Yanukovych's One-Two Punch Could Knock Himself Out
BUCHAREST – Last week we witnessed a surprising one-two punch in Ukraine (the pugilistic theme is appropriate for a country that has produced the world champion Klitschko brothers), meant to knock out former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, President Viktor Yanukovych’s main political rival. On October 11, the first punch sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in prison. The move came as a surprise, especially to Europeans, who thought they had made it very clear that an indictment would put serious strains on the country’s relations with the European Union. Just as European concerns seemed alleviated by statements that the situation would be reversed, a second punch brought new charges against Tymoshenko, this time for attempts to embezzle government funds in the 1990s. There is, however, a major difference between these political moves and boxing, as the latter is known to be a sport of both strength and strategy while the former lacks both. In fact, the puncher made all the wrong moves.
Soon after his inauguration, Yanukovych revealed Ukraine’s renewed choice of a European path and future. Pleasantly surprised, Europeans engaged on a quick track to offer Ukraine a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union, which was supposed to be signed by the end of this year. As negotiations progressed, worrying signs of democratic backlash started coming from the country, yet the European line held that closeness to the EU, through the FTA, is the only way to ensure further development of Ukraine and anchor it to a European future. Tymoshenko’s trial revealed the lack of independence in the court system and the indifference of authorities to the rule of law, placing in serious doubt the ability of the FTA to trigger development in such a tight political environment. All of the previous worrying signs have now gathered more importance and weight as the system they depict is not only far from European values, but also seems to be worsening. Under these circumstances, the European Commission would have a hard time reconciling its “more for more” approach to the neighborhood with an extension of FTA to a backsliding Ukraine.
The one-two punch has left the EU with no choice but to postpone a scheduled official visit to Brussels by Yanukovych and perhaps the signing of the agreement, and for Ukraine to forego important economic benefits. For a country as deep in economic crisis as Ukraine is, Yanukovych made the wrong moves. In recent years, numerous polls have shown that an increasing majority of Ukraine’s population is in favor of European integration. That is why, in 2010, Yanukovych adopted a different line and appeared to choose a different direction than he advocated in 2004. With the recent progress in relations with the EU and a clear perspective of an economic integration followed by visa liberalization, the public’s esteem for European integration has grown even higher. A move in a different direction, be it toward closer ties with Russia or outright isolationism, will aggravate the population and divide society, which should be an unpleasant prospect for Yanukovych with national elections 12 months away. The alternatives are not great, for Ukraine or for the West. Should Europeans decide to halt the free trade agreement, the Russian offer to join the Customs Union and, down the road, a Russia-led “Eurasian Union” seems a possible alternative for Ukraine. After all, the little help the Russian government gave Ukrainian authorities in bringing the new charges in the Tymoshenko trial will, sooner or later, have to be repaid.
Yet the choice of Russia over the EU would seriously irritate the Ukrainian population and most of the country’s businessmen. Moreover, nobody in the former Soviet Union takes these Russian constructs seriously. It is the specter of a third alternative that is now more worrying for Ukraine — a Belarus-type isolation, where relations with EU would be in tatters and the relationship with Moscow would be love-hate at best. Clearly, none of the country’s 21 billionaires would be happy to conduct their businesses in such a climate. Yanukovych’s one-two punch has a chance to deliver a knockout, but not to Tymoshenko. Rather, Yanukovych has exposed himself to counterattack, whether in the form of electoral defeat, isolationism for his country, or a choice of allies Ukrainians don’t want. But he is not in a fair fight, either. His recent moves revealed the serious weaknesses of Ukraine’s political system. With his determination to block his main rival from running, and his attempts to change electoral rules to the advantage of his party,
Yanukovych seems set to win the match without really playing it. In order to alleviate all these suspicions and bring the country back on the right path, he should make double efforts to ensure the freedom of the media, plenty of electoral observers, and a free and fair 2012 electoral process. This would be the right move.
Alina Inayeh is director of the German Marshall Fund's Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. Image by the European Commission.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.