Ukrainian foreign policy: Barking without any bite

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July 10, 2012, 6:11 p.m. | Op-ed — by Ian Hansen

Ukraine's foreign policy: Barking without any bite

Winston Churchill’s aphorisms are often as informative as they are witty. For example, take his comparison of domestic Russian politics with bulldogs fighting underneath a carpet: outsiders hear lots of barking but are no closer to identifying the winner in any struggle for power.

In Ukraine, the tenacity of the dogs may be the same, but politicians have long dispensed with the carpet. In other words, speculation on Ukrainian politics and conjecture over the influence held by different interests require less guesswork than in Russia.

Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing. Complete transparency can provide insight into a country’s stability. It can lead to earning the trust of international financial agencies and markets. It can even lead to membership in rewarding institutions such as the EU. Yet, unfortunately this type of transparency does not exist in Ukraine. What does exist is a disheartening predictability which subsequently prevents a successful Ukrainian foreign policy.

A perfect example is the recent tumult surrounding the controversial language bill. This bill highlights politicians stoking publicity fires to avoid discussing problems of substance. 65% of Ukrainians see through this and believe the language bill is pure political gamesmanship. In fact, even though the protests and demonstrations over the bill were unquestionably earnest, they were remarkably small in comparison with the number of people that attended the recent Elton John and Queen concert.

On July 12, when President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Yalta, the language bill will surely distract from other issues-and for what?

How much Putin even cares about the bill is debatable. The bill’s passing would do little to abate the torrent of domestic problems he currently faces at home. Moreover, what Putin really desires-Ukrainian membership into the Customs Union and Single Economic Space-would nullify any hope of Ukraine finalizing the free trade agreement with the EU. That is a non-starter for Yanukovich. Even if he suggested a “pause” in relations with the EU, his overall stated goal remains further integration.

However, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions have failed at implementing most reforms connected with the EU Accession Agreement. The failure is less about a lack of capacity, though important, than it is about a lack of government effort.

After all, the delays have likely led Yanukovich to believe he can consistently secure more favorable energy deals from Russia. Even if this were true, such deals only increase energy inefficiency in Ukraine by delaying necessary reforms.

So this policy becomes neither cunning nor helpful for greater Ukraine. These reforms would have begun to improve common Ukrainians’ lives and led to greater economic opportunities in the future. What is also overlooked is that Ukraine would have actually been in a much stronger negotiating position with Russia had it already implemented the suggested reforms.

Taken all together, this is not a productive ‘middle path’ policy for Ukraine-it is a solitary path towards isolation. If you doubt the direction then consider this: the President of Ukraine is as unwilling to turn his back on the EU as he is willing to rankle Europe with uncompromising views towards jailed opponents. Likewise, he is as unwilling to appease the Kremlin’s desires as he is willing to upset non-Russian speakers here in Ukraine with political ploys.

Ukraine does not need to, nor should it, select a pro-West or pro-Russia position. However, it does need to form policy based on something more than stubbornness. The language debacle has proven disheartening predictability is alive and well in Ukraine. Ukrainian observers, and foreign politicians, are looking back in dismay observing a dog barking without any bite.

Ian Hansen is currently an intern at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kyiv.

He is pursuing his Master’s in International Affairs at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

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