Speak Truth to Power in Ukraine

By David Kramer

Of all the stops on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's upcoming trip to Europe, none is more important than Ukraine. This is a country heading in the wrong direction-as evidenced by the disturbing and rapid rollback of its democratic gains. Much is at stake, for the implications of a Ukraine moving toward a non-democratic, if not authoritarian, system of governance are enormous not just for Ukraine, but also for Europe and the United States. Ukraine is critical to advancing the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Thus, it is imperative for Clinton to convey to Ukraine's new leadership the United States' distress over recent developments and its strong hope that this represents just a detour-and not a dead end-for democratic development in the country.

The record, looked at in toto, is sadly clear. Journalists are under growing pressure and are being forced to resort to self-censorship for self-preservation. In some cases, such as in Kolomiya, they are literally under attack, and the licenses of independent TV stations are being threatened by the authorities. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and Ministry of Internal Affairs are throwing their weight around in ways not seen in years, paying unwanted "visits" to the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, for example, and detaining a German foundation representative at the airport for ten hours in retaliation, some suspect, for a recent article of his that was critical of President Viktor Yanukovych and his administration team.

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The Kharkiv deal with Russia-involving ostensibly lower gas prices in exchange for a 25-year extension of Russia's Black Sea Fleet presence in Crimea-was rammed through parliament (the Rada) without review or debate in a session marred by egg-throwing and fisticuffs. The budget was passed in one reading, even though it is supposed to be voted on three times, and local elections were postponed from the end of May to a date uncertain (possibly the end of October).

Even the very formation of the government itself rests on a constitutionally questionable basis (the constitution forbids individual deputies of the Rada from defecting from their party to form a majority, which was how the current government was established). Members of Yanukovych's cabinet such as Education and Science Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk openly undermine national unity by questioning whether the Halychany Ukrainians in the west were truly Ukrainians. In an apparent sop to Moscow, Yanukovych himself in April rejected the notion that the 1932-33 Stalin-imposed famine in Ukraine (known as the Holodomor) was an act of genocide, a position held by all previous Ukrainian governments. Yanukovych's defenders argue that after years of debilitating battles between the president and prime minister, there finally is unity in the government, agreement with the Rada, and an economic plan for reversing Ukraine's economic decline. They point to opinion polls showing strong public support for Yanukovych's leadership in the first 100 days of office (not uncommon during the honeymoon period for previous Ukrainian presidents).

The reality is that the Rada has become a rubber-stamp of the executive branch, and checks-and-balances against the government have been thrown out the window. The judiciary is not strong enough to step in, and the government and president are running amok. Those polling numbers, which reflect relief that the previous Yushchenko team is gone more than anything, will only encourage Yanukovych to strengthen his hold on power. And he still has more than four years to go in his term as president.

Yanukovych must be told directly by Clinton that the track he is on leads into a brick wall. On its current trajectory, Ukraine will lose support and interest from the West, which already is not keen to engage Ukraine, and be left to deal with Russia on its own. Here are some points the Secretary of State should convey:

• Mr. President, you need to remove the heads of the SBU and/or Ministry of Interior - or any local officials - if pressure or attacks against journalists continue. That is the only way the message will get out that the media are off-limits.

• You and your ministers should avoid stirring controversy over issues of Ukrainian identity, language, and culture, especially for those living in the western part of the country; you are only contributing to the country's polarization.

• Stop allowing officials to harass religious organizations and non-governmental organizations, permit freedom of assembly, and show tolerance for diversity as well as critics (foreign and domestic) of your government.

• Deal with corruption aggressively - including within your own ranks - and not just to settle old scores.

Ukraine is not the West's to lose-such arguments grossly exaggerate Western influence and insult the people in Ukraine, who will determine their own future-but the United States and the European Union need to wake up to what is unfolding and be prepared to ramp up their engagement significantly. When she visits Poland after her trip to Kyiv for the Community of Democracies ministerial, Clinton should reinforce this message to the Europeans. Yanukovych and his government need to know that the West recognizes the importance of a successful Ukraine-and is serious about offering it the prospect of deeper integration. But Yanukovych must do his part too, and that means getting Ukraine back on the right democratic track.

David J. Kramer is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.

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