From reading the commentary by Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, in the Wall Street Journal the other day, you might get the impression that Ukraine yearns for the day when it’s considered as European as France (well, at least as European as Romania).
After declaring his goal “to set Ukraine on the path to becoming a proud member of the European Union,” he writes, “Ukraine’s partnership with the West extends beyond economic and strategic interests. It also includes a shared culture of values and a commitment to democracy, human rights and international peace.”
Yanukovych is not the worst we’ve seen, but you can’t help but wonder about his commitment to democracy after the changes to, for instance, election laws championed by his government that make it difficult for the opposition to get a toehold on power. Or his reversal of legislation that he had supported while in opposition that limits the president’s power. Or the virtual absence of news on opposition figures on the major networks until the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because the day before Yanukovych’s piece appeared, TOL ran a commentary, via BBC Monitoring, in which an analyst (identified as Ukrainian, pro-Russian) essentially asks, what were they thinking locking up Tymoshenko? Don’t they know that’s the quickest way to earn the condemnation of the West and to turn Ukrainians’ indifference to her into sympathy?
The writer, Volodymyr Kornilov, is too cynical for my taste (it sounds a bit dismissive when he says that the “Europeans imbibe with mother’s milk respect for order and court,” and positing that Tymoshenko would have been just as ruthless to her enemies as the current administration has been to her, he writes, “This is why the authorities should have tried to create conditions ensuring that Tymoshenko never returns to the top of Ukrainian politics instead of clearing the road for her new ratings.”)
But his logic is pretty sound. So what should they have done? After all, Tymoshenko has goaded them with atrocious behavior during her trial.
Kornilov’s advice would have been for Kyiv to conduct a media campaign of its own to pre-empt the public relations efforts of team Tymoshenko. “It would have been quite enough, for example, to show to the West the behavior of the leader of Fatherland [Tymoshenko] in the courtroom in order to at least cause uneasiness among potential advocates of Tymoshenko in Europe,” he writes (and here we get the quote about Europeans’ love of courtroom decorum).
Which is why I thought Yanukovych’s piece was interesting. It comes on the anniversary of the country’s independence, so there’s no need to look for dark arts behind its appearance. But taken together Kornilov’s and Yanukovych’s commentaries signal something that might seem simple but is really important: it matters to Kyiv what the rest of Europe thinks of it. When that is missing in capitals of authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian, or even not-quite-democratic states, would-be reformers have little leverage. That’s reason for hope, no matter how insincere Yanukovych’s apparent embrace of democracy might seem.