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Ukraine Marks Its Independence, But Critics Say It's Backsliding
The Washington Diplomat / August 2011

By Larry Luxner

Ukraine, sandwiched between Eastern Europe to the west and Russia to the east, has always straddled a critical geopolitical juncture. The positive spin is that historically, it’s been a crossroads of civilizations. Spin aside, since gaining independence two decades ago this month, Ukraine has teetered back and forth between two very different worlds as the world wonders which direction — east or west — the former Soviet republic will ultimately go.

Olexander Motsyk says that’s an oversimplified view that obscures a very complicated journey. Motsyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, spent an hour last month explaining to The Washington Diplomat how difficult the past two decades have been for his Texas-sized country but also how far it’s come.

“At the beginning of the 11th century, we were the biggest and most powerful state in Europe,” said the affable ambassador, launching into a brief lesson on medieval Ukrainian history. “Prince Yaroslav the Wise had a big family. All his children were married to princes, queens and kings of European countries. But after the Mongol invasion, we lost our independence and only 20 years ago we regained it again.”

Motsyk says he can’t stress enough how important that sense of pride is for Ukraine’s 46 million inhabitants.

“Most of the time, we were under foreign domination. And during the Soviet period, the manmade famine and repression by Stalin at the end of the 1930s took millions of lives,” he said. “During the two world wars, Ukraine lost more of its population than any other nation in the world. To be independent means to have your own state, and to be a democracy — not to be under domination.”

Motsyk spoke to us in his upscale Georgetown embassy’s Washington Room — so named because, according to legend, it’s where a well-connected friend of George Washington invited wealthy Maryland and Virginia property owners to dinner in order to get them to donate land for the nation’s new capital.

“Ukraine proclaimed its independence on Aug. 24, 1991, and this proclamation was confirmed by a national referendum on Dec. 1, and more than 90 percent of our population voted in favor,” the ambassador said. “Immediately the next day, the world recognized Ukraine as an independent state, and we bought this building in 1992.”

Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, has known Motsyk for 10 years. “He’s a career diplomat and he’s very professional,” said Pifer, now director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “I feel some sympathy for him. One of his jobs is to defend Ukraine, and that’s not an easy case to be defending lately.

“In terms of governance and democracy, unfortunately Ukraine has been backsliding over the past year,” Pifer told us. “That’s the view not only of domestic critics of the government, but increasingly the view of Western diplomats. The State Department and the European Union have both expressed concern.”

As has Freedom House, which in 2005 declared Ukraine the first former Soviet state outside the Baltics to be completely free. But this year, Ukraine fell back into the “partly free” category — an ominous development for a country that on Aug. 24 celebrates its 20th anniversary of independence as a democracy. “Ukraine is not headed in the right direction under the current government when it comes to democracy and human rights,” warned David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “Left unchecked, current trends in Ukraine will lead toward greater authoritarianism, and that would be a huge setback for Ukraine and also damage hope for reform in Eurasia as a whole. Both forces inside Ukraine and countries in the West have a responsibility to engage and push aggressively against further backsliding.”

Yet if Ukraine really is backsliding into Soviet-style authoritarianism, the government’s political turnover is enough to cause full-on whiplash. In 2004, a massive protest erupted against the fraudulent election of incumbent Viktor Yanukovych as president. Those elections were eventually annulled and a revote was held, in which his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, was declared the winner in what became known as the highly touted Orange Revolution.

But after political infighting, rampant corruption and a tanking economy seemed to paralyze the government of the pro-Western Yushchenko, Ukrainians quickly soured on the Orange Revolution (also see “Democratic Luster Fades From ‘Color Revolutions’” in the May 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

So six years after being kicked out of power, Yanukovych returned to the scene, handily winning the 2010 election, which was widely seen as free and fair. He quickly pledged to enact a more pragmatic, balanced foreign policy — repairing relations with Russia without abandoning the European Union — while shoring up the country’s faltering economy.

On that front, Yanukovych does seem to have delivered a measure of political stability. And that may be having some economic benefits, especially in terms of foreign investment — a welcome development for weary Ukrainians who saw their economy tumble by 15 percent in 2009, necessitating a multibillion-dollar emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Yet it’s also dashed hopes that the former Soviet republic would embrace widespread democratic change as Yanukovych consolidates his power. Asked how Ukraine stacks up to other former Soviet states 20 years after achieving their independence, Motsyk said “it would not be polite to compare, for me as an ambassador.”

