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15th Apr 2024

Bad smell precedes Yanukovych trip to Brussels

  • Mr Yanukovych (l) made his first official post-election trip in March to Brussels as a sign of friendship. But the "honeymoon period" in his EU relations is over, Mr Lange said (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

A shake-down of leading NGOs and journalists by the Ukrainian security service in recent months has damaged President Viktor Yanukovych's pro-EU credentials ahead of his visit to Brussels on Monday (13 September).

Nico Lange, the director of the Kiev office of the German foundation the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung told EUobserver that the Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny (SBU) has created a "climate of fear" in the NGO and media community since Mr Yanukovych came to power in February.

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Mr Lange himself was declared persona non grata and detained at Kiev airport for 11 hours in June when he tried to re-enter the country.

He believes the ban was ordered by the SBU because of his work to help co-ordinate the activities of opposition parties and because he published a Yanukovych-critical report. The German pro-democracy activist, who has links to the highest level of government in Berlin, says his phone is still bugged.

Yevghen Bystrytsky, the Kiev director of the George Soros-sponsored International Renaissance Foundation (IRF) told EUobserver that SBU officers interrogated Ukrainian NGOs which used IRF grants to ask if any of the money was used to influence the February elections.

"This kind of thing didn't happen in [former Ukrainian president] Yushchenko's time. But now it is so," he said. "The SBU officers were absolutely polite [in their personal conduct]. But if some intelligence officers came to your office asking questions, is that really polite? What right do they have to do this?"

Meanwhile, the disappearance in August of regional magazine editor Vasyl Klymentyev has brought back the spectre of Heorhiy Gongadze, a government-critical journalist murdered in 2000.

Mr Bystrytsky said the disappearance is probably linked to organised crime rather than politics. But cases with political undertones abound: in August, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reporter Konrad Schuller complained that the SBU had intimidated his sources; in July, Ukrainian blogger Oleh Shynkarenko was interrogated by the SBU on charges of threatening Mr Yanukovych's life; in June, the independent TV stations TV5 and TVi were almost taken off the air.

Kiev is taking steps to limit the PR damage.

In the run-up to the Brussels visit, the SBU announced that its enquiry into foreign funding of NGOs has been concluded and no further operations will be carried out. Mr Yanukovych has also ordered the local authorities looking into the Klymentyev disappearance to report directly to his interior minister.

The actions have done little to restore trust, however.

The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung's Mr Lange urged EU officials to raise concerns on Yanukvych's Brussels visit. "I believe some people are seeing how far they can go [in terms of a crackdown]," he said. "It would be very disappointing if we [the EU] praise democratic values, but when they are violated we keep silent."

Diplomats left uncertain

The negative atmosphere on the civil liberties front comes as the EU and Ukraine try to puzzle out each other's strategic intentions.

The two sides are currently involved in talks on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and an Association Agreement that would put Ukraine on a par with Norway or Switzerland in terms of compliance with EU single market laws. The agreements could also pave the way for Ukraine to submit a formal application for EU membership in the next three to five years.

The Yanukovych visit is designed to boost good faith between diplomats.

But in the background, Ukraine is concerned that EU countries have no single vision for future ties with the post-Soviet country. And the feeling in Kiev is that when the EU put together the DCFTA proposal between 2005 and 2007, the appetite for EU-Ukraine integration was stronger than it is today.

Meanwhile, Brussels is worried that Ukraine's stated ambition to join the union is no longer true. EU diplomats say Ukraine's negotiating style has become more brusque under Mr Yanukovych. The new President has also declined to publicly rule out joining a Customs Union with Russia instead of the EU's trade pact.

"We need to know what their real intentions are," an EU diplomat said.

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