The 11 October decision to sentence former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to a seven-year term in prison has been widely reported and commented in the European press. It is probably the first time since the “Orange Revolution” that events in the internal politics of Ukraine, which has a population of 45 million, have made the international front pages.
Whereas governments in the EU and the United States have adopted a firm position with regard to this court decision, for its part the reaction of Ukrainian society has been relatively limited. President Viktor Yanukovych, who has been in power for a year and a half, cannot be held entirely to blame for what has happened, rather we should acknowledge that recent developments in this country are the predictable result of changes in Ukraine that have occurred over the last twenty years.
The fact that Ukraine’s judicial system is still guided by standards that date from the Soviet era has once again highlighted the scale of reforms that are needed in the country. Although the European public was not aware of the complexity of the internal situation in Ukraine until the judgement was announced, the citizens of Ukraine who are used to battling with the country’s bureaucratic system, were not surprised by the decision. In fact they are permanently on their guard regardless of the government in power.
The hopes that Ukrainians had for the the parties who rose to power in the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which ultimately failed to materialise, have made Ukrainian society apathetic. In spite of being gifted with majorities in parliament in two successive elections (in 2006 and 2007), the “Orange” parties have dissipated their opportunities in constant quarrels, and their failure to implement reforms finally sapped voter confidence in their ability to govern.
Another post-Soviet blind alley
At the end of the day, the example of Ukraine shows how vain and unrealistic it is to attempt to build democracy and establish the rule of law in a country that has no experience as a state that functions in such a manner, even if Ukraine has always demonstrated a certain openess and willingness to learn. Without a doubt, the Ukrainian population is mainly to blame for this situation, but the part played by outside influences in developments in the country should not be underestimated.
Without the remarkable contribution of different international organisations to the establishment of reforms in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, some of them would clearly have been unable to join the EU. This situation is not new: after World War II, the countries of Old Europe would not have recovered without outside assistance or their commitment to the construction of Europe.
The decision to join Europe was taken by Kiev as early as the mid-1990s, and it is a choice that has been supported by all the Ukrainian presidents since then. For its part, over the last 20 years, Europe, which continues to view Ukraine as a grey area and a quarantine zone [that isolates it from Russia] has consistently sought to slow Ukraine’s progress towards European integration.
Enlargement to the East was followed by the construction of a new wall on the border with Ukraine. And only now are we beginning to see a significant breakthough in relations between the EU and Ukraine: by the end of this year, the association agreement whose technical details were finalised on 20 October could provide the framework for the establishment of a free-market zone, which would prevent Ukraine from returning down another post-Soviet blind alley.
In the wake of the sentencing of Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine and the European Union will have to make certain choices: postponing or even abandoning negotiations, or a decision to impose sanctions will only contribute to the further isolation of Ukraine. In adopting such measures, Brussels would simply be perpetuating the distant relationship that it has sought to maintain in the past.
On the contrary, in order to overcome what is a critical situation, both parties should continue to engage in dialogue and seek to establish compromises. In this regard, new EU members, and in particular countries like Estonia, who understand better than others the realities of of the post-Soviet space and the difficulties of political transition, have a role to play.
Tallinn has long been a supporter of Ukrainian accession to the EU. And the opening of an EU Eastern Partnership training centre in Tallinn, where Estonia will share its experience with civil servants from partner countries, is an encouraging sign.
All of these small steps, which should increase in number in the coming years, are the most effective means for building relationships between Ukraine and the members of the EU. However, attempts to isolate Ukraine will only serve to undermine those relationships.