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January 5, 2010
Summary: With expectations disappointed among Ukrainians, and impatience widespread in the West, it may be tempting to disregard the January 17, 2010 presidential election as just another in an endless series of polls that have done little to advance Ukraine in recent years. That verdict, however, would be as premature as it would be irresponsible. Given the significance and potential of Ukraine, as well as the enormous challenges facing the country, it should be clear, rather, that the country merits all the assistance the West can muster in order to swing the momentum back toward democratic reforms, economic development, and geopolitical stability. The January 2010 election marks an important occasion for the West to reengage in Ukraine, possibly the last moment that the broad spirit of the Orange Revolution and its democratic promise are still alive in the country.
More than a Neighbor: Why Ukraine Matters
by Jörg Forbrig and Dakota Korth1
Anton Chekhov once remarked that “any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” In Ukraine today, many seem worn out after years of political infighting in Kiev while the country slipped ever deeper into economic crisis and social hardship. What a contrast with the enthusiasm of the Orange Revolution when, a mere five years ago, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Ukraine to protest fraudulent elections, oust a corrupt regime, and return democracy to the country. The West, in those days, watched in awe as Ukraine exemplified the appeal of freedom and democracy. Yet that optimism has since turned into frustration. With disappointed Ukrainians and an impatient West, it may be tempting to disregard the January 17, 2010, presidential election as just another in an endless series of polls that have done little to advance Ukraine in recent years. That verdict, however, would be as premature as it would be irresponsible. On the contrary, the West would do well to remember what is at stake in Ukraine, why the country matters, and why enhanced Western efforts are needed to help Ukraine on its road to democracy, development, and stability.
Such stock-taking should start with the considerable positive developments that have taken place in Ukraine. Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has held two nationwide elections for parliament that have been deemed free and fair by international observers, and it is generally expected that this trend will continue with the upcoming election for president this month. The Ukrainian media is by far the freest in the region, and civil society is flourishing with thousands of nongovernmental initiatives working on issues from citizen participation and anti-corruption to environmental and social affairs. Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, is a platform for political discussion that, if at times fierce, is incomparably superior to the previous practice of rubber-stamping presidential decisions. These positives must not be overlooked. They are gains worth defending, and a basis upon which more stable and effective democratic institutions can be built. Making democracy work beyond the election will be Ukraine’s formidable task over the next several years. On one hand, this will require institutional reforms to address the labyrinth of competencies between president, government, and parliament; between
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Jörg Forbrig is a senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe and Dakota Korth is a senior program officer for Foreign Policy and Civil Society with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program
center and periphery; and to put an end to the political bickering that has been at the root of recent stagnation. On the other hand, Ukrainians expect effective public policies to resolve the looming social crisis in the country. Swathes of Ukrainian society, be it pensioners or public employees, see their often meager salaries arrive weeks or months late, if at all. The demographic situation is dismal, with a vicious circle of low birth rates, high mortality, and large-scale emigration. Public health is deteriorating, as demonstrated by the recent swine flu epidemic or HIV/AIDS infection rates, the highest in Europe according to a recent UN report. Environmental degradation is severe, especially in the heavily industrialized eastern and southern parts of the country. On these and other accounts, lack of government response diminishes the quality of life of millions of Ukrainians, erodes their confidence in the democratic system, and feeds a charged public mood and political instability. Enthusiasm toward market economy and democracy is on the decline in the country—as evidenced in the most recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project where only 30 percent of Ukrainians favored democracy in 2009 compared to 72 percent in 19912 —and it may be only a matter of time before calls are heard for a strong hand to lead Ukraine to greater prosperity. Hence, little time is left to restore the democratic optimism that was so overwhelming among Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution. What is more, success in building effective democracy in Ukraine would have important repercussions throughout the former Soviet Bloc. Advancing liberal democracy and market economy in Ukraine would inspire reformers across the region, while failure would provide neighboring autocrats with an additional excuse for their own non-democratic agenda. This effect is probably most obvious in relation to Belarus and Russia, both of which share close historical, cultural, and human ties with Ukraine. No other people are as closely watched by Russians and Belarusians, and seeing their Ukrainian brethren prosper in democracy and independence, and eventually move closer to Europe, will provoke these Slavic neighbors to question the political course set in Minsk and Moscow.
