Winning Back Ukraine
This OpEd was first published in The Wall Street Journal online.
After talks in Munich and Kiev, the European Union is scrambling to make a more enticing offer to Ukraine to defuse the present crisis. There is much lost ground for the EU to make up. At the Munich Security Conference last week, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy declared that the "future of Ukraine belongs with the European Union." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "Our message to Ukraine's opposition will be the full support of President Obama and of the American people."
In November, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych walked away from an association and trade agreement with the EU, after a campaign of threats and promises from Moscow. But the agreement had little to commend itself to President Yanukovych, quite apart from Russian pressure. The EU studiously avoided any suggestion that Ukraine might one day become an EU member, despite its eligibility as a European country. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle now proposes to correct this omission. But he will have a hard job persuading crisis-weary national ministers to give such a promise when they meet on Monday, Feb. 10 in Brussels.
The rejected agreement also implied huge adjustment costs for Ukraine to meet the EU's environmental, health and safety standards, with most trade benefits being felt only in the longer term. The EU offered some technical assistance to cope with the adjustment but, without an IMF agreement, no macroeconomic support to close Ukraine's yawning financial gap, which is Mr. Yanukovych's most pressing economic problem. EU and U.S. leaders are now considering a larger aid package for Ukraine but will struggle to raise the necessary funds.
Another mistake was to craft the agreement in such a way that it obliged Ukraine to choose between Brussels and Moscow. This is even harder to reverse without a lengthy new negotiation. Still, after the Kremlin's initial success in convincing Mr. Yanukovych to renounce the EU's offer, Moscow is resorting to sticks instead of carrots. Russia again blockaded Ukrainian exports at the border and suspended its financial support last week when Mr. Yanukovich made modest concessions to the demonstrators. This may have shaken Kiev's confidence in support from Moscow.
If EU leaders really believe that it is in their countries' interest to win the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people, they should come up with a package that is attractive enough to counter Russian blandishments. The EU should think again about the requirements it imposed as a condition for signature of the agreement with Ukraine.
Mr. Yanukovich is unwilling to cede to the EU's demand that he release from jail his principal political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, whose record as prime minister was as grubby as his. Of course if he doesn't release her, and one of Ms. Tymoshenko's placemen is elected president in 2015, she could very well put Mr. Yanukovych in prison and confiscate his allegedly ill-gotten gains. So it goes. At least with the influence of the EU, Ukraine has a better chance at a credible 2015 election.
Mr. Yanukovich's rejection of the EU treaty was the proximate cause of the country's ongoing demonstrations, but they have morphed into broader expressions of discontent with the country's under-performing and corrupt post-Soviet regime. The demonstrators on the Maidan are a motley crew ranging from true democrats who want a Western-style future, to -nationalists, racists and anti-Semites. They are united only in their call for President Yanukovych's head.
John Kerry unwisely waded into this sea of discontent with unqualified statements of support for the opposition on behalf of the American people. Nothing could give more credence to the cynical claims of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that "foreigners" are behind the Kiev demonstrations. Scenes of European leaders arm-in-arm with the demonstrators convey the same impression.
Western well-wishers should abstain from constitutional and political prescriptions for Ukraine's future. Instead of calling for yet another constitutional volte-face, which would change nothing in the country's underlying political and regional tensions, or seeking to corral bickering parties into an unworkable coalition, Western leaders should focus on the conditions needed for free and fair elections in 2015. An improved offer from the EU with support from Washington might just cajole Mr. Yanukovich into showing some concern for his country's future, beyond the fortunes of his immediate coterie.
First, Mr. Yanukovych needs to condemn and punish violence and torture by the police and their accomplices. He must resist Russian calls to crush the demonstrations by force. Next, he should appoint a caretaker prime minister charged with forming a non-political government. This government's main task should be to manage the economy and to negotiate a standby loan with the International Monetary Fund and additional financial support from the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank. Above all, the interim government should ensure that next year's elections are free and fair, offering Ukrainians a real choice. The formation of such a government could create the conditions for the demonstrators to disperse and for the country's fitful economic life to resume.
This would provide breathing space for political leaders to emerge and offer genuine alternative visions of the country's future. Western political party foundations could offer guidance and training, as they did earlier in central and eastern Europe. A fresh start along these lines might, at last, enable the Ukrainian people as a whole to take a hand in their own destiny.
Michael Leigh, who writes in a personal capacity, is senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund of the United States.