Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- 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 was this weekend, after he decided not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union.
As a cause of popular unrest, “not signing a trade agreement” does not 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.
In making his choice on the EU deal, Yanukovych succumbed to Russian threats to block trade and energy supplies, which could bankrupt the weak Ukrainian economy. Still, 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 has built around him.
The great paradox of the EU is that while it remains a foreign-policy weakling, easily outmaneuvered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Ukraine issue, it may be the most powerful force on Earth when it comes to effecting regime change: If in doubt, compare Poland in 1991 with the Poland of today.
Ukrainians are waving EU flags alongside their own, even though, unlike the Poles, they have not been offered the prospect of EU membership. Worse, the EU is convulsed by an anti-immigrant feeling that has led the U.K. to press for new rules restricting the free movement of people within the bloc, one of the biggest attractions for would-be EU members.
So there are lessons for all three protagonists in the Ukraine standoff. Yanukovych should know by now that cheating the popular will ends badly and risks tearing apart a country already straining between pro-Western and Russophile sentiments. 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. A decision of such importance to the future of Ukraine should not be made based on the venal interests of one man. The overriding issue in any early elections would be whether to sign up with the EU or Russia, creating a clear public mandate for the decision -- and hardship -- that would follow.
Much of the debate before last week’s signing ceremony had centered on whether the EU would be willing to accept Ukraine, given its 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 EU submitted to Yanukovych’s demands, it would have been underwriting the debts and reform failures for which he is responsible.
If Ukrainians now choose a government that legislates to meet EU and IMF criteria, the EU should reconsider and offer to secure Ukraine against Russian retaliation. That would amount to an investment in future security. The EU should also rethink its refusal to consider allowing Ukraine to join the union if it 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.
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