Events in Ukraine have taken a dramatic change for the worse. Five people were killed on Wednesday, some beaten to death, and further confrontation is likely this Sunday. NGOs have issued an emotive “last plea for help”, saying “the international community remains silent, upholding European values on paper only”, while “people are dying for them in Ukraine”.
If European choice is under threat throughout Eastern Europe, the threat now comes as much from the Yanukovych regime’s struggle to survive as it does from Russian pressure. Government and opposition are ever further apart; many in the opposition think that the authorities have rendered themselves illegitimate by using so much violence and because of the farcical “voting” procedure used to ram through new repressive laws last week.
As well as individual Ukrainian lives, the EU’s name and reputation are at stake. Protestors initially wrapped themselves in EU flags; now they are claiming the West has abandoned its own values by not defending them.
Protecting European choice in Ukraine means taking a variety of short-, medium- and long-term steps. In the next few days it is a matter of protecting human life. In the next few months it is a matter of protecting pro-European NGOs, civic actors and public opinion. Beyond that, it is a matter of helping maintain conditions for a free choice for the elections that are still scheduled for 2015, and working on reluctant insider fellow-travellers with the regime’s authoritarian turn.
The cost of inaction are high and rising. Political polarisation and the elimination of the middle ground can only accentuate the conflict. The government will struggle to maintain firm control in the west and centre of the country; the areas closest to the EU will be the most volatile and unstable.
What can Europe do?
Many European leaders still baulk at the idea of full-fledged sanctions. The experience of measures against Belarus is not seen as a happy one; but ironically that is largely because the EU looked at Belarus through the prism of Ukraine and tried to sanction Belarusian “oligarchs” who didn’t really exist.
However, President Viktor Yanukovych will simply not listen to gentle admonitions in the current climate: Russia is squeezing him too tightly. He must therefore be persuaded away from his natural strategy, which to make no real concessions, but to wheedle and fake and bide his time till he thinks violence against the protestors will work.
The regime has held together so far, but tensions bubble beneath the surface. Europeans urgently need to add some real costs and benefits to the calculations being made behind the scenes. In particular, they should take carefully targeted measures against specific officials who initiated the violence on 30 November and 22 January and the discriminatory “legislation” on 16 January. The mere announcement of such a process will have an effect. This would apply to the 235 Party of Regions MPs who supposedly “voted” in the farcical procedures last week.
First, the current open door in Europe for the regime's money is both a moral failure and a failure to use our leverage. Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards already offer a legal framework for taking a closer look at the regime’s assets. They could start with the information at the website yanukovich.info. The key European states – the UK, Austria and Germany, plus Switzerland – should take a proper account of such money and take appropriate measures.
Second, European should impose visa bans as the US is already doing. Visa bans work better when all 28 EU member states agree to impose them, but any one Schengen state can put someone on a black list, as Estonia did with Nashi activists after the “Bronze Soldier” affair in 2007. The EU should also suspend the provision under the EU-Ukraine Visa Facilitation Agreement that allows holders of Ukrainian diplomatic and service passports to travel visa-free. This would send shockwaves through the Ukrainian bureaucracy that Yanukovych relies on to carry out his orders.
Conversely, the EU should issue multiple-entry, long-term Schengen visas to other Ukrainian nationals who have already been to the EU. While the EU cannot jump to a complete visa-free regime for all Ukrainians without the appropriate measures undertaken by others under the Association process, this administrative policy would be a gesture of good will to show ordinary Ukrainians that the EU understands their struggle and can differentiate between the regime and the people. Local think-tanks have amassed plenty of evidence indicating that embassies can issue such visas, but have been reluctant to do so because of domestic considerations.
In addition to these measures, the EU, together with the US, should reach out to the Ukrainian army and internal forces to emphasise the need to stay above the fray and refrain from the use of force. The government is relying on the “Berkut” militia, because others are reluctant to do the job. They understand the implications of further violence and the likelihood that they would be held personally responsible if things get completely out of hand. The EU should work on reinforcing this perception.
The EU must also quickly engage with the Ukrainian leadership to offer a negotiated way out of the crisis and free and fair elections in return for security guarantees for the president and his family with retention of some personal property. The EU must act proactively by warning the president against any further escalation of the situation (an attack on the Maidan, a curfew in Kyiv or a state of emergency).
Finally, the EU should support efforts to personalise responsibility by identifying all police officers who attacked peaceful protestors, conducted illegal arrests, organised attacks and violence, and framed the innocent, as with the local “Don’t Be a Brute” project.