Can Europe Tempt Ukraine Back To Democracy?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Seven years after she rallied crowds in Kiev during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appeared in court Wednesday on charges of abuse of power.

Yulia Tymoshenko

The blond-braided firebrand says President Viktor Yanukovych — the loser of the peaceful uprising who scored a shock comeback in 2010 — is trying to crush political opposition using trumped-up charges; Yanukovych says the charges have nothing to do with politics.

But some worry that the trial is yet another sign that Ukraine, once a beacon for democratic change in a region of authoritarian regimes, is losing its luster.

When Tymoshenko roused tens of thousands of protestors in the capital's central square in the winter of 2004, she was leading a movement that was supposed to signal a democratic breakthrough in Eastern Europe, much like the Arab Spring now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

Fed up with rampant corruption and authoritarian control, Ukrainians had taken to the streets after what they believed was an attempt by Yanukovych, the incumbent's hand-picked candidate, to steal the election.

A court-ordered revote saw Viktor Yushchenko win the presidency, and Tymoshenko was appointed his prime minister.

The two leaders started out as a pro-Western dream team, but soon began quarreling while also failing to push through major institutional reforms and cement democratic change.

They lost popularity at home and trust abroad, allowing Yanukovych to bounce back last year in an election widely seen as fair.

Now a vocal opposition leader, Tymoshenko stands accused of abuse of power relating to a gas deal she made with Russia in 2009.

Many observers in Ukraine and abroad see the trial as just the latest in a series of moves by Yanukovych to roll back some of the democratic gains brought by the Orange Revolution.

Media complain of increased pressure to toe the official line; local elections in October, which resulted in a substantial victory for Yanukovych's party, were criticized by the U.S. and the European Union.; power has been concentrated in the president's hands through a controversial change to the constitution; and a dozen former members of Tymoshenko's government are under investigation for wrongdoing in probes that have caused some Western governments to raise concerns about political motivation.

In a March telephone call to Yanukovych, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden "emphasized the importance of avoiding any selective prosecutions of opposition officials," according to a readout posted on the White House website.

The big question for the West, and particularly the E.U., is how to coax Ukraine's leaders into halting the regression.

When Yanukovych took office in February 2010, he set about repairing relations with Russia, which had deteriorated as Yushchenko tried to plot a more independent course toward the West.

But his growing friendship with Russia has not been an unconditional one.

After concluding a deal to allow the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain based in a Ukrainian port until 2042 in return for cheaper natural-gas supplies, Yanukovych balked when Moscow came back with demands for even tighter economic relations, including having Kiev join a Russia-led customs union.

The Ukrainian president has instead negotiated hard on a free-trade agreement with the E.U. that would rule out any such membership, much to the annoyance of the Kremlin.

But some critics question whether Europe should be pushing for closer ties with a leader who seems ready to see his main political opponent tossed in jail.

A group of leading Western and Ukrainian scholars recently urged the E.U. to get tough, writing in the Kyiv Post newspaper that "economic integration should include strict adherence to standards of democracy and rule of law by Ukraine."

Others warn that this could prove counterproductive.

Deeper integration, some experts argue, would allow Europe to nudge Ukraine toward more political change, which would not only help spread democracy and security in a nation the size of France on the European Union's eastern border but could also ultimately show other post-Soviet, Slavic nations — such as Russia and Belarus — that there is an alternative to the authoritarian model.

"If the E.U. is interested in a modern and democratic Ukraine, it has to push forward with integration," says Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels. "Stepping back would represent a total failure for its policy in the region."

Isolating Yanukovych could push him into the all-consuming embrace of the Kremlin.

"We are under severe pressure from Russia, but we are resisting it. European integration is our priority," says a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ukraine seems unlikely to be handed the pledge of eventual membership it is pushing for.

Some members of the 27-nation bloc are nervous about further expansion, particularly given the union's own pressing internal problems as Greece teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

Negotiations on the free-trade agreement, however, appear close to completion.

And even as Yanukovych ponders how to deal with his long-time foe Tymoshenko, analysts say it would take particularly harsh treatment of her to prompt anything more than a strong verbal rebuke from the E.U.

"Everyone understands that this is selective justice, as corruption in Ukraine spreads well beyond one party or political figure," says Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, an analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels.

"But the E.U. has to think longer term."

Source: Time