Ukraine's managed democracy
President Victor Yanukovych's Ukraine seems firmly on the road towards 'managed democracy', an increasingly popular type of rule among post-Soviet leaders. The arrest of former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on 5 August is the latest in a series of actions that attest to the country’s democratic deterioration. So far, Western reactions have been characterised by careful words rather than deeds. It is true that the EU’s sanctions policy has had poor results, as the case of Belarus shows. However, EU engagement with authoritarian rulers has not made them more liberal either.
The EU’s continuous engagement and cautious criticism is driven mainly by a fear of loosing Ukraine to Russia. These concerns were aggravated by the signing of the Kharkiv accord to prolong the Russian Black Sea Fleet stay in Ukraine for another 25 years and the repeated calls within the Party of Regions for Ukraine to join the Russia-led Customs Union.
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The EU kept silent when the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions established a parliamentary coalition, breaking constitutional norms in March 2010. When the country’s Constitutional Court re-introduced a presidential republic by reversing a 2004 reform that had curbed presidential powers in favour of parliament, again no EU criticism followed (despite the fact that this even coincided with the EU Enlargement commissioner’s visit to Ukraine).
The EU did express concern over the worsening situation of media freedom in Ukraine and when a series of criminal cases were opened against Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of her government. The EU also condemned – although only after the US – the violations committed during the 2010 local elections in Ukraine.
Also, Western reactions to Tymoshenko’s arrest were immediate, vociferous and united in their criticism. The EU called for 'fair, transparent and independent legal processes to avoid any perception of a policy of selective justice'. The US went further, urging the government to consider Tymoshenko's immediate release. Even Russia joined the calls for a fair and impartial trial, even if only for fear that the 2009 gas accord – the main element in the trial – may be revisited. But it seems that in this case too the EU is hesitant to go beyond mere words.
Tymoshenko's arrest on 5 August should be seen in the context of the regime's preparation to the parliamentary elections which are expected to take place at the end of 2012. The upcoming polls will be crucial for Yanukovych's potential re-election in 2015.
By decapitating the main opposition party, the government aspires to compete safely against the loyal Communists and ultranationalists. The results of such an election would easy to predict.
What should the EU do?
Many observers both in Ukraine and abroad argue reasonably that sanctions would not improve Ukraine's democratic credentials, but would push Yanukovych further towards Russia. But the EU should not turn a blind eye to Yanukovych’s anti-democracy backlash and continue to provide him unconditional support, as this could very well lead to a political crisis in Ukraine in a not very distant future.
The EU should respond to the regime's increasing authoritarianism in two ways. First, the EU and its member states should support Ukrainian society by moving forward with a visa free regime and fulfilling their promise to boost funding to civil society organisations. It is particularly important to strengthen the citizens' capacity to hold their authorities accountable, especially ahead of an election year.
Second, the EU should continue its political dialogue with Ukrainian authorities and aim to conclude the negotiations on the Association Agreement and free trade talks without further delay (this is what Yulia Tymoshenko herself asked the EU to do before being arrested). The entering into force of the agreement should be conditional upon a free and fair 2012 electoral campaign, which includes ceasing politically motivated persecution of the opposition. While negotiations may be technically finalised this year, the ratification process should wait until the government shows commitment and compliance with its obligations under the Association Agreement.
The agreement seeks to introduce a partnership between the EU and Ukraine based on the principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights. If the EU fails to react to Ukraine's violations of these principles now, it will be sending a wrong signal to the Ukrainian authorities; it will mean that there is no real need to focus on the democratic reforms envisaged in the agreement.
Boosting demand for democratic reform and pursuing a consistent policy towards Ukraine is the only effective way to counter Ukraine's 'managed democracy' trend.
Natalia Shapovalova is a researcher at the European think-tank Fride.