Twice in his career, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has faced crowds in the hundreds of thousands calling for him to step aside. The first time was in 2004 when he attempted to steal the presidential elections. The second came after he decided on Nov. 21 not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union.
As a cause of popular unrest, “not signing a trade agreement” doesn’t quite rank with “stealing an election.” That Ukrainians protested both is an indication not only of their desperation but also of the enduring value of the EU to those outside of it, despite its diminished reputation since the onset of the financial crisis.
The popular anger directed against Yanukovych is well-earned: He made his country vulnerable to Russian pressure by failing to conduct the economic and judicial reforms that would have unlocked financial support from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the foreign investment that would follow. His motivations throughout have been to protect his own political future and the corrupt economic system he’s built around him.
Yanukovych should know by now that cheating the popular will ends badly and risks tearing apart his country. He would do well to hold back from his threats to impose emergency rule, meet representatives of the protesters and political opposition, and agree to organize early parliamentary elections. Ukrainians would prefer by a wide margin to sign the trade and association agreement that was on offer from the EU on Nov. 28 rather than join the Eurasian Customs Union that Russia has created as an alternative. The overriding issue in any early elections would be whether to sign up with the 28-member EU or Russia, creating a clear public mandate for the decision—and hardship—that would follow.
Much of the debate before the signing ceremony had centered on whether the EU would be willing to accept Ukraine, given the country’s foolish refusal to release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail. In the end, though, it was Yanukovych who balked, because the EU declined to guarantee sufficient aid or to secure the release of IMF loans. Had the union submitted to Yanukovych’s demands, it would have been underwriting the debts and reform failures for which he is responsible.
If Ukrainians choose a government that legislates to meet EU and IMF criteria, the union should reconsider and offer to protect Ukraine from Russian retaliation. That would amount to an investment in future security. The EU should also rethink its refusal to consider allowing Ukraine to join if the country can meet all the criteria for membership—a distant but appealing prospect.
The EU claims to be a great soft power, and it has been in the past. It needs to rediscover the courage to use that power.