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What Should Europe Do about Ukraine?

As the December 19th summit between the European Union and Ukraine approaches, the petulant President Viktor Yanukovych seems determined to thumb his schoolboyish nose at EU concerns about rule of law in general and the illegal imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko in particular.

In turn, the EU isn’t quite sure what to do. Should it initial the association agreement with Ukraine and thereby seemingly signal its indifference to Yanukovych’s tin-pot authoritarianism? Should it cancel the summit? (If so, to what end?) Should it protest? (If so, how?)

Here’s a simple rule of thumb for the EU: distinguish between Ukraine and its people on the one hand and the Regionnaire regime on the other and formulate policy accordingly. 

The only important questions about the association agreement are: Is it good for Europe? Is it good for Ukraine? If the answer is yes to both questions—and, as I’ve already written in this blog, the answer is yes to both questions; and, by the way, Tymoshenko happens to agree—then the EU should sign the agreement in December and thereby initiate the laborious, and far from certain, process of its eventual ratification by the EU’s member states. And that’s that.

Won’t initializing the agreement in December also be a boon to the Regionnaire thugs who are systematically pillaging Ukraine? That depends.

If the agreement explicitly states that Ukraine could join the EU if and when it fulfills all the requirements of membership and is a fully democratic, rule-of-law state with a prosperous market economy free of corruption, then even the Regionnaires will have no choice but to adapt to European standards in the medium to long term and thereby self-destruct. The thugs lose, while Ukraine and Europe win. (An aside: That Europe continues to be skittish about such a no-lose proposition makes no sense. If Ukraine does not fulfill the requirements, it stays out. If it truly becomes rich, honest, and democratic, who wouldn’t want it to join the EU?)

How about the short term? If the Europeans simply sign the agreement, shake hands, do a photo op, and go home, then yes, the Regionnaires get a free ride. But what if the Europeans weren’t to give the thugs a free ride and still sign the agreement? That way, Ukraine would win, Europe would win, and the Regionnaires could lose in the short run, too.

There are three simple ways to deny the Regionnaires that free ride.

The first is hardest and least meaningful. As one EU diplomat wrote me recently, “several EU Member States don’t want to finalize the negotiations and initial the Association Agreement at the planned EU-Ukraine summit in December because they can’t accept having a big, pompous ceremony with red rugs and handshakes with Yanukovych while Tymoshenko is in jail.”

Well, if you can’t accept having a big, pompous ceremony, don’t. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing to stop the Europeans from publicly telling Yanukovych in no uncertain terms that the EU is signing the agreement to help Ukraine and not the Regionnaires. Nothing, that is, except the reluctance of Eurocrats, normally inclined to smile sweetly at all times, to engage in diplomatic rudeness. In other words, don’t expect this to happen.

The second is easier and more meaningful. The EU could privately make it clear to Yanukovych that, unless Tymoshenko is freed and the October 2012 parliamentary elections are squeaky clean, the EU will publicly rebuke him and recommend that its member states not ratify the agreement. The Regionnaires understand the language of blackmail, but does Europe have the guts to stick to its guns? Maybe yes, maybe no.

The third is easiest and most effective, as it panders to the European preference for indirect bureaucratic measures that evade public scrutiny and hits the Regionnaires where it hurts.

Many Europeans probably don’t know that Ukraine has a 1998 statute on the books that permits just about anybody to acquire a diplomatic passport granting its bearer visa-free travel. As you’d expect, the president, prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and genuine diplomats get to have a diplomatic passport. But so, too, do all parliamentary deputies, all cabinet ministers, all heads of provincial councils, the head of the secret police, a ton of other officials, and, just in case someone’s job description is not on the list, anybody with the “written approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, on condition that the President of Ukraine approves it.”

In other words, all the Regionnaire thugs and all the president’s pals get to go on shopping sprees in Europe.

Small wonder that the Regionnaires are playing hard to get with Europe. They know that, even if the association agreement goes bust, they’ll still be able to get a tan on the Riviera. As some pundits put it when commenting on Yanukovych’s 2010 electoral slogan, “Ukraine is for the people”: sure it is, and Europe is for the Regionnaires. (Another aside: Yanukovych, who, bless his heart, wouldn’t recognize irony if it hit him on the head like a miscreant wreath, reinforced this point by promising to transform Tymoshenko’s jail cell into her version of Europe: “I have recently heard a lot of comments from the lawyers of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko regarding Tymoshenko’s detention in prison, and I have given instructions to all agencies that are dealing with this issue to create the conditions that are currently envisaged at the European level.”)

The EU could end the Regionnaires’ monopoly on the real Europe in a flash. It wouldn’t have to blacklist Regionnaires, as some opposition democrats suggest. All it needs to do is quietly change a few rules and insist that the only Ukrainians who get to travel to the EU with diplomatic passports are bona fide diplomats engaged in bona fide diplomatic activity. Basta.

Everyone else—all the parliamentary deputies, all the provincial council heads, all the cabinet ministers, and all the president’s cronies—has to get on line at the appropriate European consulate, wait in stuffy rooms, fill out endless forms, pay exorbitant fees, produce invitations and bank accounts, and experience the same exact humiliation and frustration that regular folk do when they hope to go abroad.

In a word, the EU would treat Regionnaires as people, and not as fat cats.
Besides sending a powerful ethical message to the population of Ukraine, such a measure would also enable the EU to have the best of both worlds: sign the association agreement and end the Regionnaires’ free ride.

As one Ukrainian businessman told me, “If you force the Regionnaires to live like everybody else, they’ll quickly change their ways.”

I’m betting he’s right. After all, like all Mafiosi, the Regionnaires care only about their own power and wealth. If they have to stand in line with the unwashed masses, their power is worth nil. If they can’t travel at will to Paree, their wealth is also worth nil.

After all, what’s the point of having a Rolex, if you can only show it off to other crooks?
 

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