Engagement is the Answer in Ukraine

Carl Bildt, William Hague, Karel Schwarzenberg, Radoslaw Sikorski, and Guido Westerwelle — the Foreign Ministers of Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany, respectively — took to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times on March 4 to denounce another nation for putting its former Prime Minister on trial for failing to perform state duties correctly, for costing the country untold millions if not billions of dollars, and failing to properly safeguard the economic well-being of the state. The government trying the former Prime Minister is made up of the latter’s political rivals.

They are not protesting the trial of Iceland’s former Prime Minister, Geir Haarde, who faces criminal charges for failing to anticipate the second-worst financial crisis to strike the world in the last hundred years (and the worst to hit Iceland in its history). Haarde’s trial has been undertaken at the behest of one of his former ministers, a political opponent now tied to his party’s archrival.

Instead, they are protesting Ukraine’s conviction of its former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. The charge against Tymoshenko can be boiled down to making a deal with Russia that inflated the cost of natural gas well beyond market levels, costing Ukraine enormous sums of money and placing it in an economic hole that, with the global downturn of 2008-2009, has left the country in a hole from which it has not escaped.

The idea of charging a prime minister with the crime of being bad at his job is alien to us (and to most of those foreign ministers’ nations as well), especially as both Haarde’s party and Tymoshenko were roundly defeated at the following, fair elections in their countries. Nevertheless, these similar laws are the laws of those lands, making the charge of political prosecution somewhat silly.

In vain have I searched for some evidence that these foreign ministers are protesting Haarde’s prosecution (or Tymoshenko’s prosecution of Ukraine’s current President, Viktor Yanukovych, after her coalition defeated him in the Orange Revolution, on charges past the statute of limitations). It is with equal futility with which I scan the Op-Ed for some sign that Ukraine is considering repealing the law under which Tymoshenko was convicted, and that Yanukovych has stated he would be ready to pardon her on that repeal.

Any reasonable person wants Ukraine to further liberalize, to engage in more democratic reforms, and to continue on the path set first by the Orange Revolution and now continued in Yanukovych’s election and pension reforms. Kiev would be the first to admit that they have a long road ahead of them, but they have set themselves — as those foreign ministers acknowledge — on the hard road of reform, toward Europe, and away from their traditional hegemon, Russia.

The cost of those reforms and that strategic positioning has not been small. Russia’s tendency to treat Ukraine as a vassal state — for reasons historical and geopolitical — is not lightly thwarted, and Russia has responded by increasing the political and economic pressure on Ukraine, especially through the natural gas on which Ukraine relies for survival.

One of the unnoticed aspects of Ukraine’s current political situation is that Vladimir Putin has been one of Tymoshenko’s staunchest backers, as she had become one of his in Ukraine; Yanukovych, once a darling in Moscow, has repeatedly rebuffed Russia for the chance to drive his nation closer to the European Union.

Yet with this precarious balance — currently tilted in Europe’s favor — and those same electoral reforms, some of the EU’s foremost foreign ministers take to some of the most valuable journalistic real estate in the world to remonstrate Ukraine for the very sins they implicitly forgive from Iceland.

This is a very dangerous and ill-advised game, something these men and their counterpart at the State Department should know. Ukraine’s easiest route now would be to turn back toward Russia, especially with the European Union flouting its overtures at every turn. Democracy and free markets are wonderful things, but when your citizens face freezing to death, they tend to look small and petty. Every former Soviet Republic observed the West doing nothing as Russia invaded and carved up Georgia, and Ukraine knows it will get no significant help if the Russians turn their attention West.

Sometimes, the carrot is a better incentive than the stick. Even with the we’ll-wait-and-see suggestion at the end of the Op-Ed, the foreign ministers are informing Kyiv that it will never come closer to Europe if it does not fall in line.

Europe and the U.S. have a vested interest in a Ukraine pointed West, not East. Now is the time to offer rewards for good behavior, not threats over bad. Encouraging Kyiv to follow its current course carries much less danger than putting it between a dismissive Europe and a menacing Russia.

Engagement would be far more effective as a policy than such articles by Mr. Bildt and friends.

Matthew Lina is a Junior Scholar at the Center for the Study of Former Soviet Socialist Republics, a thinktank dedicated to promoting democracy and free markets in the former Eastern Bloc. He operates out of Kyiv, London, and the United States, and currently heads a software development company and charitable institutions specializing in promoting civil society in the wreckage of communism.