Ukraine on the Brink

Ukraine faces a stark choice. It can embrace modernity by signing an association agreement with the European Union. It can, instead, drift into obsolescence by signing on to Russia’s customs union.

President Viktor Yanukovich has chosen the worst option. He has announced he will not sign an E.U. agreement at a summit meeting that begins Thursday in Vilnius, Lithuania, but without giving any clear sign of what he will do next. And Ukraine has begun paying the price.

As news of Mr. Yanukovich’s decision became known, starting last week, hundreds of protesters pining for a future securely tied to the rest of Europe took to the streets of Kiev, the capital. The protests grew to tens of thousands over the weekend and spread to other cities; clashes with the police broke out. Opposition figures have called for Mr. Yanukovich’s impeachment, saying he bowed to pressure from Russia. The president, in turn, says that E.U. leaders failed to promise the financial help Ukraine would need to offset the costs of joining the Union.

Mr. Yanukovich has nobody but himself to blame for this mess. He has utterly failed to outline a plausible vision for his country. Joining the European Union would require political reform, expose Ukrainian companies to tough competition, and result in pressure from Russia, like higher costs for gas imports. But it would help Ukraine in the long run, by accelerating the process of democratization, improving the investment climate and strengthening economic competitiveness.

In contrast, the customs union that Russia is promoting promises an immediate bonanza — lower gas prices, a reduction in tariffs and access to a free trade area covering much of what was the Soviet Union — but one that is ultimately ephemeral. The promise is hollow because the current high gas prices and trade restrictions are simply part of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into not choosing the European Union.

If Ukraine succumbs, there is no guarantee that Mr. Putin will keep prices low in the long run. Moreover, joining Russia’s customs union would most likely lock Ukraine into an economic system based on crony capitalism and political favoritism.

Sadly, Ukraine appears to lack the leadership to choose the bold and farsighted course. Its political elites seem interested only in accumulating wealth. Since Mr. Yanukovich became president in 2010, his relatives have made extraordinary financial gains, even as his administration has demonstrated a striking lack of ambition and direction in world affairs.

This is utterly unlike what has happened in Ukraine’s two most important neighbors. Since the Soviet bloc collapsed, Poland, to the west, has cherished an unambiguous vision — to regain its legitimate place in the family of European nations. Its political elites, despite vast ideological differences, have been united on this, and enjoy firm popular support. They have not wavered under the pressures that have come with reorienting trade from the East to the West, coping with competition from other European businesses, and accepting the European Union’s tough membership requirements. Joining the first rank of European powers has remained Poland’s primary goal.

To the east, meanwhile, Russia has been equally relentless in its own goal of being respected and feared as a great power with global reach and ambitions, one that can fulfill the heroic responsibilities that Russia’s leaders believe are part of its destiny. To the extent that Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule has been successful, it’s because he embodies that vision.

And Ukraine? The only vision its leadership seems to possess is the desire to maintain its power at all costs. The clearest evidence is the selective justice used against the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the biggest threat to the incumbent president. She is in jail on charges that seem blatantly political.

In defiance of the European Union’s demand that she be released, Mr. Yanukovich has kept her behind bars. Now she has now announced she is on a hunger strike in solidarity with the protesters. On his website, meanwhile, Mr. Yanukovich has posted a message of platitudes to the Ukrainian people.

As the world around it adapts, and as its own people march in the streets, Ukraine’s leaders are looking inward and stuck in the past. At best, this approach might allow the country to survive from year to year. At worst, it puts Ukraine’s future at the mercy of external forces.

This is all the more galling in light of the country’s potential: its geographical location, resources, size, transportation networks, human capital, historical ties and culture all could make Ukraine a significant player in world affairs. Instead, its influence is marginal at best.

It’s true that Ukraine is divided by language, ethnicity, religion, culture and history. The struggle for a unifying identity that Ukrainians may share is longstanding. But that will remain true as long as the political elite cannot see beyond its immediate self-interest. In the meantime, the country is not only falling behind in the global race for prosperity and influence, but risks being overwhelmed by the forces gathered at its borders.

The time for bargaining and brinkmanship has passed. If Mr. Yanukovich is to deliver a more prosperous future for Ukraine, and pacify its increasingly restless people, he needs to go to Vilnius committed to signing the European Union association agreement. Anything else is a betrayal of the hopes of a nation.

Roman Wolczuk, a psychologist, is an honorary research fellow in international politics at the University of Wolverhampton, England.

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