EU representatives have failed to stand up against the recent decline of Ukrainian democracy

It looks as if Yanukovych and Co., having received Western approval of their first dealings, have come to believe that “the winner should take it all.” Not a single of the seven vice prime-ministers of the new government comes from an official parliamentary coalition partner of the Party of Regions. (The governments 29 prime- and ordinary ministers also do not include a single woman.) Moreover, the governmental coalition seems now also aiming to get hold of the chair positions of the most important parliamentary committees that are assigned by law to the opposition. The behavior of the Party of Regions still largely follows the pattern of its 2004 dealings that caused the Orange Revolution.

Lessons to Be Learned for Europe and Ukraine

Western observers and visitors should understand that, for many Ukrainian politicians, the main political question is still not what is legitimate, but what is doable and whether they can get away with it. When dealing with the Party of Regions, European and other partners of Ukraine should keep in mind that the anti-Orange camp led by Yanukovych never received a majority in national elections. Yanukovych is the first Ukrainian President elected to office with less than 50% of the votes in the decisive second round of the elections. Nevertheless, Yanukovych has now taken firm control not only of the legislature, but also of the entire executive branch, including government, regional administrations, the Central Bank, security service etc. Ukraine’s European partners should make clear that a stable government is certainly of value, but that stability “a la Putin” will be unacceptable should Ukraine want to keep its European perspective.

Ukraine’s decision makers, in turn, have to understand that semi-formal observance of democratic rules and merely rhetorical acceptance of political pluralism will be insufficient to keep the country on track to eventual EU membership – an aim to which all relevant political actors seem committed. Oral agreement to certain actions even by official Western delegations will not be enough to ensure sustainability in Ukraine’s move towards Europe, for the next years. Statements, like those reportedly made by Adrian Severin, could eventually even mislead the Ukrainian leadership to believe that everything is OK. Instead, it is possible that the government formation of March 11 will lead to a downgrading of Ukraine in future democracy rankings, like those of Freedom House. Should Ukraine, for instance, be relegated by Freedom House from “free” to “partly free,” this could have grave political repercussions for Ukraine. The Western public would again start to see Ukraine as a country “in between” democracy and authoritarianism, and not as a state firmly committed to European values. Ukraine would slide into the category of countries like Moldova, Georgia or Armenia – semi-democracies that the EU hopes to include some day, but regards today far from rife to be offered a membership perspective. It is not some selected Ambassadors or EU officials, but the people of Europe – including the Ukrainians themselves – whom the new political leadership of Ukraine will have to convince of its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.