A long way to go

For almost four years now, Ukraine has been the stage of a violent conflict, during which over 10,000 people lost their lives. An interwoven combination of international and internal factors contributed to the escalation of violence, putting the country in a dark tunnel of which the end is not visible yet.

What happened?

In November 2013, Viktor Janukovyč, the Ukrainian president at the time, suspended talks on a political and trade deal with the European Union aimed at establishing a closer cooperation between the two parties. Immediately after, thousands of Ukrainians filled Kiev’s Maidan Square to protest against the President’s decision. When the demonstrations were violently repressed, and dozens of people lost their lives, the protests spread across the country and Janukovyč fled to Russia.

These dynamics caused the escalation of the already existing division between the pro-European and the pro-Russian parts of the country. The conflict became intense especially in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and in Crimea. It was in this area, where many citizens support pro-Russian stances, that President Janukovyč held the largest share of his electoral basis. In March 2014, the Russian parliament agreed on sending troops in the region to support the pro-Russian side in the conflict. Two weeks later, Russia declared the annexation of Crimea to its territory. Soon after, in the remaining two regions, separatists declared independence. Even though very few entities have recognized the status of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the two territories keep acting independently, supported by Russian authorities. Few months after these facts, Ukrainians elected a new President: Petro Porošenko. Since the beginning, he expressed the intention to strengthen ties with the EU, while maintaining close economic links with Russia.

Since then, there have been weak attempts to establish some sort of cooperation among the two conflicting sides and stop the violence. The most renowned example of such an attempt is that of the Minsk Agreements, a deal signed in September 2014, containing a ceasefire provision. The agreements never worked, and both sides repeatedly claimed that the opponent had violated what was stated in the deal. The agreement was renewed in February 2015, but never had any concrete effect.

While the conflict escalated, Porošenko took effective steps to strengthen ties with the European Union. In 2017, the country signed the EU Association Agreement and both sides agreed on the establishment of a visa-free travel regime for Ukrainians in the EU.

Structural issues

Throughout this period, the violence and chaos in the country have exacerbated what were already deep and structural problems, weakening the unstable system. Several Human Rights organizations have urged the need for structural reforms in the country to tackle corruption and guarantee fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association, currently under threat.

Corruption is among the most deeply rooted issues endangering the Ukrainian system. In 2016, the country received a score of 29 out of 100 in the Transparency International report, ranking 131st out of 176 countries.

The international community has stressed the need for Ukraine to establish an independent anti-corruption judicial institution. The initiative was initially opposed by President Porošenko, who claimed that there was no need for an external mechanism because the entire judicial system should ensure anti-corruption measures. Porošenko’s view denotes the resistance of the political class to put its actions under the scrutiny of a third neutral party: one of the fundamental principles of democracy. An example of the necessity of such an institution, is a law, approved in March 2017, introducing criminal charges against anti-corruption activists who would not publicly list their assets. This law highlights how influential political interests are in the Ukrainian legislative and judicial system. If an independent and impartial institution would be established, political interests would not get in the way of a fair and democratic process. But this is not the only politically motivated decision taken by Porošenko. Another example is a law, drafted in July last year, requiring public listing of every non-profit organization, which is clearly aimed at contrasting civil society activism.

The latest developments show how long the road ahead still is. After opposing the need to create a free and independent anti-corruption organism, Porošenko reacted to the international pressure and drafted a provision to establish an anti-corruption court. The international community has expressed concerns on its effectiveness, claiming that the provisions do not guarantee the independence of the court and impartiality in the selection of judges.

Notwithstanding, the ongoing conflict caused the situation to deteriorate even further. Ukraine is failing to provide the basic safeguards of the rule of law. In fact, no mechanism has been established to regularly prosecute and eventually punish those responsible for the crimes committed over these past years. In Crimea, Russian troops continue to target political dissidents and pro-Ukrainian activists, carrying out unlawful detentions. The situation is no different in the rest of the country. Since the conflict started, Porošenko’s government has carried out arbitrary and unlawful acts to contrast separatists and political dissidents. The Myrotvorets, a pro-government website which leaked personal data of journalists working in the separatist regions, serves as a good example.

