Engagement with Ukraine Yields Positive Results

Sometimes, real diplomacy works.

Long-time observers of European diplomacy would be hard-pressed to describe its practice since the ashes of the Second World War cooled as competent, but only in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s fall has its full, bumbling ineptitude been on display. We have discussed before the slow-motion catastrophe that is its approach to the Armenian invasion of Azerbaijan, and of course the current, never-ending eurozone crisis is a constant reminder of the limits of European diplomacy.

In Ukraine, European diplomatic efforts have been generally limited to broadly applauding the post-Orange Revolution governments (despite the rampant corruption, cronyism, dysfunction, and departure from free-market ideals) and condemning current President Viktor Yanukovych and his governments (despite open determination to reach European norms, enormous reform packages, and constant engagement with Europe and rejection of Russian hegemony). The epitome of this perhaps lies in Europe’s demand that Ukraine release convicted former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a condition of further integration, after first demanding that government officials be prosecuted for wrongdoing and for a lack of executive interference in judicial functions.

(The United States has made many of the same internally contradictory demands, but given the more or less complete failure of American diplomacy in the region for the last three and more years, little better should be expected.)

The net effect has been to tell Kyiv that no concessions to Europe, no reforms in line with European norms, no amount of political capital staked on painful changes to the state’s regulatory and electoral systems will ever be enough; and to suggest that the only way Ukraine can move forward with Europe is if the deeply-unpopular Tymoshenko is installed as President, with an election if possible, and without if need be.

It is therefore surprising to see some European body try real, non-partisan diplomacy, and find itself rewarded with positive results in return.

On September 20-21, a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe visited Ukraine to study its electoral systems and electoral reforms in advance of October’s elections. Its report, while not adulatory and raising real concerns (including the obligatory genuflection to Yulia Tymoshenko), nevertheless struck a careful, measured balance, praising reform and progress and raising warning flags as appropriate. It also noted that Tymoshenko’s case, while important, “should not be used to de-legitimize the elections before they have taken place. The election should be judged on all elements affecting the whole process.”

Perhaps most importantly, the delegation did not single out Yanukovych, his Party of Regions, his government, or any combination thereof. The delegation criticized both the government and the opposition, a welcome development for a country where the Opposition has done so much damage in government and out that the average Ukrainian has little hope for democratic reform from any party.

The result was proof that sometimes the carrot works better than the stick. At the United Nations, Yaunkovych gave a speech announcing that a draft law criminalizing libel — one of the areas of concern highlighted by the PACE delegation — was being withdrawn. “If we say on the one hand we are creating the right conditions for journalists and the media and then do the opposite, no-one will understand us.”

He also added that Ukraine’s political processes and reforms should abide by “European standards.”

Yanukovych was — with some accuracy and some inaccuracy — perceived as Russia’s man in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, a perception that lasts to this day. At this point, this is openly ridiculous and a sign of the laziness of the Western press and foreign policy establishments. Aligning with Russia would reinforce his party’s standing in the Russian-heavy East of Ukraine, provided needed relief from the disastrous gas deal Tymoshenko signed, and boost his chances in October’s elections. He has instead staked his political future and Ukraine’s on a European future, despite what appears to be constant dysfunction in Europe.

PACE has shown that such his government can be brought into the fold, through an open-handed process. It is time that the rest of Europe’s institutions recognize this as well.

Image Copyright Telekhovskyi / Shutterstock.com

“If we say on the one hand we are creating the right conditions for journalists and the media and then do the opposite, no-one will understand us,”