Turn east, Lady Ashton
Feb 11th 2010
The EU could make a real difference in Ukraine
PIGEONHOLING and false analogies are not part of formal international relations studies. But from the way that diplomats, policymakers and analysts talk about Ukraine, you would think they were compulsory courses.
Take the optimistic point that Ukraine’s elections are now unlike Russia’s. True, Ukrainian voters had a real choice in that country’s recent presidential poll. The incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko, gave up power peacefully. (In Russia, he might have handed power over to an ex-spook, amid bogus terrorist attacks to panic the public into accepting authoritarian rule). The vote count was fair. Ukraine’s media is far more pluralist than Russia’s. And so on. All this is fine. But Ukraine’s election was also unlike Kazakhstan’s. It is easy to make something look good by choosing a dismal comparator.
It is also tempting but wrong to compare Ukraine now with Russia in the 1990s. True, oligarchs rule the roost in both countries, with politicians as their puppets. True, Western money keeps Ukraine afloat, as it did in 1990s Russia. There, the West hoped to avert nuclear anarchy or a Communist revanche. In Ukraine the money is intended to stave off take-over by Russia.
But there is no sign of, or appetite for, a Ukrainian version of Vladimir Putin, not least because the West has not (yet) incinerated its credibility in Ukraine the way it did in Russia in the 1990s. Ukrainian politicians of all stripes, and the public, continue to want European values and European integration.
Brussels has yet to respond to that desire. European leaders missed the chance presented by the orange revolution (though to be fair, Mr Yushchenko and other Ukrainian politicians botched their opportunities even more badly). The European Union’s leaders also failed to make much of the recent election. Ukraine is a long way from Spain, which holds the rotating EU presidency. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s nominal foreign-policy chief, seems distracted, to put it mildly. The EU is treating Ukraine like Turkey—too big, too poor, and destined to wait indefinitely for membership. (That’s a false comparison too, but never mind).
Yet Ukraine is perhaps the one place where Lady Ashton and her new External Action Service could make a real difference. Ukraine badly needs attention, and unlike America or China it is not a place over which other EU leaders will be jostling for influence. Done properly, the gains from renewed EU involvement could be huge.
The European policy so far has been engagement with Ukraine’s political class. This has proved expensive, and mostly fruitless. Attention should now move to the citizenry. Imagine the effect if the EU opened 50 “Europe Houses” in the main towns and cities of Ukraine. The excellent new House of Europe in Tbilisi should be the model. That project aims to be the Georgian centre for all sorts of Europe-related cultural events, as well as debates and lectures, with a library and internet café as added attractions (readers with spare cash please note: it needs donors). It will have far more impact than the piecemeal efforts of individual European countries’ cultural institutes.
In the tense Ukrainian region of Crimea, a big EU presence would make it harder for Russia to hide its mischief-making (that should be a lesson from Georgia, where the EU’s absence was a lethal element in the run up to the 2008 war). More generally, the new policy will focus the EU’s biggest asset: its soft power. The EU’s military capability is meagre; its ability to stand up to Russian divide-and-rule tactics in energy security is feeble. But the EU does have something that the Kremlin doesn’t: attractiveness. Projecting that into Ukraine will give Lady Ashton and her staff something worthwhile to do. It could even work.
Thursday, February 11, 2010