The Economist’s Almost-Accurate Forecast for Ukraine, Eastern Europe

The Economist‘s Anton La Guardia, writing in his influential Charlemagne column, has a remarkably insightful analysis of the “tug-of-war” between Brussels and Moscow for the future of Eastern Europe. It echoes to some extent this site’s earlier analysis on Russia’s moves to rebuild its empire (this is not the only reason it is insightful); but though it begins with a lament about Belarus, its focus, like so many pieces about the former Soviet Union, inevitably falls on Ukraine.

Ukraine dominates the news because of its general openness to foreign reporters, its large population (with a large number of English and German speakers), its historic status as the birthplace of Slavic culture, and of course, because of the distorted Western obsession with Yulia Tymoshenko. (La Guardia reminds us of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s old saw that, “for as long as it dominates Ukraine, Russia will remain an empire and cannot be democratic.”)

The hook for the analysis is the Eastern Partnership, the European effort to move its Eastern flank more solidly into its own column. That effort will see a milestone in November when Ukraine, together with Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, meet with the European Union in Vilnius. There, it is widely hoped, Ukraine and the EU will sign the long-delayed association agreement giving the two stronger political and economic ties, and signal to the remainder that Europe is the future.

As Lithuania moves to take on the presidency of the EU’s council of ministers, it is focused on reminding the European Union’s nations that their opportunity to the East is both real and slowly vanishing under their noses. “Eastern Europeans see a titanic contest between Moscow and Brussels for Ukraine. Yet, having turned inward, most of Brussels is barely aware of it,” La Guardia notes.

He goes on to note what neutral observers of Kyiv have said for some time: that under Viktor Yanukovych, despite fits and start, Ukraine is pointed West. However, La Guardia makes his largest errors in discussing Yanukovych’s role in this transformation.

It is a common misperception in the West that Ukraine’s president has somehow been tugged along on the tides of fate into a European partnership the implications of which, as La Guardia suggests, he may not understand:

As a Eurocrat puts it, the Ukrainian president must choose between a rich Russian dinner with lots of vodka and with the risk of discovering that he has been captured and his car stolen; or a boring Brussels sandwich lunch that offers respectability and a solid job, but only in the longer term. The profound reforms demanded by the EU, moreover, risk breaking the very system that put Mr Yanukovych in power.

Viktor Yanukovych has been elbows-deep in democratic politics in Ukraine for two decades. He has pushed — at the cost of much of his political capital and his popularity — structural reforms to bring Ukraine into line with the European Union on everything from land to elections to criminal law to pensions. He has seen Ukrainian political parties switch sides, switch critical positions, and vanish overnight. Yanukovych himself has transformed from a pro-Moscow partisan to one of Moscow’s most ardent foes. Tymoshenko transformed from the darling of Western liberalism to a believer in state seizure of private property, from Moscow’s enemy to its ally, during her time as Prime Minister.

The idea that the effects of the reforms on which he is staking his presidency are somehow lost on him is an exercise in fantasy, albeit a common one.

Yet despite these flaws of analysis, La Guardia is essentially correct: Europe, whether it realizes it or not, is staking several futures on its next moves. Europe itself is clearly in need of more dynamic reform. The former Soviet states lie, as they always have, between a hostile Moscow and an ambivalent or friendly Europe; they must inevitably side with the latter, or they will again be dominated by the former.

La Guardia closes with a note that Brussels should long remember: Eastward expansion of Europe has slowed terribly, placing the former Soviet states’ leadership in the unenviable position of promising that all of the pain of adopting European norms is worth it, for something that may never happen.

“Yet European leaders should make clear that they remain committed to the principle, set out in the EU’s treaty, that any European country meeting proper democratic standards is eligible,” La Guardia notes. “If leaders made clear that the EU’s border need not be fixed permanently just east of Vilnius, they could do a lot of good, perhaps even in Belarus.”

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