Speaking last week in Toronto his message was this: Ukraine is as much
in danger from Russia as from its own internal rot. Both disasters may be avoided by choosing the
European integration option. The drop-dead
date for this salvation is looming. What
will the beleaguered president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, decide at the Vilnius
Summit on Nov. 28-29? The EU’s free trade agreement or Russia’s?
determined to keep Ukraine from the EU; that in itself should be a key
motivator in doing the opposite given the bloody and oppressive centuries-old
relationship with the nasty neighbor.
For now, it has initiated a trade war, built high barbed wire fences
along parts of Ukraine’s boarder and started military scare tactics. In response, Yanukovych has
denied–to date– Russia’s Customs Union but his latest visits show a trapped man, desperate to pursue the option that is most favorable to protecting him and
his ill begotten wealth.
at the prospect of losing to Europe is not restricted to Ukraine alone. Reminding the Europeans of the cold they
faced in 2009 when energy supplies were turned off, Russia is threatening a
rerun should Ukraine sign and putting
pressuring on Lithuania, the summit host, and Moldova, another candidate for European
integration at Vilnius.
However, seeing the
initial strong-arm tactics with Ukraine failing, Russia is reversing: sweetening the offer with a critically
important energy deal comprising lower prices and reduced debt burden if it joins
the Customs Union. And, it promises
loans for the fiscal crisis that is hovering over Ukraine.
As seductive as
these incentives are, they don’t come near convincing most Ukrainians that
their sovereignty is worth this sweetened package and, until recently, not even Yanukovych. Now, he’s on the
verge of scuttling the EU agreement.
Should the president
drop the EU any latitude that the Europeans might give, his corrupt regime will
vanish. He will become Europe’s premier persona non grata. The United States, and others, may initiate
personal sanctions. Like rats abandoning
a sinking ship, his oligarch “family,” seeking legitimization of wealth via the
EU option, will scatter. There will be
schisms within his Party of Regions. The ongoing demonstrations against the
president’s regime are likely to escalate.
Despite this, Yanukovych initiated two meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin since scolding him
in Kyiv last summer for playing political.
Both were in Russia. Last week’
was so hush-hush, public broadcaster denied that it even took place. What’s big enough to save his skin
from a difficult future?
Ukraine’s former interior minister and a recently pardoned political prisoner, says that the most probable offer may be this: Putin will allow him to stand for the
2015 presidential elections uncontested by another pro-Russian candidate. Such an offer would buy Yanukovych
what he currently needs most: time and, as a parliamentarian, immunity from
whatever Putin is offering is not ironclad, given that Ukraine’s president
is still hedging. Previous experience
must tell him all may be naught if Russia is true to form. He already gave up Ukraine’s defense and
security structures to Russia, and Sevastopol to its Black Sea Fleet for
helping him to win the last elections then accused Russia of negotiating in bad
So what does he
need to favor the EU option?
This is a most
delicate moment. The man feels cornered
as the European option holds pitfalls for him too. He will need to legitimize shady arrangements,
punish illegal business allies, stop nepotism and abuse of office. He will be required to hold free and fair
elections, allow freedom of the press, revert to the rule of law and support
democratic values. Briefly: become more
like Europe than Russia.
Despite the pain,
the European option means certain gain. There
are rewards for taking this step. Ukraine
will receive help in the form of institutional restructuring in parliament,
judiciary and the bureaucracy. Free
trade arrangements, cancellation of visa restrictions, debt repayment, fiscal
collapse prevention and more are already in the document or will follow. Closer European integration will give Ukraine
protection from Russia’s wrath by the globe’s democratic states. All this will benefit him as well. Additionally, Yanukovych will become a historic
figure: the man who cemented Ukraine to Europe.
Above all, he will get what he seeks most in this beleaguered hour: he
will buy time to, perhaps, save himself.
He can still do
this by freeing Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned ex-prime minister who came within 3.5 percentage points of becoming president in the 2010 presidential election.
Ukraine’s Constitution gives him the power. The incarcerated Tymoshenko has
shifted positions to make this possible. Incredulously, he is yet to be convinced
that he, not she, is the real obstacle to his own demise. His indecisiveness is sabotaging his future; squeezing
him into a corner from which there may be no escape for his illegal acts,
misgovernment or bad deals with bad neighbors His waffling is like Russian roulette. He is holding the pistol to his head; most of
the chambers have already been emptied.
Now is a good
time for all of Ukraine’s friends—Canada, the first Western country to
recognize Ukraine, the United States, the leader of the democratic world and all
concerned EU members to push him. Call Yanukovych and convince him to help himself.
His future, that of Ukraine, the EU’s and the entire democratic world depends
on it. The Canadian Group for Democracy
for Ukraine is contacting Harper’s office, requesting such a call.
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, a
former Canadian government executive, is a founding member of the Canadian
Group for Democracy in Ukraine.