Ukraine: Europe’s Missed Opportunity

Europe has missed an opportunity to draw Ukraine into the Western camp.

Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich appears to have secured a narrow victory in the country’s presidential elections of last Sunday. Yanukovich comes back from a humiliating 2004 defeat, signaling Ukraine’s disillusionment with Westernization.

Six years after the promise of European Union membership brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to the streets of Kiev, the country remains as corrupt and dysfunctional as ever and squarely, it seems, in Moscow’s pocket.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who spearheaded the Orange Revolution, proved unable to modernize the country effectively. Although relations with neighboring Russia soured, Brussels responded to her overtures with utter indifference. The EU was too concerned with internal reforms and a population increasingly weary of expansion: people feared Eastern European jobseekers while the governments of the smaller nations dreaded the prospect of a big new member state diluting their voting power in Parliament. Ukraine represented a bridge too far and now, an exceptional opportunity to draw the country into the Western camp has been lost.

With hopes of European membership positively shattered and the economy in shambles, Ukrainian voters chose the lesser of two evils: Yanukovich, at least, offers stability and security. A series of gas disputes over the past several years were a powerful show of Russian force which left many Ukrainians wondering whether upsetting their former Soviet overlord had really been a good idea. Yanukovich then has announced that he will not seek NATO membership while president — a move undoubtedly welcomed in the Kremlin which is evermore nervous about Western infringement upon its traditional sphere of influence.

European policymakers should have remembered however that while Russia dreads NATO expansion, it has never opposed the European Union’s growth eastward.

As she loses the presidency, Tymoshenko will stay on as prime minister for the time being, with the ability to disrupt her opponent’s agenda until he is able to form a coalition in parliament. Her popularity has diminished however and in spite of recent pleas to seek warmer relations with Moscow, she won’t be able to stage a comeback any time soon.

Yanukovich is unlikely to allow the Ukraine to become little more than a Russian satellite state, but the coming years will be marked by a more pro-Russian course nonetheless and quite possibly, by continued animosity between Western Europe and its powerful eastern neighbor.