The regional impact of a strengthened democracy in Ukraine extends further, however, in that it would turn the country into an anchor of geopolitical stability. Enhanced democratic institutions would allow Kyiv to accommodate the diversity of Ukraine’s regions, and alleviate fears existing among Russian speakers, Crimean Tatars, or Ruthenians, among others, that are all too often exploited for political gain. Absent such threats (perceived or actual) to its integrity as a state, Ukraine would regain the confidence to handle geostrategic issues on its own soil, such as the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, and to contribute to resolving such issues in neighboring countries, as in the case of the Transnistria issue in Moldova. Most importantly, however, Ukraine has the potential to temper Russia’s imperial ambitions. “As Ukraine moves toward Europe,” Zbigniew Brzezinski has noted, “the imperial option for Russia closes forever and Russia then only has one option—to follow suit in the lead of its older brother.” Beyond this eastern vector, Ukraine holds weight vis-à-vis Europe, North America, and the international community. Large diaspora communities exist in the United States and Canada, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian migrant workers can be found across Europe. Ukraine shares a substantially long land border with European neighbors, with all the attendant potentials and problems that can be found at such frontiers, from cross-border cooperation to trafficking in persons. With the backing of a majority of its people, Ukraine wishes to move closer to the European Union; NATO, too, may one day be in the cards should popular support increase. The country has active personnel in peacekeeping missions across the globe, including in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These international and Western ties are often highlighted by Ukrainians who, at the same time, feel that these existing bonds are underappreciated in Europe and the United States. Finally, Ukraine has tremendous economic potential that to date remains largely untapped. It has a high-caliber workforce, though many of Ukraine’s best and brightest continue to leave in search of a better life elsewhere. The country has some of the most fertile land in Europe that once made it the breadbasket of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union alike, yet today millions of hectares are lying fallow for lack of
See Pew Global Attitudes Research Project, “Two Decades After the Wall’s Fall: End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations,” http://pewglobal.org/reports/display. php?ReportID=267
Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program
investments and Byzantine regulations. Coal mines and steel mills in Eastern Ukraine formed the backbone of Soviet industrialization, yet their safety records today are among the worst worldwide. And even Ukraine’s fortunate location as the main transit country for Russian oil and gas to the European Union has been a mixed blessing, with frequent gas disputes and cut-offs having undermined its reliability as an energy corridor. Much of this misery has to be blamed on rampant corruption, confusing regulations, and inept governance that earn Ukraine the title of one of Europe’s most troubled economies. The country’s woes have delayed the latest bailout from the International Monetary Fund, and continue to threaten neighboring and global economies, be it through a sovereign default or another energy dispute. Given the significance and potential of Ukraine, as well as the enormous challenges facing the country, it should be clear that the country merits all the assistance the West can muster in order to swing the momentum back toward democratic reforms, economic development, and geopolitical stability. The January 2010 election marks an important occasion for the West to reengage in Ukraine, possibly the last moment that the broad spirit of the Orange Revolution and its democratic promise are still alive in the country. Western outreach needs to occur on all possible levels, from an open-door policy from the EU and NATO and assistance to Ukraine’s battered economy to enhanced support for civil society and stronger human and cross-border contacts that send a signal of Western solidarity directly to Ukrainian citizens. In return, the West should take Ukraine’s political elites to task, demanding that they put aside personal animosities and tackle the country’s genuine problems instead, including deficient governance, corruption, and festering social issues. Only this dual effort, by domestic leaders and their transatlantic partners, can keep Ukraine from sliding backwards. Otherwise the upcoming presidential election will only lead to greater frustration.
Jörg Forbrig, Senior Program Officer, GMF
Jörg Forbrig is senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, based out of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Berlin. In this capacity, he contributes to GMF’s work in Europe’s East, including analytical and policy work on the new member countries of the European Union, and the EU’s Eastern neighborhood; Marshall Memorial Fellowship activities; and support for civil society, elections and political processes in transitioning democracies. Prior to joining GMF in 2002, he worked as a Robert Bosch Foundation fellow at the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, Poland. Dr. Forbrig holds a Ph.D. in social and political sciences from the European University Institute in Florence and master’s degree in political science from Central European University in Budapest.
Dakota Korth, Senior Program Officer, GMF
Dakota Korth is senior program officer for Foreign Policy and Civil Society at GMF’s headquarters in Washington, DC. His portfolio includes the Balkan Trust for Democracy and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, GMF’s regional civil society grantmaking programs. Mr. Korth lived and worked in Ukraine between 2001-2003.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
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