In Kyiv, the game continues
Sunday’s victory of Spain over Italy in the European Football Championship in Kyiv was also a victory for the hosts, Poland and Ukraine.
The games have given the Poles and Ukrainians much pride, if not in the performance of their teams, then in the new stadiums, airports, train stations, and highways built for the occasion. They were less successful with regard to their political purpose, which was to show both countries as strong, attractive, normal European states – Poland firmly within the EU, and Ukraine on a clear European trajectory.
Poland’s European identity certainly is not in question; and it even opened a new highway from Berlin to Warsaw just days before the tournament. But Ukraine’s European aspirations are not helped by the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Viktor Yanukovych and the continued political persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko.
This was a blow not just for Kyiv, but for Warsaw as well.
In Poland, the goal of bringing Ukraine closer to Europe, and Europe closer to Ukraine, is a matter of deep political consensus. The Euro tournament was meant to serve as another opportunity to strengthen these ties, and to burnish Ukraine’s image in the rest of Europe.
Yanukovych’s behavior put an end to all that.
When former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison – an action condemned as politically motivated across Europe – even the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the biggest supporter of Ukraine’s European integration, remarked that “Ukraine’s image as a country that is undertaking a fundamental pro-European transformation has been tarnished.”
The scandal derailed the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement as well as the deep Free Trade Agreement (FTA), both due to be signed that fall during the Polish EU Presidency. The deep FTA in particular would have been a game-changer, anchoring Ukraine in the West by obliging Kyiv to adopt a significant portion of the EU’s standards and legislation, and by tying together the Ukrainian and European bureaucracies in a permanent dialogue.
Instead, the deep FTA was put into a deep freeze, and many European politicians, including Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and several high-level EU officials, decided to boycott the Euro 2012 games in Ukraine.
Yet the final test for Ukrainian democracy is just ahead: the October 28 parliamentary elections.
If that poll falls short of European democratic standards, Ukraine’s door to Europe will close with a bang and remain shut for the foreseeable future. With the European path cut off, Ukraine is likely to turn east. It might even eventually choose to join Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” which is not in the interest the EU or the United States – or indeed of Ukrainians themselves.
Europe and the United States must now join forces in making sure that the fall elections will be free and fair. Monitoring should start early to make sure that conditions on the ground, including freedom of the media, are conducive to a free vote.
OSCE election monitoring will be key here; but both Warsaw and Berlin – who have been skillfully playing a good cop/bad cop game with Kyiv – should consider sending political emissaries ahead of the election to make it clear that vote manipulation of any kind will not be tolerated.
Even if the vote goes well, the EU and the United States will need to keep a sharp eye on Ukraine to keep its westward course from derailing, and to continue firmly mixing incentives and conditionality to keep nudging Yanukovych along in the direction of democratic governance.
Ukraine’s strategic importance is simply too great for failure. Certainly what the EU can least afford is another Alexander Lukashenko on its border.