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: 06-05-2003
Ivan Khokhotva: Sulking on the Sidelines
TOL, EU Observer

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As the 10 new EU entrants were finalizing their membership at the Athens conference on 16 April, the feeling of frustration in Kyiv was almost palpable. Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, as some of its former Communist neighbors are being admitted to the worlds most prestigious club, Ukraines prospects of joining the party look as distant as ever.

Behind Kyivs official welcome of EU expansion is an ill-disguised bitterness at being left out and a fear of finding itself on the wrong side of a new border between prosperous Europe and the impoverished, Russia-dominated vastness to the east. Hopes were high just over a decade ago, when a new democratic government came to power in a newly independent country of 50 million: Ukraine had a powerful industrial base, an educated work force, and the worlds richest soil. Where did it all go wrong? And can a single Europe ever work if the continents second-biggest country is left in the cold?

Europes failure to display any visible enthusiasm for Ukraines eventual EU membership is a constant sore point. For a political elite that spent the first years of independence positively reveling in Ukraines much-touted geostrategic importance as a counterbalance to Russia, the realization that there is only so much dividend to be gleaned from geography was slow and painful.

Years of basking in the rewarding attention of the great Western powers--Ukraine used to be the third-biggest recipient of U.S. aid--came to a crashing end three years ago. Wiretapped records released by a former presidential bodyguard in the autumn of 2000 sparked what is now commonly referred to as the tape scandal or Kuchmagate--a litany of gruesome charges against President Leonid Kuchma ranging from arms sales to Iraq to complicity in the murder of a journalist.

As the West was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Ukraine over its failure to deliver on the promise of democratic transformation and market reform, the Kuchma administrations Euro-integration rhetoric started looking ever more out of touch with reality. The EUs idea of broad cooperation within its Wider Europe concept, which includes free movement of people, goods, capital, and services without actual membership, found only lukewarm support in Kyiv.

Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn described the proposal to grant Ukraine a special neighbor status as degrading during his recent trip to Italy. Kuchma was more diplomatic, but he too said at the Athens conference that anything short of full eventual membership was unacceptable.

Yet there is little evidence that Ukraine is prepared to assume the responsibilities that come with joining the club. For better or for worse, long gone are the days when the EU was merely a customs union and anyone supporting free trade could qualify for membership. After years of enthusiastically shedding sovereignty to joint institutions, the EU member states are increasingly being governed from Brussels. From a facilitator of free trade, the union has essentially turned into a governing body, which sets and promulgates common policies in such diverse and vitally important areas as fisheries and agriculture, labor markets, social standards, taxation, immigration, interest rates, and human rights. Even the foreign policies of the member states often have to take into account the common stance of the EU.

When so much sovereignty is pooled, extra caution is called for in deciding whom to pool it with.<b> As Europeans from Portugal to Britain are becoming increasingly disgruntled over the European institutions perceived bureaucracy and lack of accountability, the least they should be able to expect is that these institutions are being run by representatives of democratically elected, competent, and accountable national governments. Ukraine does not have such a government.</b>

MISMANAGEMENT AND MISGOVERNMENT

After winning a free and democratic election in 1994, <b>Kuchma has been remarkably successful in hoarding power--and reversing his countrys rough-and-tumble transition to democracy in the process. Ukraines police, tax service, and sundry inspection agencies--whose chiefs he appoints and fires at will--are being used to harass his political opponents and ruin their businesses. The dysfunctional judiciary is expected to rubber-stamp the prosecutions charges, and top prosecutors publicly lambaste the few independent judges who dare to throw out half-baked cases against opposition activists.</b>

The 2002 parliamentary election was marred by an obscene campaign of anti-opposition propaganda in the government-controlled media and widespread irregularities at the polling stations. The oppositions complaints of blatant vote-rigging in many constituencies were ignored. The government-backed parties were trounced, scoring a paltry 18 percent of the popular vote, but the Kuchma administration still managed to arm-twist enough independent and opposition parliamentarians to form a loyal majority in parliament.

Ukrainian journalists routinely complain of beatings, intimidation, and creeping censorship. One of the presidential administrations recent ideas was to send daily faxes to TV channels, telling editors how to spin--or ignore--politically sensitive news. The official investigation into the murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze has been a farce.

The reformist government of Viktor Yushchenko, widely credited for kick-starting Ukraines economy, was ousted by the presidents cronies in parliament after a crackdown on pervasive tax-evasion schemes. And as Yushchenkos successors are too busy brokering the interests of rival clans and preparing for the 2004 presidential election, the countrys healthy GDP growth is beginning to fizzle out.

Yet the president is unrepentant. When asked in an interview in Athens whether the tape scandal had damaged Ukraines European integration prospects, he readily agreed, saying that the putative authors of the scandal must have really hated Ukraine. The answer highlighted his usual logic of blaming Ukraines dismal reputation in the West on those who decry outrages against democracy and the rule of law in his country, not on those who actually commit them.

Having emasculated the legislature by corralling independent parliamentarians into a docile majority, he accuses parliament of failing to pass laws that would bring Ukraine closer to Europe--as if membership in a club of democratic and prosperous nations were only a matter of passing enough laws.

Incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt, the Kuchma administration has failed at every level. Yet the mantra of Ukraines course toward Europe is a regular feature of presidential news conferences.

DESPERATE FOR CHANGE

It is preposterous for a government that rigs elections, persecutes political opponents, and muzzles the free media to presume that it can govern the rest of Europe through joint institutions. Ukraine is unfit to join, and sending any messages suggesting that membership could be even a remote possibility under the current administration would be counterproductive and hypocritical. <b>Having squandered the goodwill of the West that Ukraine enjoyed after independence, there is little Kuchma can offer--bar an unlikely resignation--to promote his countrys European course.</b>

Yet he is right in one thing. Ukraine does belong in Europe--just not in its current form. A profound political and economic transformation is needed before Kyiv can stake a serious membership claim. A democratic European country the size of France with a growing economy would be a welcome asset for the EU, not a groveling supplicant reluctantly let in for the sake of a greater good. Such a transformation would make irrelevant Romano Prodis vacuous musings ruling out Ukraines membership even in the distant future.

<b>Luckily for Ukraine, optimists say, a turnaround might be just around the corner. Yushchenko, the reformist former prime minister who now leads the biggest faction in parliament, remains by far the countrys most popular politician.</b> Despite an incessant campaign of dirty tricks against his party and a virtual media blockade, his approval ratings continue to grow.

With no reliable successor in hand to secure his safe retirement in 2004, Kuchmas apparent attempts to stay in office beyond his term through dubious constitutional reform proposals look increasingly desperate. And the countrys fractious opposition is finally showing encouraging signs of unity to stand up to the presidents initiatives. If a new reformist administration with a proven track record comes to power in next years presidential election--and then lives up to its election promises--Ukraine may yet turn from Europes laggard into a new regional power.

But until then, it will remain sulking on the sidelines.

[Ivan Khokhotva is a TOL correspondent in Kyiv.]

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