EU should target Ukrainian oligarchs to stimulate reform
By Taras Kuzio
BRUSSELS – The Cox-Kwasniewski commission – composed of former EU parliament chief Patrick Cox and former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski – is in Kyiv on 26-28 May to check on progress in Ukraine's bid to meet EU reform demands.
If it does its homework on EU benchmarks, the Union aims to sign an Association Agreement and free trade pact with Ukraine at a summit in Vilnius in November.
In the meantime, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has sought to stress Ukraine's geopolitical importance by threatening to join a Russia-led Customs Union instead.
Ukraine earlier this month already obtained observer status in the counter-EU group.
But in reality the threat of Ukraine turning eastwards is an empty one.
The majority of Ukraine's business elite, not to mention political opposition groups, are against it.
President Yanukovych and the so-called "Donetsk clan" of oligarchs from his home town are economic nationalists unwilling to give up sovereignty to either the EU or Russia.
They want to live in a pre-globalised world in which they undertake integration eastwards or westwards on their own terms.
They have forgotten the old adage that there is no such thing as a "free lunch."
In addition to over-estimating Ukraine's geopolitical importance to the EU, Ukrainian foreign minister Leonid Kozhara said duringahis recent European tour that the only "problem" the EU has with Ukraine is that of imprisoned former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.
One of the EU's benchmarks is ending "selective justice" in Ukraine.
But Kozhara told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this month that the problem does not exist in Ukraine.
President Yanukovych seems to believe that – contrary to all Western demands over the past 18 months – that he can keep her locked up and sign the EU treaty anyway.
In other words, he is hoping for a free lunch in Vilnius.
But for his part, the EU ambassador to Ukraine, polish diplomat Jan Tombinski told Ukrainian television just two weeks ago the freeing of Tymoshenko is essential for the signature to go ahead.
Meanwhile, the Cox-Kwasnieski mission would do well to look beyond Tymoshenko at media freedom, which has been declining in Ukraine over the last three years.
The international human rights think tank, Freedom House, recently reported that: "the year 2012... featured the abuse of state media to favour the ruling Party of Regions during parliamentary elections, as well as an escalation in threats and attacks on journalists in the pre-election period."
Freedom House ranks Ukraine's media freedom in the same place (131) as Southern Sudan and Zambia.
Georgia and Moldova – two other EU-aspirant post-Soviet countries – are ranked far higher in 96 and 112th place, respectively.
Deteriorating conditions for media freedom suggest that next year Freedom House will designate Ukraine's media as "Not Free."
It would be an embarrassment to the EU if this happened a few months after the Vilnius ceremony.
Deteriorating conditions for Ukrainian media were clearly evident during opposition protests on 18 May, when three journalists were brutally attacked while attempting to photograph pro-regime thugs.
Under pressure from journalists and opposition, the Ukrainian parliament has agreed to establish a temporary investigative commission.
But some journalists who turned their backs on Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov during a press conference in protest at the 18 May assault have been denied future press accreditation.
The denial is illegal under Ukrainian law.
There is little confidence that Ukraine's parliamentary commission will lead to greater public accountability.
Ukrainians have little confidence in parliament or the police – a recent poll found that only 1 percent put faith in the institutions.
Journalists have accused Police Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko of deceiving parliament when he denied that the authorities were behind the pro-regime thugs.
He issued the denial to MPs despite the fact that police were filmed talking to the thugs before standing by and watching the assault take place without doing anything to stop it.
For his part, Yuriy Lukanov, the chairman of Ukraine's Independent Media Trade Union,
believes the thugs are government agents.
He says the police gives paramilitary training to ex-convicts before they are sent out to cause trouble during protests or election rallies.
"Police patronage of these Ukrainian Nashi is provided with the support of the authorities," he told the author, referring to pro-Kremlin agents provocateurs used in Russia.
The Ukrainian Nashi were brought to Kyiv by the youth wing of the Party of Regions which Yanukovych led from 2003-2010 and which is currently led by Azarov.
They are not only a threat to journalists, but to Ukrainian democracy more broadly.
Lukanov warned that they are likely to be a factor in the next presidential elections.
"The authorities will rely on the Nashi during the 2015 presidential elections to secure votes through pressure and violence rather than attempting to convince voters they are the right people to run Ukraine," he noted.
What can the EU do about this worrying development?
It is caught in a quandary.
On the one hand, strong cross-party opposition by MEPs to the association pact signature in present conditions means the EU will not be in a position to go ahead in Vilnius.
On the other hand, it is in the interests of the EU and of Ukrainian people to steer the country Westward.
Brussels and, more importantly the Cox-Kwasniewski mission, should understand the main motivation driving President Yanukovych is power and money.
Everything else – including European integration – is secondary.
Releasing Tymoshenko might lead to the signing of the association pact, but – he fears – might also see him lose power in 2015.
At the same time, the real power in Ukraine resides with Yanukovych's oligarch sponsors.
If the EU were to threaten some of the big fish, such as Rinat Akhmetov or Dmytro Firtash with visa bans and asset freezes, you would quickly see Yanukovych put under pressure to free Tymoshenko and to rein in his Nashi thugs.
This is the only way to make him play by the rules, not with the rules, as former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana once said.
It is time for Brussels to make it crystal clear there is no free lunch for him to eat.
The writer is an academic at the School of Advanced International Relations, Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC