By Zoi Stambolliou. Originally published on 2012/11/28

Relations between Ukraine and EU are at an impasse. The last two years have been dominated by rows over the abusive practices of the Yanukovich administration. Ukraine has seen serious setbacks to its democratic development, including the concentration of power in the hands of the president and his Party of Regions, selective justice, the prosecution of leading opposition figures and an accelerating trend towards a more authoritarian and corrupt style of rule in Ukraine.

Concerns over its democratic development were enough of a reason to return Ukraine again under the European ‘microscope’. The elections were considered a “democratic test”. The governing party of Viktor F. Yanukovich has claimed victory, despite strong electoral support for the pro-western opposition parties and an unexpectedly big rise of the ultranationalist Svoboda party known for its anti – Semitic and racist views.

Background of the elections

All the votes were counted by the Central Election Commission (CEC) until November the 8th. Crucially, Ukraine’s parliament has recently introduced a mixed voting system (50% party-lists and 50% single-mandate constituencies) which allowed Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions to win more than half of the 220 seats (113 compared to 39 for the Tymochenko’s (Fatherland) Batkivschyna United Opposition). In the list-vote PoR received 30% and 72 seats compared to 25.5% and 62 seats of the Tymochenko bloc. Boxer Klichko’s UDAR Party gathered 13.96%, better than expected and narrowly beating the Communists who received 13.18%. What came as a surprise in these elections was the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda (All-Ukrainian Union), which entered the parliament for the first time receiving 10.44% of the votes.

The elections were conducted under the strict supervision of 3,800 foreign observers employed by the European Parliament, NATO, OSCE and other NGOs. On first sight everything seemed to be as it should in a democratic regime and generally the election day was calm and peaceful. However, according to OSCE observers, the days before the elections were characterized by lack of a level playing field, caused primarily due to abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparent campaigns, party funding, and lack of fair media coverage.

The absence of strong personalities from the political scene and the media during the campaign was noticeable. A good example is the former Prime Minister and heroine of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymochenko. She was sentenced to seven years in prison for signing gas deals with Russia while still in power. This has created many doubts about the fairness of the elections and puts question marks on the respect of democratic values. “Considering the abuse of power, and the leading role of funding in these elections, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine,” said Walburga Habsburg Douglas, a Special OSCE coordinator who also stated that “One should not have to visit a prison to hear from leading political figures in the country.”, she added.

No clear direction

Long before the elections, the EU had expressed many concerns over the democratic failures of Ukraine. At the same time Russia was pushing further the Ukrainian government to join the customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Additionally the ultranationalists (Freedom Party) accused the EU of creating feelings of xenophobia to Ukrainians and that their ideas do not comply with the European values. On the other side, the supposedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych is acting contradictorily. He made Russian the official language in some parts of the country despite protests in the capital, while at the same time he continues to claim that Ukraine has no interest in Russia’s customs union (if he can avoid it).  And lastly, Tymoshenko addresses the EU for helping her country, yet fires criticism for freezing the Association Agreement. Under these circumstances Ukraine’s future seems rather foggy.

Tiahnybok’s (leader of Svoboda), and Yanukovych’s behaviors are problematic, but the priority for the EU and U.S. should be to reduce tension between the pro-western and pro-eastern parties whilst preventing closer ties with Russia.

For Europe Ukraine should be considered a key-partner because of its geographical position. More specifically, Europe could benefit from its energy transit infrastructure, the vast agricultural resources and aerospace industry as well as the software expertise. Furthermore, Kiev could become the geopolitical bridge between Moscow and Brussels. Ukraine is of great importance for the EU particularly as a transit state for energy, considering that roughly 25 percent of the EU’s natural gas comes from Russia, and 80 percent of that gas transits through Ukraine.

For the time being though, Ukraine remains without the EU Association Agreement. As Mr Barroso has stated the signature of the Association Agreement with Ukraine depends on Kiev’s commitment to European values. For others this position is contrary to the interests of the EU and the millions of Ukrainian citizens, many of whom are voters of Mrs. Tymoshenko.

Günter Verheugen, an ex-European Commissioner for Enlargement, has emphasized that “Ukraine has made its choice. The European Union must now make theirs. We must state clearly that we want this country to become a member of Europe as soon as it meets all necessary requirements. Brussels must not let the Tymoshenko case decide the future of its relations with Kiev.” Moreover, Ukraine’s representative to the EU, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, said he is confident that Brussels will not ignore the choice of the Ukrainian people and it should sign the Association Agreement with the country. “Brussels should not ignore the choice of the people of Ukraine in favor of the values of European democracy and accession to the family of European nations […], he mentioned.

Final remarks

Some newly elected members of the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council of Ukraine) contend that European integration remains a top foreign policy priority. Nevertheless, the EU needs to open channels to circumvent the current situation, by finding ways to monitor selective persecutions, protect business, encourage greater involvement in education programmes, reduce the power of the “family”,(a term used mostly after the 2010 elections to describe the distribution to and abuse of power by the literal and metaphorical “family” of Yanukovych). Finally the Union has to work hard to show it is on the side of Ukraine’s democratic, liberal and economically constructive forces, in order to develop proper relations with Ukraine.

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