Ukraine's Return to European Values


(European Voice 24 May 2007 by Ari Vatanen)

The announcement that Ukraine’s main political parties have reached an agreement to hold early parliamentary elections should be welcomed by all European democrats. All sides have behaved with surprising restraint in ensuring that their differences are resolved peacefully and through a negotiated compromise. Ukraine clearly desires to become a normal and stable European society.

This agreement is a vindication of President Yushchenko’s decision to insist on new elections as the only way to resolve the political and constitutional issues that arose from Prime Minister Yanukovych attempt to change the parliamentary balance. The early election was a move that provoked initial hostility from his opponents and scepticism even on the part of many of his friends across Europe. Some thought he had miscalculated and worried that the gains of the Orange Revolution were in danger. But President Yushchenko was determined in his belief that the people of Ukraine must have the final say. In standing firm, he upholds his commitment to European values.

New elections are necessary to draw a line under the recent constitutional dispute and allow Ukraine to move forward as a country. But they will not be sufficient on their own. Building a successful and democratic future, as part of united Europe, will require institutions and rules that are strong and legitimate, and a political culture in which all forces accept their responsibility for making democracy work. The lesson of the last two years is that these conditions are still far from being in place and that Ukraine will therefore need sustained international support if it is to complete its own democratic transformation. Europe took its eye off the ball following the Orange Revolution and must not do so again.

The European Union is about to begin negotiations on an enhanced cooperation agreement with Ukraine, including a free trade area and deeper cooperation across a range of policy areas. Ukraine has declared its desire to meet European norms, and we have a responsibility to provide every available support in helping it to succeed.

What Ukraine’s political crisis has revealed is the need for a new and more robust constitutional settlement. The reforms rushed through at the end of 2004 by former President Kuchma created a delicate balance of power between the institutions of President and Parliament are clearly not sufficient. A system of checks and balances, essential in any liberal democracy, can only work if all the major parties accept the principle that power, including their own, must be limited in the common interest. The current crisis in Ukraine escalated after the ruling parliamentary coalition attempted to usurp the powers of the President in violation of the constitution.

New elections are welcome, but they are only a first step towards finding a permanent solution to Ukraine’s political problems. European influence must be brought to bear in helping the parties to devise a workable and democratic constitutional settlement that will stand the test of time. Europe must also accept its side of the bargain. It cannot insist that Ukraine complies with European norms unless it is also willing to accept Ukraine’s eligibility to join the European Union as a full member if it succeeds. If we don't overcome our enlargement fatigue, we risk reform fatigue in our neighbourhood and instability for years to come. The time has come for the EU to show foresight and give Ukraine hope of a future in the Union. This hope can spur Ukraine to complete its democratic transformation.

Ari Vatanen is a member of the European People's Party and the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is the founder of the "Moscow Platform for Democracy and Prosperity", a cross-political and transnational initiative to promote reforms in the former Soviet Union.

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