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Ukraine at the Crossroads

November 3, 2011 - Adam Reichardt - Bez kategorii

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ADAM REICHARDT: On October 11th 2011, a court in Kyiv sentenced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison and prohibited her from occupying any government post for three years. Do you think this verdict will make Tymoshenko Ukraine’s Joan of Arc?

VOLODYMYR HORBACH: I would not want Yulia Tymoshenko, nor any other woman in Ukraine, to meet the same fate as Joan of Arc. Nevertheless it is quite realistic to call her a heroine. People in the East really like to worship victims, especially those who are against the system. In Ukraine, people are always compassionate with victims of the government’s injustice, and Tymoshenko’s trial has been seen as such an injustice. Opinion polls have shown that one-third of Ukrainians believe that the trial was unfair, while another third believes that the government was right, and the other third has no opinion. And yet, when asked whether the trial had a political or criminal nature, over 60 per cent of the people surveyed believe that it was political. Even those who had no opinion the day before the trial, now think about it in this way. Only time will tell what happens next. Nevertheless, the court’s decision has been seen to be highly unfair.

Do you think Tymoshenko will be free?

Quite possibly, but let’s return to Joan of Arc. If Tymoshenko is allowed to run for election, she may build her political capital around such issues as fighting the oligarchs, and the need for the state to take over their factories, businesses and the resource industry. Such populist claims will probably bring her popularity and indeed for some time may turn her into a heroine. There is a real chance that she will come back to politics and even win a presidential election. In Ukraine there is a need for the changes that she will probably put forward as part of her campaign.

How would you describe Ukraine’s political culture? Does it have more of a romantic or rational nature?

There is nothing rational about Ukraine’s political culture. In fact Ukraine’s political culture is very similar to Poland’s political culture. It is a culture of mass movements and all of our political breakthroughs, including the Orange Revolution, were of such a nature. There is absolutely no rationality in Ukrainian society's thinking. In Ukraine it is senseless to analyse political parties based on their programmes, as the latter are not followed. Due to this, Ukrainian voters do not look at the programme they either like or dislike a political party. Maybe the only difference between Poles and Ukrainians is that with each election (with the exception of the most recent ones) the Poles have chosen new leaders, while the Ukrainians have constantly given new chances to the winners and losers of previous elections. Even if a politician loses an election, it does not automatically mean that he or she has to leave the political scene. He or she can always have a second chance. This has happened in Ukraine more than once, with the best example being Viktor Yanukovych, and the same may well happen to Yulia Tymoshenko.

What does this trial tell us about the state of democracy in Ukraine? Freedom House has already lowered Ukraine’s ranking from “free” to “partially free”, which gives us some idea about the alarming situation of Ukraine’s democracy.

This is true. Until recently, Ukraine has been a leader of democracy building in the former Soviet Union and has served as an example for such countries as Belarus and Russia. Today, however, Ukraine’s domestic policy shows a tendency towards a more authoritarian political system, although I think this is a temporary trend, and a sort of fashion. This trend will not have a significant impact simply because Ukraine has no resources to introduce strong authoritarian rule. Ukrainians have not enough capital in terms of natural resources (petroleum or natural gas) nor high degree of societal trust towards pro-governmental politicians, such trust as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus or Vladimir Putin in Russia enjoy. Therefore there is neither the political nor economic foundation for an authoritarian regime to be built in Ukraine. What is happening right now is more a kind of saving of Yanukovych’s political regime and strengthening of the position of president in the current system, but there is no room here for authoritarianism.

Looking at the efforts that Yanukovych is making to improve relations with the European Union, do you think there is still a high chance for the signing of an Association Agreement and the establishment a free trade zone? Could this help Yanukovych and his party win the next parliamentary and presidential elections?

I think that Yanukovych truly wants to achieve an association agreement and a free trade zone as part of his foreign policy. However he did not expect the reaction the West gave to Tymoshenko's verdict. Yanukovych is not European. He is a post-Soviet politician with a post-communist logic of governance and management. The basis of his actions is in the interests of bureaucracy which is backed by big business. Yanukovych does not believe in the meaning of moral values for politics. Financial interests and material benefits are much more important to him. In Yanukovych’s opinion, if the EU is interested in having a free trade zone with Ukraine, Tymoshenko's case should stay out of the discussions. This kind of thinking was Yanukovych’s strategic error and he has been left to ponder over how to solve this problem. The situation is extremely difficult for him and as far as I see it, he has two exits: he can either introduce a system into Ukraine similar to the one we see in Belarus or Russia; a kind of authoritarianism with control over the media, business, and society, etc. Or he could opt for democratisation and an emphasis on human rights, including the case of Tymoshenko, which would bring him closer to the EU. Choosing this second option could threaten his political power. There could also be a third option: a certain liberalisation where Yanukovych would allow Tymoshenko to return to politics and start a political campaign, although with much lower standards than those accepted in Western Europe. Political competition would then take place in an environment in which the laws of the media, information and elections themselves are all subject to manipulation. In this context, Tymoshenko would probably win the parliamentary elections, but just as an ordinary MP without her party fraction. The West would probably be satisfied but Tymoshenko would not have much influence. This option is quite complicated, however, and for the moment not even realistic. I believe that right now, Yanukovych does not really have a good exit, which is why he will probably lose the 2015 elections.

