AMSTERDAM, June 2, 2015 – When European leaders gathered in Latvia’s capital, Riga, for a much-anticipated summit with the six ex-Soviet states bordering Russia, the organizers decided to adorn the conference table with…an Arlington Memorial-inspired flowery lawn. That ambiance appeared to be reflected in the 13-page joint declaration signed by the 28 members of the European Union and the representatives of the six Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). Indeed, reading the document, one is left with the slight impression that Brussels painstakingly tried to bury the participants’ European ambitions.
The summit didn’t offer much to any of the former Soviet republics. Whereas Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are in a comfortable allegiance with Moscow, and Moldova and Georgia have managed to reach a state of equilibrium with the Russian Bear, Ukraine’s European dreams took a beating. Although Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko had expressed confidence at the beginning of the year that Kiev would obtain visa-free access to the European Union, Eurocrats demanded more reforms from the embattled country before giving any guarantees. Furthermore, the Riga gathering failed to present anything in terms of European perspectives, freer trade, or even give a proverbial pat on the back for Ukraine’s achievements in pushing structural reforms while engaged in a standoff with Russia in the country’s east. The only concrete win Ukraine walked away with was a €2 billion loan agreement.
Angela Merkel, in a sharp turnaround from the previous summit held in 2013, went out of her way to crush any thoughts that the Eastern Partnership offers a pathway to EU membership. “The Eastern Partnership is not an instrument of EU expansion [..] and it is directed against no one, especially not against Russia” said the German chancellor. Even more shocking, she went on to say that the Eastern Partnership does not represent an “either/or” choice for partner countries to develop closer ties to the EU or Russia. It’s worth remembering that not even two years ago, Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the Maidan revolution for having made precisely that either/or decision in Moscow’s favor.
Europe’s backtracking on its lofty democratic promises for Ukraine was characterized by Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council as “a disaster.” He said, “It would have been better had this EU summit never taken place and its joint declaration never written.” By modifying its support for Ukraine, Brussels will inadvertently encourage the more radical elements in Ukrainian society.
The consequences are already visible. On May 15, President Poroshenko signed a controversial law that bans the display of Nazi and Soviet-era symbols, names, insignia and emblems. Oleksandr Klymenko, a former tax minister, put the cost at 5 billion hryvnia (or some $236 million), cash the near-bankrupt Ukrainian government will struggle to cobble together. Klymenko, who lives in self-imposed exile in Moscow following the Euromaidan, has long been a proponent of Ukrainian unity and a militant supporter of national reconciliation. “There are 459 cities in Ukraine, and each has some 30 streets named after Soviet-era figures,” he said. “It’s not so simple to change names. Everyone who lives or works on those streets has to renew all their documents, records need to be revised, maps redrawn. All this to comply with a law passed out of quasi-patriotic feelings that nobody needs?”
Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, who had urged Poroshenko not to sign the law, echoed Klymenko’s sentiments. She argued that the law goes further than any other decommunization law signed in Eastern Europe, as violations are punished with up to five years in prison.
Worse, the de-communization law was accompanied by a second “patriotic” law, offering state recognition to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist guerrilla movement from the Second World War that collaborated with the Nazis, committing war crimes against Jews and Poles in Ukraine.
At a time when Ukraine’s national unity has to be rebuilt and shielded from Russian aggression, both militarily and in terms of disinformation, passing such laws can only serve to appease the hawkish elements of Kiev’s administration at the price of widening the rift between Eastern and Western Ukrainians. Moreover, by using the justice and penitentiary systems to enforce judgments on the correct reading of the country’s past, Ukraine joins a long illiberal tradition that has historically set apart the Western world from the rest.
Against this backdrop, the European Union’s apathy, both in heaping praise and in giving a rap on the knuckles where it’s due, is a grievous mistake and shows the stark disconnect between Brussels’ bureaucratic bubble and the on-the-ground realities in Ukraine.