Ukraine: Isolation is not the way forward

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The guilty verdict of the Yulia Tymoshenko trial raises important questions regarding judicial reform in Ukraine, says Kost Bondarenko. He argues that it would be a mistake for this to lead the European Union to isolate the country at a time when it is under pressure from Moscow to join its own Eurasian customs union.

Kost Bondarenko is a political analyst and chairman of the Institute of Ukrainian Policy in Kyiv.

"Last month's guilty verdict in the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko has fuelled a range of emotions. In Europe, leaders who were fully committed to signing an association agreement with Ukraine are now contemplating alternative steps. However, Europe should not make any hasty decisions for there is too much at stake.

Having an opposition figure on trial clearly places any country under the political magnifying glass. But it is not without precedent, as demonstrated by the current trial of former President Jacques Chirac of France. Admittedly the flawed legal system in Ukraine is not comparable to that of an established democracy. However, the reality is that Tymoshenko's arrest and incarceration are indeed based on existing Ukrainian law, no matter how outdated.

The other reality is that the claims against Tymoshenko were not fabricated. During her time as prime minister she unilaterally brokered an agreement with Vladimir Putin, bypassing the requisite official approval channels. Her deal committed Ukraine to an unfairly high price for natural gas, way over market levels, causing lasting economic damage to her country, while benefiting Russia. Thus, the prosecutor charged her with abuse of office. Europeans may not like it, but it is a legitimate charge.

The Ukrainian government consistently stated that no one is above the law, including Tymoshenko. This is a noble view and, in a functioning system, would not raise such a high-profile scandal.

But the entire process has cried out for Ukrainian legal and judicial reform, something in which Europe would be wise to have a hand. From the start, our European friends voiced their objections to the legal process against Tymoshenko and warned President Viktor Yanukovych of the negative repercussions that would follow a guilty verdict.

Would it not have made more sense for Europe to have offered proactive assistance to Ukraine in undertaking much-needed legal reforms than to have simply offered a running criticism of the country's actions?  But Europe's solution was to continuously pressure Yanukovych to intervene in the judicial process, surprisingly a very anti-democratic act.

With the guilty verdict in, the Europeans are displeased to say the least. Leaders are crying out for action, urging an array of drastic measures from isolation to sanctions. True, having an opposition figure behind bars (for whatever weighty reasons) is a bold step, but isolating Ukraine does not match the EU's commitment to nurturing a democratic eastern neighbourhood.

Ukraine should be of special interest to the EU. Far more important than the clear mutual economic benefits of partnership is the democracy factor. A majority of the country's 46 million citizens agree with Yanukovych that their country's future lies with Europe. Ukraine has the potential to be an anchor of stability in the former Soviet space. It would be a mistake not to rely on her in this capacity or to put her association once again on the back burner.

Yanukovych is managing a delicate balancing act between Russia and the EU. While he needs a civil relationship with his Russian neighbour, he has repeatedly turned down pressure to join the Russia-led Customs' Union. Membership in this union would actually supply Ukraine with vast economic benefits – including a reprieve from Tymoshenko's unfavourable gas contract. But it would forfeit any agreement with the EU, and thus forfeit any chance for Europe to influence Ukraine's future path.

Prior to the dramatic turn of events after the 11 October verdict, Ukrainian and European leaders were in the final stages of negotiating the association agreement, widely viewed as a first step towards EU membership. This was not done without dedication on Ukraine's part.

After years of stagnant negotiations (coincidentally, due to political infighting that took place under Tymoshenko's reign), Yanukovych reinvigorated the process by implementing tough internal economic reforms, showing that Ukraine is a serious partner for the EU.

Clearly Ukraine has a long road ahead in fully meeting EU standards, but pulling the plug on the association agreement is not the answer. Not only would an association agreement signal to Ukraine that a European future remains open, it would allow the EU to influence Ukraine's reform in the political and legal spheres.  The EU should use its leverage to ensure that full democracy and rule of law take root in Ukraine – much as it did with other post-Communist countries a decade ago.

At a crucial moment where Ukraine is being torn between East and West, isolation by Europe would be a grave mistake."

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