John Bruton: Ukraine’s precarious quest to be democratic

John Bruton: Ukraine’s precarious quest to be democratic
An Ukrainian serviceman walks out of a voting booth in the town of Avdiivka, on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, during Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on July 21. Ukraine is, per capita, the poorest country in Europe and has had to build a large army almost from scratch. It has an ambitious association agreement with the EU but seeks to be a full member. Picture: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

The former Soviet state recently held free-and-fair elections, but unless it can eradicate corruption it will not gain EU entry and may slip into Russia’s clutches, says John Bruton.

THE desire for free-and-fair elections, to hold politicians to account, is widespread in the former communist world.

In Moscow, 1,000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections, were arrested this week. (The candidates included one who won 27% of the vote in the last election.)

The corrupting of elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after the fall of communism.

After the more hopeful Boris Yeltsin years of the 1990s, Russia, the biggest republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second-biggest former Soviet republic, Ukraine, is taking the opposite course.

Recent free-and-fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

If Ukraine can transition to democracy, it becomes harder for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to argue that it must retain an authoritarian system.

Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban, of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I recently spent a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their parliamentary elections, which were held on July 21. Our consensus was that these elections, called early by the newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, were both free and fair.

Votes in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per-capita basis, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better-off. The country’s growth rate is well-below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13,000 lives so far.

In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch. Yet it depends for income on transit fees for Russian gas, which is being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU.

Its public finances are not in good order; it has had to get help from the IMF; and it has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new president. He is handicapped by the lack both of a professional non-political civil service and of an independent, properly resourced courts system.

These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know that honest and efficient courts will protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk. MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics, in pursuit of their private interests rather than the public good.

Zelensky has promised to end this immunity, but he has to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage was not, and Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform them about politics.

Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced.

Ukraine has an association agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non-EU member state”.

Indeed, this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process is concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied in the long-run with a mere association agreement, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU. When they signed the association agreement, they rejected Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union.

It was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine. So Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice. It also is a very big country, with over 40m people.

Ukraine may have been a privileged vassal, or first daughter, of the Russian empire, in the past. But it has turned its back on that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long-term, of EU membership for Ukraine, is far from simple for the EU.

In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved, post-communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine: Corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime, and oligarchical control of the media.

The EU is a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts, or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of the corruption and rule-of-law problems it already has among some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, it will be very slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

The EU is in a stronger position to insist on high standards in a country, like Ukraine, that is still looking for membership.

It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club. Existing members can, and will, use their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule-of-law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

Getting these rule-of-law issues right will be the number-one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia, and Albania.

Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU, and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.

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