Why should we care about Ukraine?
It’s Friday, my first day in Kiev but also the last day of campaigning for this first round of voting. According to Ukrainian law the politicians have to stop talking at midnight, giving everybody a much-needed rest.
The law also bans Ukrainians from publishing opinion polls in the last two weeks of the campaign, but everyone is talkign about a possible rogue poll by the Russian agency VTsIOM. It gives Viktor Yanukovych, whose supporters rigged the last presidential election in 2004, a dramatic comeback story with 30.5% of the vote. The prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, has only 13.9%, and has been overtaken by a dark-horse candidate Serhiy Tyhipko on 14.4%. Rogue poll or not – and certainly few people here believe it – a similar result after Sunday’s voting would see Tymoshenko sensationally knocked out, with the other two going through to the second round.
I’ll give a few pointers of what to watch out for over the weekend, but for now I’ll focus on that fundamental question: ‘Why should anyone else care about the outcome of these elections?’
- Geography. Ukraine is right on the EU’s doorstep. A problematic Ukraine – with growing gaps in living standards, good governance and the rule of law –
will inevitably flow across borders. Ukraine
could very well become ‘Europe’s Mexico’, but also with a strong, cunning
power on the other side ready to exploit any political vacuum: The resurgent Russia has not been shy in exerting pressure on Ukraine, with
last year’s gas crisis the obvious example.
- Economics. Ukraine is
feeling the effects of one of the worst recessions in Europe.
Its budget is bursting at the seams, over-laden with monthly gas payments and
pre-election pork-barrel. Projects like the 2012 European Football Championship
finals, which Ukraine is set
to co-host with Poland,
take a back seat, and it could only pay its gas bill by the (extended) deadline
thanks to IMF funds. An economy teetering on the brink of collapse on its
eastern border will have broader implications for the EU and its member states.
Financial meltdown in Ukraine will cause an influx of immigrations into member
states and banks in several EU member states, notably in Austria and Italy, are
heavily exposed to Ukraine’s imploding economy.
- Energy. We are in the middle of one of the coldest Januarys in
decades, putting energy resources – particularly gas – under strain. The EU
consumes a lot of Russian
gas, 80% of which comes through Ukraine’s
pipeline network. The 2009
gas crisis showed just how vulnerable many parts of the EU were to supply
disruptions. When Ukraine
failed to pay its December 2008 bill and Russia
cut off the gas on New Year’s Day, Europe lost almost a third of gas imports
overnight and large parts of Eastern Europe
suddenly faced severe shortages. Bulgaria, for example, struggled to
secure heating for schools and hospitals, as thousands of households were left
without heating as temperatures plummeted to -20C.
But just as
we were getting used to the idea of the annual New Year gas crisis, perhaps
this year we should be more worried that there wasn’t one. The assumption may be that the gas kept flowing in 2010 because Russian Prime Minister Putin
blonde bombshell, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, have some kind of private
understanding. Tymoshenko is, to adapt the phrase Maggie Thatcher once used
about Mikhail Gorbachev, someone Putin “can do business with”. Tymoshenko’s
main opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, also competes for Moscow’s favour. This brings us to the fourth reason why we should care…
- Russia. Any secret,
non-aggression pact between Ukraine
should worry the West. Tymoshenko has gone quiet on NATO. She is amenable to
negotiating the terms by which Russia’s
Black Sea Fleet may stay in Crimea after its
lease runs out in 2017. She may abandon or go slow on the agreement Ukraine signed
with the EU to reform its internal gas market.
Ukraine is a reminder that there are many “Europes” over and above EU Europe. There is geographical Europe, UEFA Europe and Eurovision Europe. The EU Europe and Ukraine have an important but
dysfunctional relationship. Even many of Ukraine’s
traditional friends, such as Poland
or the Baltic States, suffer from ‘Ukraine
fatigue’, thanks to the increasing policy paralysis in Kiev. Many in Ukraine
suffer from ‘Europe fatigue’. Ukraine feels
that the EU is constantly telling it “now is not the time”, either for a
membership application or any form of deeper relationship.
Whoever wins this election, it is obvious
that EU-Ukraine relations need a ‘reset’. The EU-Ukraine summit in December
2009 showed that no one is happy with the current situation. A functioning Ukraine, which
can deliver on its own policy reform promises, could transform the region and
EU-Russia relations. The upcoming election may also result in a still-malfunctioning Ukraine, which may benefit a resurgent Russia, but not the EU.
In Part One of Ukraine Decides, Andrew looks at what went wrong after 2004’s Orange Revolution. You can read Part One here
Andrew Wilson is available for press interviews and comment on the elections. Click here for our press advisory.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.