At the upcoming EU-Ukraine summit, on November 22nd, 2010, the EU’s leadership will be facing a difficult task. On the one hand, the Union wants to develop closer or even special ties with this large, but unstable European country. After years of relative stagnation in its relations to Kyiv, the EU has now a number of important initiatives in place or on track — most prominently, the already working Eastern Partnership, a forthcoming Association Agreement, and a possible road map for visa-free travel of Ukrainians to the Schengen area. If implemented concurrently, these and some other actions could change the nature of Ukraine’s position in European politics.

On the other hand, the EU is interested in the promotion of political pluralism and the rule of law beyond its borders — above all, in its immediate neighborhood. The European Union needs Ukraine to be a democracy not only for normative reasons. Europe is also interested in an inclusive, moderating and sustainable Ukrainian political order that can prevent an escalation of post-communist ethno-cultural conflicts as happened in Yugoslavia, Moldova, the Northern and Southern Caucasus, as well as Central Asia.

The EU is now facing a formidable dilemma. It can follow the Council of Europe, Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, and other reputable international institutions and organizations in pointing out frankly and criticizing harshly the manifest recent decline in Ukraine’s democracy. In distinction to other institutions, moreover, the EU has a conditionality instrument at its disposal. The Union could demand a restoration of democratic practices before any further rapprochement between Kyiv and Brussels is possible. In that case, the EU may risk, however, to “lose” Ukraine, i.e. to drive it into isolation, if Kyiv does not accept Brussels demands. This would be a scenario welcome in Moscow. It would stimulate neo-colonial appetites among many Russian opinion and decision makers. If neo-imperial impulses find their expressions in practical Russian policies this could have grave consequences for European security.

An alternative strategy for the EU will be to continue merely re-stating political truisms that have little practical consequences for the new leadership in Kyiv. This strategy would have the advantage to prevent an international showdown between the Union’s and Ukrainian leaderships in the near future. It is a risky strategy, however, too. Not only will such behavior subvert the credibility of the EU as a promoter of democracy, on the international arena. It will also further weaken the pro-European constituency and strengthen Eurosceptic tendencies, within Ukrainian society.

Above all, it would reinforce the strangely suicidal impulses within Kyiv’s current leadership which tries to toughen its grip on power at the expense of the integrity and unity of the Ukrainian state as a national and constitutional entity.

The main problem emerging from the recent decline of democracy is not that Ukraine is becoming more and more frustrating to watch for Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian democrats. The main issues arising from Yanukovych’s recent policies are the growing estrangement between Ukraine’s civil society and central government, between the country’s West and East, as well as between the political and intellectual elites of Ukraine, on the one side, and the rest of Europe, on the other. The resulting radicalization of Ukrainian society — vividly demonstrated by the steep rise of the right-wing extremist “Svoboda” party — does not bode well for this culturally split country. One hears more and more calls for a formal division of the state into two separate countries. While, perhaps, a plausible idea, at first glance, this demand is dangerous as there is no national consensus where exactly the dividing line between the envisaged West and East Ukrainian states would lie.

At the upcoming summit, the EU leadership will face the daunting task to neither alienate nor lull the Ukrainian leadership. The previous soft approach of the EU towards Ukraine’s new President and government has not justified itself. All serious national and international observers agree that the Ukrainian regional and local elections on October 21, 2010 were a sad step backward in this young country’s political development. Obviously, the self-assured behavior of Kyiv’s new rulers before, during and after the elections, was a result of, among other factors, the manifest restraint in the critique that the elections’ preparation received from leading representatives of the Union.

Brussels will now have to find a new tone in its negotiations with Kyiv. It needs to make sure that it neither pushes away the Ukrainian leadership as a negotiation partner for the near future, nor loses the Ukrainian state as a member of the European community of democratic countries. Promoting democracy is not an idealistic luxury when consolidating the current East European security order. A revitalization of democratic practices in Ukraine appears as the only viable way to secure sustainable political stability, deep economic reform, and stable social development in the Union’s immediate Eastern neighborhood.