But he insists that Ukraine respects the Orange Revolution even though Yanukovych rules the country today, calling it “an important page in Ukrainian history. Be sure that those democratic changes that were brought are not under threat. Ukraine will not slide from the road to democracy.”

He also angrily denies suggestions that Ukraine is slipping back toward authoritarianism and rejects the narrative that the country must choose between Russia and the West.

“You know that the United States reset relations with Russia. We also have made a kind of reset,” he explained. “The previous government did not have very good relations with Russia, but Russia is our very big neighbor. We are interested in trade and economic cooperation. We have many things in common. In the past, we have suffered together and now we have very good relations with Russia at the people-to-people level. So we want to develop friendly and mutually beneficial relations.”

He added: “My country does not choose between reforms and democracy. Both are very important for the Ukrainian people. Ukraine is trying to become a member of the EU, and in order to become a member, a country should not only have a good economic track record but also freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. We are on the way to democracy, and we will not slide from that road.”

And even though admission into the EU could still be seven to 10 years away — if not more — Motsyk said it remains the country’s chief foreign policy objective. But in second place is improving relations with the United States, and in third place, normalization of Ukrainian ties with Russia.

“The main task of foreign policy and security is the protection of national interests in the world, and the nonalignment policy is one of these mechanisms,” Yanukovych said in a televised speech to the nation following his presidential win last year.

A few months after Yanukovych took office, Ukraine’s Parliament approved a bill that cements the country’s neutrality and prevents it from joining NATO or any other military bloc, but allows it to cooperate with NATO and pursue political and economic integration with Europe.

“There’s no denying that Yanukovych has swung his country toward its former Soviet overlord,” Time magazine’s James Marson wrote in an October 2010 article. “Since taking office, he has declared Ukraine a nonaligned country, putting an end to longstanding efforts to join NATO — a goal of all of his predecessors that had enjoyed mixed popular support and irked Moscow. In April [2010], he signed a controversial deal to extend the stay of Russia’s Black Sea fleet on Ukrainian territory until 2042 in return for cheaper gas supplies.

“Yanukovych says the previous administration’s failures forced him into the gas trade-off to keep Ukraine’s crucial steel mills and chemical plants pumping. Strong leadership and good relations with Russia bring much-needed stability, he says, but European integration remains the main strategic goal.”

Yet despite all the rhetoric of neutral realignment, Yanukovych’s critics say he’s firmly come down on the side of repression, at least when it comes to muzzling dissent. Of particular concern is the government’s increased pressure on independent media, according to Pifer, who moderated a July 7 panel discussion hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council on Ukraine’s future.

“In general, the range of political opinion is reduced compared to a few years ago. Secondly, the October 2010 local elections had significant flaws and did not meet the standards set by the previous five elections,” he said. “Third are the activities of Ukraine’s KGB successor, which monitors civil society groups and does other inappropriate activities for a security service. And corruption, which was a problem before, is now increasing.”

But perhaps the most worrisome trend, says Pifer, is what he calls “the selective prosecution of key opposition figures,” the most prominent of which is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The once-popular Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election, now faces up to 10 years in jail on charges that she abused her power while in office. She’s also the target of several other pending criminal cases involving her 2009 decision to force the then-chief of Ukrainian state energy firm Naftogaz to sign an unfavorable deal with Russia’s Gazprom without consulting her government. The Yanukovych government says that deal was a sellout of Ukrainian national interests.

“Most Western observers say the charges are completely trumped up. Most people could say she showed bad judgment, but it’s hard to see how that was a criminal activity,” said Pifer. “But it’s not just Tymoshenko. There seems to be an abuse of the judicial system to settle political scores.”

Yanukovych denies having anything to do with his political adversary’s trial, which at times has devolved into chaos as the outspoken Tymoshenko denounces it as a “farce.” The president though told reporters in Kiev that “the prosecution and the court are making their own conclusions and decisions. I do my best not to interfere and to avoid jumping to conclusions.”

But Freedom House’s Kramer, speaking at that same July 7 conference, called the Tymoshenko trial “outrageous” and warned that it is destroying Ukraine’s prospects for integration into the 27-member EU. “I’ve taken recently to wearing a bracelet for Belarus, another country I follow very closely,” he said. “I certainly hope that we do not have to start wearing the same kind of bracelet for Ukraine.”