Let’s talk about the security and defence policy, and Ukraine’s relation with NATO and the US. Ukraine, at least officially, has declared a policy of the so-called “non-block” status. How do you assess Ukraine’s policy towards the West and Russia? Is it possible to keep some kind of balance between NATO and Russia?

In my opinion, the current government’s policy towards NATO is a forced one. A refusal to integrate with NATO has a political nature. It is an effect of Yanukovych’s campaign promises as well as being Russia’s stance. Strategically, however, Ukraine is more interested in cooperation with NATO than with Russia. NATO has better technology and better organisation, and offers Ukraine the chance to modernise its defence sector. Russia, on the other hand,  has almost next to nothing to offer which is why even such an opponent of NATO as Yanukovych (and this opinion can be made based on his campaign slogans) knows that he has to cooperate with NATO simply because it is in Ukraine’s best interest. What is quite unique in Ukraine’s political life today is the fact that the opposition is not against NATO for the first time. The opposition does not use anti-NATO sentiment as a weapon against the government, which is something that Yanukovych did when he was in opposition. From a military and technical perspective, this is a very good time for Ukraine. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its political life.

Speaking about relations between Ukraine and Russia, what do you make of Putin’s plans for a return to the presidency in Russia?

Putin’s political plans are, without a doubt, a threat to Yanukovych and Ukraine. It is clear that Putin envisions a reintegration of the former Soviet Union. In his first two terms, Putin focused on reintegrating Russia with Chechnya, Tatarstan, and Bashkiria. And concluding from his recent article in Izvestia (see Andrzej Brzeziecki’s opinion article, “There will be no reintegration”) we can expect that in his third term, Putin will try to reintegrate the whole of the former USSR. Ukraine will be a critical point of this process. It is a big challenge for Yanukovych and Ukraine, and the question is how should they react? Does Ukraine have adequate means to fight it off? It would really help if Ukraine had support from the EU or the US, and if this support could allow Ukraine to keep some kind of balance. However, unfortunately, Tymoshenko’s case has deprived Yanukovych of his balancing tool. I do not believe that Yanukovych wants to be Putin’s vassal but he may have no choice, and in the end, he may be forced to go the same ways as Belarus’s leader, Lukashenko.

But don’t you think that the West is more pragmatic and might be able to sacrifice the Tymoshenko case in order not to allow Russia and Ukraine to get closer?

I believe that the West might agree to an Association Agreement and a free trade zone for one simple reason: to have more influence on Ukraine’s internal affairs. Right now, the thinking of the EU is to postpone the association negotiations and wait until the political situation changes in Ukraine. But this might take quite some time. It might also happen that the next president will act in name only, with the real power held by Putin. Such a threat really exists.

The Obama administration has been focusing its foreign policy on Russia. How do you assess this change in American policy? Do you think the US is currently ignoring Ukraine?

Objectively, Russia is much more important for the US than Ukraine is. However, this change in the attitude of the US that you talk about is partially Ukraine’s own fault. Internal conflicts, especially the one between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, have drawn the US and the EU away from Ukraine. In this aspect, the position of the Obama administration is well understood. There is a chance that these relations might change because the US and the EU, as well as Ukraine, have made a stake for Medvedev. Obviously, this support has very little meaning now.

I am waiting for a new stage in Ukraine-US relations to begin. I think that Barack Obama will be re-elected and that in his second term, his relations with Putin will be completely different than the relations he has had with Medvedev. I am certain that Ukraine would like to keep its strategic partnership with the US but, as I said earlier, Ukraine is seen as a less important partner to the US. It is a country in Eastern Europe and is not as important as Russia or even Turkey. If Ukraine really wants to become America’s strategic partner, it must start to make reforms. First of all it needs to democratise the state and start protecting human rights, and by doing so it would give the US the sign that it accepts democratic values. Only then will Ukraine be able to establish a real strategic partnership with the US.

Volodymir Horbach is a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and Editor-in-Chief of the EuroAtlantica Web site.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

The interview took place in Krakow, Poland during a visit organised by the Polish Institute for Eastern Initiatives.

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