Debate on Ukraine’s Future Opens as Merkel’s CDU Schisms

I was privileged to attend a conference in Berlin on Tuesday the 23rd about Ukraine’s future with the European Union — both in terms of its upcoming elections and in their aftermath.

The speakers — a fair assortment of European politicians, leaders, and eminences grises — were broadly in agreement on a few things: That Ukraine labors under the wreckage of Soviet dominance; that it is unfair to use Yulia Tymoshenko’s status as the sole criterion for Ukrainian relations with Europe; that its future and its path are generally headed in the correct direction; and that engagement, and not isolation, is the proper approach. The spectrum of political opinion from which they arise is broad enough to suggest that the European fixation on Tymoshenko’s trial and subsequent conviction as the sole arbiter of Ukraine’s membership in the European family may be breaking.

Guenter Verheugen, the European Commissioner for Enlargement from 1999 through 2004, offered a balanced approach. Ukraine, he said, has problems that stem from the old Soviet model, and its civil society — among the most robust in the post-Soviet sphere — needs further growth. It is in need of judicial and bureaucratic reforms.

Verheugen was clear that while the Tymoshenko case was important, it must not be a barrier to engagement with Ukraine. “We should not allow the Tymoshenko case to decide the future of our relations,” he said, noting that Ukraine’s treatment has been unique among the nations in Europe’s expansions. (“Mrs. Tymoshenko is not the icon of democracy that American and European public relations agencies say,” he added to a laugh from the audience.)

He was also harsh on the European Union’s ambivalent approach to Ukraine. “We say Ukraine must make a choice – but this is not true. They have already made a choice.” It is Europe that has not made a choice, he argued, noting that the pending Association Agreement, which has historically been a prelude to membership, explicitly omitted that language, which leaves Ukraine in a gray zone.

But the path forward, he said, was integration. While “2020 would be optimistic,” he felt it was important to offer a concrete timeline, as doing so would encourage reform in Ukraine (and offer hope to Ukrainians who suffer through those reforms) and encourage foreign direct investment. He sounded an optimistic note, perhaps as a result of having once been responsible for European enlargement. We “must say that we want Ukraine as a member state once conditions are met,” he added forcefully.

Particularly striking was Johan Wadephul, a member of the German Bundestag from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). While not downplaying the remaining work Ukraine must do, he was both candid and optimistic about the upcoming elections. “For the time being, I can say that the electoral process will be free and fair, and will reflect reality,” he said.

He went on to note that the Ukrainian system could be compared to Germany’s, while adding that Ukraine’s political landscape — composed of ever-shifting, dying, and aborning political parties, largely funded by the wealthy and oligarchs — will naturally lead to some problems. “This state of affairs is not the ideal.”

On l’affaire Tymoshenko, he diverged from his party’s leadership. “I don’t see the need to focus on the destiny of Mrs. Tymoshenko … we need to examine if the treatment is fair, and it will be examined,” he said, adding that most of those clinging to her as a barrier to relations with Ukraine knew little about her case. It is important, he added, to remember that Viktor Yushchenko, her former partner in the Orange Revolution, was highly critical of the conduct that led to her imprisonment.

In an explicit break with Merkel, he added, “The German and European intent must be to win the country for the European Union.”

Merkel, faced with revolts on her left and right over German bailouts of Greece (and Spain and Ireland and…), has been the foremost of Ukraine’s interlocutors, making Tymoshenko’s case the lynchpin around which European membership will be based. That Merkel has pressed this matter, even after Ukraine promised to abide by the results of Tymoshenko’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), suggests that Tymoshenko’s freedom is not so important as preventing the enlargement of the Eurozone and appeasing Vladimir Putin, from whom Germany imports the vast majority of its natural gas.

Ukraine will hold elections on the 28th, and despite the United Opposition’s efforts to suggest otherwise, international monitoring agencies have so far praised the country’s electoral processes and openness to monitors, observers, and missions from those international bodies and domestic non-governmental organizations. This will be, as Wadephul put it, a “litmus test” for Ukraine.

We will of course continue to cover this matter through the 28th.

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