Ukrainian civil society groups gathered in Brussels last week to highlight their concerns about the troubled country, and called for help from the EU and the international community.
Speaking in Brussels 5 March, activists spelled out their most pressing concerns ahead of the Crimean referendum on joining the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian presidential elections in May.
The presidential poll will be crucial for the country's future, and there are no guarantees that they will be peaceful, warned the panelists who were speaking at an event organised by the Ukrainian think tanks liaison office and supported by the European Endowment for democracy.
Olha Ajvazovska, an elections expert from the Opora Civic Network, foresees the possibility that “some parts of the country will not participate in the elections, delegitimising the newly-elected president since some parts of Ukraine will not recognise him.”
“The international community will have to ensure that the elections take place on the entire territory of Ukraine,” Ajvazovska warned.
Ajvazovska also called on the international community to help “shape the public opinion” ahead of the “illegitimate and unlawful” referendum in Crimea.
“It will be difficult without the help of the international community,” Ajvazovska said. “We need observers, but also missions of people who are influential in their own country" and who can “provide an objective assessment and deliver a message to the public.”
“I suspect that there will be forces that will be very interested in disrupting the elections or undermine their outcome, which is why we need observers with a stature to assess the results in a highly efficient manner and inform their governments and public opinion,” she concluded.
As for the outcome of the elections, predictions are already being made.
Yevhen Hlibovytsky, director of the Pro-Mova reflection group, says he sees Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions as one of the big losers, together with the Communists and Svoboda which has seen its votes go to the extremist Right Sector, considered one of the possible winners on 25 May, alongside Vitaly Klitschko’s Udar and other new parties.
Hlibovytsky regretted that parliamentary and local elections were not taking place at the same time. He and other panelists urged for a decentralisation reform in Ukraine and insisted on the importance of reducing the presidential powers.
What Europe can do
For the panelists, it will be important that the European Union offers its assistance before, during and after the elections, but not only.
For Hlibovytsky, there are five things that the EU could do to help out its Eastern neighbour, the most crucial being the signing of the Association Agreement. In his opinion, “the loans for Ukraine should be given very conditionally” in order to uphold the reform momentum, “side with Ukraine in all critical dealings with Russia”, “lift the visas” on Ukrainians traveling to Europe and “invest generously in education and culture.”
Shaping the future Ukraine
Despite the Russian “threat” hanging over Ukraine’s unity, experts at the panel stressed the social and economic issues.
In order to unite Ukraine it is necessary not only to “stop the Russian aggression” but to also “prevent the economic default” of the country, which hangs on a thread.
“If there is a default, people will be disappointed in Ukraine and an independent state and the mood for separation could increase,” Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Ilko Kucheriv think tank.
The importance of the economic angle was echoed by many other speakers.
Yevhen Hlibovytsky identified the economic parametres which led to the EuroMaidan 2013, on top of the “threat from Yanukovych’s regime.”
“There was tremendous economic growth between 1998-2008 that had never been experienced before, followed by a 14% GDP decline at the first years of the financial crisis, which was a wake-up call,” the expert explained.
This “exceptional” growth and the presence of a corrupt president led to the emergence of a middle-class which he “channeled against himself”, Hlibovytsky said describing the Ukrainian middle-class as a “passionate actor” which led and organised the protests, unlike in 2004 when it was “organised by political powers.”
The division between Eastern and Western Ukraine is strongest when people are polled on issues such as religion, identity, language.
“But when you ask a question about corruption and survival, Ukraine is no longer divided,” Hlibovytsky insisted.
According to the expert, civil society demands a “real agenda” from the political establishment: “No party tackled corruption, the economy”, and the key issue for Ukrainians is “security”.
Ukraine, which has a long history of tragedies, has “lost all battles”, Hlibovytsky said – wars, famine, Chernobyl, all these terrible events have made Ukraine “very insecure” and when insecurity mounts, he said the potential is “explosive.”
The former Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU.
An Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on 28-29 November 2013 ended with a major disappointment for the EU, as Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, decided to put off the signature of a landmark Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, coupled with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade
Agreement (DCFTA). Meanwhile, Yanukovich turned to Russia, obtaining a $15 billion loan and cheaper gas.
Following the news that their country had turned to Russia, pro-European Ukrainians staged protests which developed into a popular revolution to oust Yanukovich.
Russia has put a great amount of pressure on its neighbour countries to prevent them from signing AAs with the EU. Armenia previously backed down from one and saying it would join instead the Moscow-led Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
- 16 March: Referendum in Crimea
- 25 May: Elections in Ukraine