Washington Sits On The Sidelines While Ukraine's Democracy Slips Away

WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. lawmakers carefully watched Ukraine’s political turmoil after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych changed the country’s course from Europe to Russia last fall.

Riot Police In Kiev, Ukraine

Washington even considered imposing visa bans and other sanctions against Ukrainian officials involved in crackdowns on anti-government protesters.

However, nothing stopped the Ukrainian government from approving anti-democratic legislation this week, creating an environment that makes fair and democratic presidential elections in 2015 impossible.

On Thursday, January 16th, the Ukrainian Parliament approved a bill that violates numerous civil rights of the country’s citizens.

It imposes harsh restrictions on rights activists, journalists, NGOs, criminalizes various forms of peaceful protests, and gives more power to Ukrainian courts.

All on-line media is now required to register with the government and citizens must provide passports when purchasing SIM cards for mobile phones.

The Yanukovych’s Party of Regions approved such legislation via a controversial vote, without debates and participation of the opposition.

“There is no hope for free and fair elections in Ukraine anymore,” Olga Belkova, a Member of the Parliament from Vitali Klitschko’s opposition party, UDAR, wrote to Forbes.

“There is no hope for a free and fair life for anybody in Ukraine for that matter. Especially for those who are in disagreement with the current people in power.”

It happened right after the U.S. Senate foreign policy committee held a January 15th hearing in Washington on the Ukrainian turmoil.

Victoria Nuland, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European Affairs, said that the possibility of sanctions on human rights abusers in Ukraine is very real and the U.S. is watching how the anti-government protesters are treated.

Yanukovych’s efforts to poison Ukraine’s democratic policies, intimidating NGOs, journalists, activists, dismantle the structures of the free electoral environment, haven’t gone unnoticed.

Does this mean that the U.S. could impose the sanctions “and other tools” mentioned in Nulad’s testimony before Senators in Washington?

It’s unlikely, says Charles Kupchan, foreign policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The U.S. generally focuses sanctions on specific violations,” he explained in a phone interview with Forbes.

It would be unusual if the US would implement the policy measures against the legislation.

Even with the sanctions, in order to really put them in place, the U.S. would need to have proof that specific oligarchs or politically exposed individuals are tied to acts of violence or criminal deeds.

But lawmakers in Washington may already have enough reason for immediate sanctions based on what has already happened in Ukraine since the protests broke on November 21st as numerous violent attacks on the activists and journalists have taken place. 

The U.S. State Department issued an immediate statement about the anti-democratic bill:

“We call on the Government of Ukraine to ensure its legislation reflects Ukraine’s democratic commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the wishes of its people to exercise their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Both the process and the substance of the Rada’s (Ukrainian parliament) actions today cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms.”

As the old Persian saying puts it, the dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.

Disapproving statements by the U.S. have little or no effect on the actions of Ukraine’s government, as the past few years have proven, since the West demonstrated its outrage over the imprisonment of Ukraine’s ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

There’s no doubt that Ukraine matters to the United States a great deal, according to consistent statements by policymakers in Washingon.

It’s in the country’s national security interest to have Ukraine among its list of solidly democratic allies and therefore to help Ukrainians to preserve their chance for European integration.

But strong support from the likes of Senators John McCain and Bob Corker aside, U.S. foreign policy can sometimes be a plodding march.

“The U.S. wants to engage with Russia and Ukraine and sometimes pragmatism requires holding your nose and working with the regime you have rather than waiting for the regime you want,” Kupchan said.

He explained why the U.S. didn’t interfere more aggressively during the economic war that Russia had with Ukraine when Yanukovych was going to sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

“The west wasn’t able to play the hardball,” Kupchan said.

Putin had sources of influence that neither the U.S. nor European Union could match, such as gas and the ability to forgive Ukraine’s debt.

With the new bill, however, the diplomatic approach aiming to assist Ukraine in preparation for fair and democratic presidential elections is too little too late. 

“Ukrainian authorities are trying to copy the Putinite tactics of disgracing, damaging, and seeking to totally control non-governmental organizations that receive support from democratic countries and foundations,” writes Yevhen Bystritsky of the International Renaissance Foundation in the organization’s statement.

“The bill brands such NGOs as ‘foreign agents,’ demands them to register and publicly identify themselves as such, and imposes additional taxation burden to limit financial support for civic activism.”

If Ukraine turns into an opaque and repressed state, joining Russia and Belarus, it will represent a defeat for the democratic West.

Belkova, of UDAR, feels the frustration:

“What’s happening in Ukraine is a threat not just to Ukrainian people but to the entire system of democratic values.”

Source: Forbes