BRUSSELS – Sometimes history can be too ironic. This week, as Ukraine marked the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine in Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych’s government announced that it would not sign a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union at a summit in Vilnius on November 28. Just like that, Ukraine’s chance to transcend its tortured history appears to have been thrown away.
The ostensible issue that forced Yanukovych to balk was the EU’s demand that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year prison sentence, be permitted to travel to Germany for medical treatment. Though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled her imprisonment politically motivated, Yanukovych – whose power to pardon is absolute – has refused to countenance her release, desiring above all to prevent her candidacy in the Ukrainian presidential election due in 2015.
Perhaps Yanukovych’s retreat from Europe should have been foreseen, given behavior – like locking up his political opponents – that has been difficult to reconcile with European values and democratic norms. But it was his recent series of secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin that sealed the fate of the agreement with the EU.
Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed that in Russian eyes, Russia without Ukraine was a normal nation-state, but Russia with Ukraine was an empire. But Russians who believe that Yanukovych’s retreat from Europe represents a great victory should think again. Just as Putin’s gross mismanagement of the economy has led even the economics minister to predict stagnation for the rest of this decade, his geopolitical nostalgia is poised to saddle Russians with the same dysfunctional empire that impoverished them under the Soviets. Worse still, it seems that only the same system – in which siloviki (secret policemen) are in charge – appears capable of holding together such a ramshackle economic empire.