For his part, it’s clear that Motsyk resents any comparisons to Belarus, whose nickname — “Europe’s last dictatorship” — stems from the fact that President Alexander Lukashenko has held onto power there since 1994 (also see “Belarus: Back to Square One With Europe’s Last Dictator” in the March 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“We do not agree with Belarus on how the presidential elections were conducted, especially after many candidates were arrested,” the ambassador said. “Many times we have appealed to the Belarusian government to free political detainees.”

A graduate of Kiev State University, Motsyk was Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland for five years before coming to Washington last summer. He also previously served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey as well as deputy minister and deputy state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — which he joined in the early 1980s, long before Ukrainian independence, since the country always pursued its own foreign policy as a Soviet republic. Ukraine even had its own vote, along with Belarus, at the United Nations.

In fact, Motsyk’s first overseas posting was in New York, from 1992 to 1995, as counselor, second secretary and first secretary at Ukraine’s mission to the United Nations.

In the early 1990s, Ukraine — home of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster — gave up its nuclear weapons and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And in April 2010, Yanukovych, following a meeting with President Obama, pledged to destroy Ukraine’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium that it had inherited from the Soviet Union. A White House statement said Obama “praised Ukraine’s decision as a historic step and a reaffirmation of Ukraine’s leadership in nuclear security and nonproliferation.”

Ukraine has also made impressive economic strides, expanding its gross domestic product by 75 percent from 2000 to 2008 to lift per-capita GDP to about $6,700 today, although the growth admittedly came from a low starting point.

“In 1991, we were not even a state, but a part of the former big superpower. We started almost from zero. In 2009, Ukraine was in severe crisis; it was terrible,” the ambassador said, noting that the country’s economic crisis slashed GDP by 15 percent that year. “But now we are not doing badly. Last year, our GDP increased by 4.5 percent, and this year, it’s forecast to grow by 4.7 percent.”

Motsyk also pointed out that “Ukraine’s bureaucracy today is less than it was under the previous government. As part of the economic reforms, this government has drastically cut the number of bureaucrats and cabinet ministers. And every ministry’s budget has been cut by 30 percent.”

In 2008, Ukraine joined the World Trade Organization. That same year, a Trade and Investment Cooperation Agreement was signed with the United States. And by this December, the country hopes to finalize a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.

“For some years, up until 2005, the U.S. was the leading foreign investor in Ukraine. We regret that American investments haven’t flocked to Ukraine since then,” Motsyk said, though he acknowledged that Ukrainian exports to the United States rely too heavily on a few products. In fact, three product groups — iron and steel, energy materials and inorganic chemicals — account for 80 percent of such exports. But that’s not all Ukraine’s fault, he added.

“The United States applies anti-dumping and countervailing measures even to this limited range of metallurgical and chemical industry products. These measures were put in force long before the U.S. granted Ukraine market economy status, and they greatly hinder the pace of development of bilateral trade cooperation, since sanctions were imposed on sensitive Ukrainian export items.”

Despite the slowdown in new U.S. investment, during the first three months of this year, bilateral trade came to $745 million, a 53 percent jump over the same period in 2010. Motsyk is hoping total U.S.-Ukrainian trade for 2011 will reach $3 billion, up from last year’s $2.4 billion. He noted that Ukraine has a broad industrial base, with exports of manufactured goods such as airplanes, turbines, metallurgical equipment, diesel locomotives and tractors.

In addition, Ukraine is one of the world’s 10 largest food exporters and contributes to the U.N. World Food Program.

“With one-third of the world’s most fertile black soils reserves, we used to be the breadbasket of Europe in the past,” he said. “Now we are working toward regaining this status, and Ukraine is currently one of the five largest exporters of barley, rapeseed and corn, and the sixth world producer of wheat. We have huge opportunities for American investors to exploit Ukrainian resources.”

Ukraine may have an abundance of wheat and barley, but it’s facing a dearth of people — which could trump politics or business as the country’s biggest long-term problem. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the country’s birth rate is falling by 0.8 percent annually, the fastest such decline in the world. This means that if current trends continue, Ukraine — which had 52 million inhabitants in 1991 — is likely to lose 28 percent of its current population in the next 40 years, shrinking to 30 million in 2050. By then, Ukraine will have even fewer citizens than its much smaller neighbor, Poland, which is also losing population.

But Motsyk, ever the optimist, doesn’t buy that argument.

“That tendency is temporary. We are now very close to stopping the decrease in population,” he insists. “At the beginning of our independence, many people left Ukraine looking for employment, but now they’re coming back because the situation in Ukraine is improving. I’m sure that by 2050, we will definitely have more than 52 million people.”

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