Sometimes history can be too ironic. This week, as Ukraine marked the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine in Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovich’s government announced that it would not sign a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius on November 28. Just like that, Ukraine’s chance to transcend its tortured history appears to have been thrown away.
The ostensible issue that forced Yanukovich to balk was the EU’s demand that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year prison sentence, be permitted to travel to Germany for medical treatment. Though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled her imprisonment politically motivated, Yanukovich – whose power to pardon is absolute – has refused to countenance her release, desiring above all to prevent her candidacy in the Ukrainian presidential election due in 2015.
Perhaps Yanukovich’s retreat from Europe should have been foreseen, given behavior – like locking up his political opponents – that has been difficult to reconcile with European values and democratic norms. But it was his recent series of secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin that sealed the fate of the agreement with the EU.
Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed that in Russian eyes, Russia without Ukraine was a normal nation-state, but Russia with Ukraine was an empire. But Russians who believe that Yanukovich’s retreat from Europe represents a great victory should think again. Just as Putin’s gross mismanagement of the economy has led even the economics minister to predict stagnation for the rest of this decade, his geopolitical nostalgia is poised to saddle Russians with the same dysfunctional empire that impoverished them under the Soviets. Worse still, it seems that only the same system – in which siloviki (secret policemen) are in charge – appears capable of holding together such a ramshackle economic empire.
Putin can preen, but the fact remains that Ukraine’s economy is in far worse shape than Russia’s. A demographically declining empire of crony capitalists, from which the most talented and educated flee – some 300,000 left Russia last year alone – is hardly likely to be a serious strategic challenger to either the United States or China. On the contrary, China covets much of eastern Russia, lands taken from it during its years of “humiliation” in the nineteenth century.
Having recently traveled to Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine, I saw firsthand the splits in the political class and in public opinion concerning whether these countries should hitch their economies and security to Europe and the US, or submit to Russia through membership in its Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). The Russian system vaguely resembles Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in both its rhetoric and its aim of subordinating neighbors.
Armenia was the first ex-Soviet state to succumb to Putin’s pressure and shun the EU Eastern Partnership. After four years of negotiations, Putin warned President Serzh Sargsyan that the price of Russian gas would be doubled, Russian security guarantees would be withdrawn (Armenia is locked in a bitter dispute with oil-rich Azerbaijan), and the large Armenian diaspora in Russia would no longer be as welcome to work and live in the country as before.
Similar attempts to bully Georgia were made, and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili talked about joining Putin’s customs union. But, following the overwhelming defeat of the overtly pro-Russia candidate Nino Burjanadze in the recent presidential election, the ruling Georgian Dream party decided to stay the Euro-Atlantic course, particularly as Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions remain under Russian occupation. (Russia has also tried heavy-handed tactics on Moldova by threatening to ban the country’s wine exports to Russia and to recognize the independence of the breakaway territory of Transnistria.)
The West can diminish the force of Russian bullying by assuring ex-Soviet countries that the Eastern Partnership is not dead, and that something short of the envisioned free-trade areas will emerge. The EU can also continue to work for greater access to visas and, eventually, full visa-free travel. It can remain engaged on cooperation agreements affecting aviation, trade, academic exchanges, transport, infrastructure, tourism, and agriculture and rural development.
Moreover, it can provide renewed help for democratic institution-building: assisting judicial reform, raising anti-corruption awareness, and encouraging prosecution of even high-ranking offenders, as well as supporting engagement by civil-society groups. Perhaps most critically, countries such as Austria, where members of the Yanukovich clique have created obscure companies to hide their ill-gotten assets, can stop turning a blind eye to the plundering of countries like Ukraine.
Unfortunately, in an era of budgetary austerity and lingering eurozone fragility, EU member states were unable to neutralize Russia’s economic threats against Ukraine, particularly the loss of the Russian market. Perhaps a more radical solution to Russian bullying might have been to match Russia’s recent arbitrary ban on Ukrainian chocolate exports with a ban on Russian vodka exports to the EU.
In the end, it may be the oligarchs who have bankrolled Yanukovich’s career – particularly Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man – who will make the ultimate decision about Ukraine’s fate. As Ukraine’s European prospects diminish, the economy – and thus the oligarchs’ fortunes – will be exposed to the Russian siloviki’s untender mercies. Perhaps once Akhmetov and his ilk comprehend the long-term risks to their businesses and wealth, they will induce MPs that are beholden to them to switch sides and unite with pro-EU forces to restore Ukraine’s European future.
Charles Tannock is Foreign Affairs Coordinator for the European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey.