Ukrainian elite’s free-flowing travel and financial privileges in the EU” http://www.ecfr.eu/page//UkraineMemo.pdf .

Since the EU has been reluctant to introduce any serious sanctions against the post-Soviet autocrats, especially in resource-rich countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, or Azerbaijan, their Ukrainian twins have very little to worry about. In December, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions continued their Gleichschaltung in both political life and the economy. First, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine approved (what a surprise!) the decision of the parliament that allows the government to pay social benefits to various categories of people at its whim—even though in past years the Court, not yet staffed with the president’s loyalists, twice rejected similar claims as a violation of the national constitution http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2011/12/27/6870668 . Second, the government of Crimea ceded 9,000 hectares of valuable land to a murky hunters’ society registered to three pals of the president http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2011/12/26/6868443/. Third, the President’s 38-year-old son acquired a few more industrial assets and entered the lists of Ukraine’s top hundred richest men http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=38740. Fourth, the President’s friend and sponsor Rinat Akhmetov received a concession for the virtually monopolistic export of electricity http://www.epravda.com.ua/publications/2011/12/15/309807/, just as another friend and sponsor of the president, Yuri Ivanyushchenko, allegedly acquired a monopoly over the export of grain a few months ago http://lb.ua/news/2011/03/28/90044_Yura_Yenakiivskiy_stav_generalom.html. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been completely emasculated and de facto subordinated to the presidential administration, under the pretext of the so-called judicial reform http://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/119708/. And another band of “professionals” from Donbas has occupied several dozen top governmental positions in both Kyiv and other regions of Ukraine http://gazeta.ua/articles/politics-newspaper/_yanukovich-priznachae-na-posadi-lyudej-yakih-znayut-jogo-diti/409143.

Once again, Ukraine was downgraded in 2011 by various international agencies in terms of democracy, civil rights, freedom of speech, corruption, inequality and injustice, conditions for doing business, etc. This might be a part of a global anti-Yanukovych conspiracy, as his propagandists suggest, but domestic opinion surveys confirm the same tendencies. In May, a revealing poll was carried out nationwide by the reputable Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences. The respondents were asked how, in their opinion, the situation had changed in various social fields within the past few months. The answers (below) shed some light on the essence of Yanukovych’s “reforms” that arguably required some curbs on civic freedoms and democratic institutions:
Changed
for worse Not
changed Changed
for better
Economic situation in Ukraine in general 58.1 37.1 4.8
Level [standards?] of living 68.4 29.4 2.4
Level of corruption 37.2 59.8 3.0
Level of democracy in the country 33.1 63.9 3.0
Protection from authorities’ arbitrariness 36.1 61.4 2.5
Job guarantees and possibilities of employment 51.6 46.6 1.8
Source: Krytyka, 15:7-8 (2011), 6.

On December 21, at the annual Putin-style president’s press-conference, Mustafa Nayem from the news portal “Ukrainska Pravda” dared to put to Yanukovych the question that perplexes virtually all Ukrainians: “Viktor Fedorovych, you mentioned many times that the economic situation in the country is bad, people do not feel any improvements in their life, there are no money in state coffins for the victims of Chornobyl, or veterans of Afghanistan… At the same, we observe every day how your personal life is improving. We see how you rent a helicopter at $1 million [a year] from the company controlled by your son http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2011/07/20/6405659/. We know that in Mezhyhirya [Yanukovych’s 140-hectare estate near Kyiv, controversially privatized http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2011/11/16/6760109/%5D the construction work is continued by the companies controlled by your son. What is the secret of your success – why is everything so bad for the country and so good for you?” «I do not know what happy life and gossip about my family you are talking about,» responded the president, «I just want to say that I don’t envy you» http://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/leschenko/4ef2403ec1268/view_print/.

It is not clear whether the president lost his temper and overtly threatened the journalist or just completed one his numerous linguistic faux pas. It is remarkable also that he completely ignored the essence of the Nayem’s question about corruption, nepotism, and lack of restraint, and interpreted everything as indiscreet interference in his family life. This is a minor story that tells, however, a lot about both intellectual and moral quality of the ruling “elite.”

One may praise the EU for its reluctance to make a deal with these people, but one should also censure the EU for still tolerating these people far too much.

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Pingback: Under Western Eyes « Maidan

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