An EU Pact Could Be a Turning Point in Ukraine’s Democratic Development | Freedom House

An EU Pact Could Be a Turning Point in Ukraine’s Democratic Development

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The European Union and Ukraine are currently preparing for the Eastern Partnership Summit, which will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 28–29. Among the most important tasks on the agenda is the signing of an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and a related Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). There have been signs of late that Kyiv is leaning toward closer ties with Europe, and away from the domineering embrace of Moscow, but it remains unclear whether the increasingly authoritarian administration of President Viktor Yanukovych is willing or able to enact the democratic reforms necessary for European integration.

Since Yanukovych became president in 2010, Freedom House has recorded a steady decline in Ukraine’s democratic indicators, including press freedom, free elections, national and local governance, and the rule of law. Corruption has escalated at all levels of government, with the president’s inner circle, known as “the family,” consolidating power and wealth in many parts of the state and economy. Nonetheless, the EU prefers to overlook these problems on the threshold of the Vilnius summit, encouraging Yanukovych to ignore Moscow’s threats and work toward signing the Association Agreement in November.

If the agreement is signed, it could mark a turning point in Ukraine’s political development and a firm step toward European integration. Officials in Brussels and other European capitals have declared that the current moment is crucial for the future not only of Ukraine, but of Europe as a whole. At the same time, this large Eastern European country is equally important for the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin is attempting to forge a Eurasian Union that would unite the former Soviet states and rival the EU, and he certainly envisions Ukraine as a part of it. In addition, the Kremlin has been pressing Ukraine to join an existing Customs Union formed in 2010 by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Until recently, Kyiv was more or less neutral on this strategic choice. But it has become apparent that the Yanukovych government is beginning to tilt toward the west. In one important gesture, Ukrainian authorities released former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko from prison in April 2013, yielding to human rights advocates and pressure from Brussels on what was widely seen as a politically motivated attempt to sideline an important opposition figure.

The most prominent opposition leader, former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, remains behind bars and has faced a series of politicized charges. Her family and supporters have demanded that she be allowed to travel to Germany for medical treatment, but the government has not yet relented, citing in part the risk that she could seek political asylum there. (Tymoshenko’s husband was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic after her imprisonment in 2011). Tymoshenko herself expressed doubt that she would be allowed to go in a September 16 interview with Ukraïnska Pravda, saying, “I have never received any offers from the Ukrainian government regarding my treatment in Germany.”

The Tymoshenko case is an outstanding example of selective justice and is considered to be the main obstacle to an Association Agreement. The EU ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombiński, recently stated that he is not sure whether Ukraine and the EU will sign the agreement during the Vilnius summit if Tymoshenko is not released in the next two months.

However, even if her case is resolved in a satisfactory manner and the EU pact is signed as scheduled, Ukraine would still have a long way to go before meeting European standards for democratic governance. Among other steps, the country would have to carry out major overhauls of its state apparatus and judicial system, and lay a solid foundation for the healthy development of its economy and civil society. Yanukovych and his “family” clearly have an interest in avoiding Russian domination, which would end their current domestic preeminence, but they would also be threatened by any thorough democratic reforms. Consequently, they cannot be relied upon to enact such reforms of their own volition.

Ultimately, if the agreement is signed, the EU should not limit itself to the bureaucratic aspects of cooperation with Ukraine’s current government. It should devote a great amount of attention to establishing productive links with all of the country’s political forces and, most importantly, with civil society. The difficult democratic changes Ukraine needs to move forward will require both sustained effort by the government and lawmakers and sustained pressure from ordinary citizens.

Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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