03 January 2014

EU to Ukraine: I Want You to Want Me

The EU wants Ukraine to want the EU, but does not particularly want the Ukraine itself

The eruption of pro-EU, anti-government demonstrations in Kyiv has seen an interesting phenomena — a variety of acting Western officials have rushed to take part in one way or another. Carl Bildt, Guido Westerwelle, John Baird and Catherine Ashton, the chief foreign policy makers of Sweden, German, Canada and the EU respectively, as well as the American assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, and American senators John McCain and Chris Murphy have all touched ground in Kyiv and met with the Ukrainian opposition and the demonstrators, and in some instances even took the stage to address the participants of mass rallies. In unprecedented breach of diplomatic convention they largely traveled to Ukraine without meeting with representatives of the government. Additionally the media in the West has been heavily invested in covering the events in Ukraine, and rooting for its favored side — the demonstrators and the opposition.

It is easy to see what has got the Western elites so animated about the Ukraine. In a deep moral and economic crisis, which particularly the Europeans are finding themselves in domestically, they are finding it heartening and soothing to see huge crowds taking to the streets to try to move closer to their club. In the wake of the post-2008 economic crisis 'the European project' might have turned sour for the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards and others, but at least deep in the Eastern European wilderness there are masses clamoring to come under the benevolent grip of the Brussels.

The parade of European officials in Kyiv has been so long and so well covered, because it represent a relief for the Western elites from the dreary and terrifying proposal of dealing with the crisis of economic growth across the EU. It also offers up the comfort and the validation of knowing that with all its gargantuan problems their system still represents a model to aspire to for others — if only just for the extremely downtrodden Ukrainians and then only at a 46% plurality.

The truth that most everyone is aware of, however, is that if immersing themselves with enthusiastic crowds waving EU flags in downtown Kyiv can represent an escape from the reality of the EU crisis, footing the bill for Ukraine's actual EU integration would only deepen its cause. Actually if the EU had really wanted the Ukraine it could have had it. Yanukovich had clearly favored a deal with Brussels and had invested significant effort as well as political capital in it. The stumbling blocks to concluding such a deal proved to be the EU's insistence on retracting the sentence against his political rival Timoshenko and the refusal to cough up the cash the Ukraine would need to begin the transition.

Yanukovich had asked for a similar loan that he has since got from Moscow from the EU, but the latter would not lend the money, suggesting instead that Kyiv looks to the IMF. The IMF was willing to provide the loan, but characteristically demanded the government in Kyiv committed to introducing a series of unpopular economic policies as a precondition.

In summation the Western Europeans are eager to take heart from the pro-Brussels crowds in Kyiv. They are similarly happy to lecture Ukrainians on how to reform and to dictate the terms of Ukrainian Europeanisation. Simultaneously, however, Brussels simply does not value having Ukraine in its camp all that much. Not at a time when it finds itself with no shortage of other financial liabilities that take precedent before bailing out the government in Kyiv of all places.

This story is another example of how for the West old-fashioned geopolitics are regularly not the primary objective. The West was indeed ecxited about the idea that by nudging Ukraine closer to its orbit it would be seemingly getting one over Russia — Ukraine to Russia: We've Got a New Friend, Get Used to It blared one column headline when the EU deal was still on track. In the end, however, the Westerners let this anticipated and greatly desired geopolitical win slide away from them, in part because they would not drop their moralizing demand on Kyiv to pardon Timoshenko. Certainly the Western elites value winning geopolitical battles, but where the prize is small (such as in the case of impoverished Ukraine) they value the ability of being able to cast themselves as the party of virtue in a morality play even more.

It would be erroneous to conclude, however, that this is a good thing. This thirst for moralizing does not actually make Western policies more virtuous, but only more whimsical and bizarre. The root of the problem is the unsurpassed ability of the West to believe its own propaganda. Appropriately the Western policy-makers are willing to buy into the greatest nonsense if only it is convenient for their mental well-being — ie the ability to satisfy their need for righteous posturing that they do so.

Thus we are served with the surreal sight of a parade of Western officials flying in to Kyiv to mix with anti-government demonstrators and posture against the dully elected government of Ukraine that will not sign the EU Association Agreement as is Ukraine's sovereign right. Yet upon taking a closer look is it even true that the course and the prescriptions for Ukraine favored by the Westerners are more moral than the the alternatives?

Is it actually the case that it is clear that Yanukovich should pardon Timoshenko as called for by Brussels when only 42% of Ukrainians want the same? Is it really clear the Ukrainian government should have signed the negotiated EU deal when only 43% of Ukrainians wanted for that to happen? Is it really clear Ukraine should begin on the path to EU integration when the entire eastern half of the country is dead set against it? Is it really clear that democracy in Ukraine would be better served if the masses of anti-government demonstrators in Kyiv — which are large but far from representative of the entire society — had their way and succeeded in overthrowing Yanukovich?

Clearly it is preposterous of Western officials to present the case for an EU orientation as a moral imperative. In fact it seems it would be quite immoral and dictatorial of the government of Ukraine to impose on the Ukrainians something that most of them do not want. Furthermore, if there was a clearly worthy and unworthy choice in any of the dilemmas facing Ukrainians, the self-absorbed Western elites would be the last to know the difference. 

Additionally it should be said it is laughable that Western European elites should feel themselves well-equipped to preach democracy in Ukraine. Their contempt for the demos was made clear on numerous occasions, most notably when they labored day-and-night to come with a way to get around deep-seated opposition to a proposed EU Constitution in 2005, particularly in France, the Netherlands and Ireland (which they finally did by sneaking in a de facto constitution as the "Treaty of Lisbon"). What is more the EU powers were along with the US key in unilaterally appointing the High Representative for Bosnia in 1997 with the so-called "Bonn powers". This amounted to abolishing democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it subordinated the country to an unelected foreign official with dictatorial powers.   

In conclusion there is a situation where the West is urging on Ukraine to set on the arduous and uncertain path of EU integration, but has zero intention of providing the means that Kyiv estimates the country would need to get from the outside do so successfully. All it is willing to to provide in abundance are platitudes, demands, guidances and lectures — the kind of support that not only costs nothing, but is actually fun to lend. It is not surprising then if what looks like a principled morality-driven foreign policy from Western Europe from Kyiv instead looks more like an invitation to jump off a cliff.

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