A divided and paralyzed European Union

In the last decade, the European Union has always defined itself as a normative power in its relations with post-Soviet countries. For the Union, being a normative power implies performing the role of a mentor, bringing institutions, ideas and principles in the region, and helping these countries to transform their systems into democratic regimes. The choice to perform such role results also from the limited options the Union has. At the moment, in fact, it doesn’t have the possibility to develop a foreign policy, considering its institutional design and the political division among its members.

Before the start of the conflict, Ukraine considered two possibilities: allying with Russia, an option which did not imply significant systemic reforms, and strengthening the cooperation with the Union, which instead constituted a commitment towards significant and long-term internal changes. After Janukovyč suspended the deal with the EU and the conflict begun, the Union strengthened its rhetoric of normative power by still trying to pave the way for future cooperation through the Association Agreement, while contrasting Russia’s actions through the imposition of sanctions.

However, the Union’s role as a normative power is put into question by two elements which influence its behavior towards Ukraine: the lack of unity and the strong economic ties with Russia.

The lack of unity was especially evident when in April 2016, the Netherlands held a referendum to oppose the Association agreement with the country. Although almost 60% of votes cast were against the deal, the turn-out was considerably low (32%). Even though it was a consultative and not-binding referendum, it put the government in a tough spot. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, did not want to reject the deal, but ignoring the result would have had serious political consequences for his already unpopular government. The situation was eventually solved when the Dutch managed to include a clause in the Agreement, which explicitly states there is no guarantee for entering the EU in the form of membership for Ukraine. This episode summarizes the problematic debate around this topic and suggests how difficult future relations between the EU and Ukraine could be.

Another critical issue, which casts doubt on the ability of the EU to perform its role of normative power, mediate the conflict and eventually welcome Ukraine among its members, is related to the Union’s high dependence on Russian gas supplies. At this moment, several EU countries are closely cooperating with Gazprom on the development of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline which would be built on the same route of the already exiting Nord Stream 1, doubling its capacity. This project has triggered intense debate among Member States. Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands strongly support the project, because some companies in these countries will be working on it. Poland and the Baltic states are firmly opposing the initiative, claiming that the pipeline would increase EU dependence on Russian gas and give an even more dominant role to Gazprom in the EU energy market. This situation has three very significant consequences. First, with the construction of Nord Stream 2, the amount of Russian gas currently transiting through Ukraine and headed to EU markets would be significantly reduced, causing a hit for the already weak Ukrainian economy. Second, the revenues that Russia obtains from gas exports to the EU soften the effect of the sanctions imposed by the Union following the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict. Third, because of this strong economic interest, the EU might continue to be paralyzed in the political negotiations with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Internal issues and international dynamics

Ukraine needs to work on the systemic flaws of its political, judicial and legislative branches, with the support of the international community, especially since the country is in a vicious cycle. The already weak system continues to deteriorate due to the chaotic situation caused by the conflict. As a result, individuals are seeing their rights consistently threatened.

Although it is obvious that a situation of conflict threatens the regular functioning of a democracy, there still is a government in place. The situation needs a solution in order to avoid abuse of power for political purposes. Through the Association Agreement, Ukraine has subscribed specific values such as democracy and the rule of law, values which certainly do not leave space for political persecution and corruption. The establishment of functioning judicial and legislative systems would be a necessary first step towards the end of the conflict.

The imprecise role of the European Union does not alleviate the situation. Since the beginning, the EU has played an important symbolic role for Ukraine, advocating for the implementation of more democratic conditions and condemning Russia’s aggressive meddling in Ukrainian affairs. However, the actions that the European Union has taken so far send contrasting messages. As shown by the Dutch referendum and by the formulation of the Association Agreement, there still isn’t a common strategy among Member States on the issue of EU-Ukraine relations. On top of this, the close economic cooperation with Russia in the energy sector has revealed how difficult it could be for the Union to take effective measures against Russian behavior in Ukraine.

Considering the different views on the issue and the general reluctance to welcome new members now that the Union is already facing internal disagreements, it would probably be better for the EU to focus on becoming an effective mediator. The Ukrainian conflict is in fact to be included among those issues which reveal how difficult the establishment of a common foreign policy among Member States is. Instead of waiting to develop a common strategy on the issue of Ukraine’s possible future membership, the EU should use its resources to mediate among the opposing sides and put a halt to the violent conflict, which keeps causing the death of thousands of people. Unfortunately, there is still a long road ahead, because the Union will not perform this role easily since its political strategy continues to be influenced by the economic ties with Russia.

Author: Ljuba Ferrario

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