Christian Hartmann / Courtesy Reuters Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych attends a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 28, 2011.

Yanukovych's Choice

An Association Agreement With the EU Will Transform Ukraine -- and its President

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has a decision to make. On November 28–29, Ukraine could sign an Association Agreement with the EU that will expand their political and trade ties, security cooperation, and cultural connections. Success or failure to sign the agreement will not only reshape Ukraine’s domestic political landscape; it could force Yanukovych, ever the authoritarian in democrat’s clothing, to change too. If Ukraine doesn’t sign it, Yanukovych may have to fashion himself as an anti-Western autocrat with a political future bound to Russia. If it does, he just might reinvent himself as a pro-Western national democrat who saved his country by bringing it closer to the EU. Each strategy carries risks, but only the second one promises stability.

The Association Agreement is, according to the EU, “a pioneering document” and “the first agreement based on political association between the EU and any of the Eastern Partnership countries.” It focuses on core economic and political reforms while promoting “democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a market economy and sustainable development,” as well as “enhanced cooperation in foreign and security policy and energy.” It would create a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area to open up markets and bring trade competition up to EU standards. If Yanukovych signs the agreement at the Vilnius summit in late November, it then will have to be ratified by Ukraine’s rubber-stamp parliament and all EU-member state parliaments. But ratification will hinge on Germany, which is uneasy about integrating Ukraine at the cost of antagonizing Russia given its own dependence on Russian gas.

If the agreement is signed and ratified, Ukraine has much to look forward to as part of the most successful and most democratic economic and political association in the world. Over half of the electorate -- the pro-Western, pro-Ukrainian, and anti-Soviet electorate in the center, north, and west that regularly votes against Yanukovych -- will rejoice at the agreement’s passage. But over a third, located in the uncompromisingly pro-Russian, pro-Soviet, and anti-Western regions of Ukraine’s south and east that have served as the die-hard base for both Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, will be outraged. Ukraine could suffer some short-term economic distress as European goods flood its markets, domestic production adjusts to the new economy, and unemployment likely increases. Punitive Russian trade restrictions imposed in October 2012 to keep Ukraine from signing the agreement will remain in place. Any chance of lifting them will disappear due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anger at having lost Ukraine.

But if Ukraine does not sign the agreement, it will be thrown into a geopolitical no-man’s land between an indifferent EU (and NATO) and a Russia eager for Ukraine’s inclusion in the Moscow-led Customs Union, which consists of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. By joining the Customs Union, Ukraine could become a permanently underdeveloped supplier of raw materials and low-tech goods to Russia. That might go over well in Ukraine’s pro-Russian and anti-Western southeast. But it would incense the rest of the country, which is proudly nationalist, pro-Western, and deeply anti-Soviet and knows that Ukraine’s rejection of the West and the promises of greater economic integration would be catastrophic.

Either scenario will put a wrench in Yanukovych’s attempt to win the presidency in 2015. In the elections of 2004 and 2010, his strategy was clear: draw on his base, attract disillusioned democrats, and appeal to certain narrow constituencies and special interests such as the country's wealthy oligarchs. And, if that didn’t work, falsify the results. In 2004, that strategy only half succeeded, which led to a degree of vote-rigging that sparked popular fury and the Orange Revolution. In 2010, as public disenchantment with the Orange governments of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko deepened, Yanukovych didn’t look so bad after all. He applied that strategy and won what international observers called a free and fair election. 

But that strategy won’t work in 2015. If the agreement is not signed, the pro-Western electorate will have more reason than ever to detest Yanukovych for failing to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. His anti-Western base, meanwhile, will have second thoughts about supporting a man who pushed for integration with Europe, rather than Russia. And rightly so. His supporters in Ukraine’s depressed southeast know that they have nothing to lose from integration with Russia. In contrast, Yanukovych and his closest allies, including most of Ukraine’s oligarchs, know that a closer association with Putin’s Russia would transform them into vassals of the Kremlin. They also know that their power and status would be safe within the EU and its rule of law. Many anti-Western Ukrainians could then drift toward the high-living Stalinist leader of Ukraine’s Communist Party, Petro Symonenko, who managed to garner 38 percent of the vote in the presidential elections of 1999.

Without the agreement, the only way for Yanukovych to keep the presidency is to court his own electorate by appealing to its authoritarian values, rig the elections, fully appropriate the autocratic powers that his base admires, and rule with an iron fist. It probably wouldn’t be enough to win, however, since his regime lacks the coercive, ideological, charismatic, and material resources that make authoritarianism effective. The army is weak, the police forces are untested, and his regime has no ideological appeal. Yanukovych himself is generally perceived as comical or inept, a mirror of Ukraine’s economy, which is perpetually on the verge of default. Meanwhile, Yanukovych’s aggression would likely provoke massive civil disobedience from the country’s robust civil society organizations and violence from right-wing radicals.

Ukraine would be a very different -- and far more stable -- place if it signs the EU agreement. The people in Yanukovych’s base will abandon him: after all, the agreement contravenes everything they stand for. They’ll rush to the Communist Party, and the Party of Regions will be left to struggle as it tries to reconcile its anti-Western sympathies and authoritarian tendencies with Ukraine’s turn toward the rest of Europe. If Yanukovych hews too closely to his authoritarian past, however, he’ll be doomed politically. EU monitoring will guarantee that he’ll lose fair and free elections. 

Yanukovych’s only path to re-election in this scenario is his own reinvention: abandon his anti-Western values, jettison the intransigent elements within his southeastern base, and reach out to the Orange electorate. Civic and political mobilization is much lower in Ukraine’s southeast than in the rest of the country, which should keep the anger of the anti-Western base, and their ability to do anything about it, in check. Russia might threaten intervention in support of its Russian-speaking brethren in Ukraine, but that would probably just be rhetoric; it is unlikely to want to disrupt relations with the EU and the United States, especially in the aftermath of the Sochi Olympics.

Transforming himself into a democrat would be easier for Yanukovych with the charismatic Tymoshenko, currently in jail on political charges, out of the picture. Yanukovych could outflank his democratic opponents, including Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitali Klitschko, who do not inspire much faith among voters, given what many consider their lack of principles and their penchant for corruption. Surveys show that Yatseniuk and Klitschko would beat Yanukovych in presidential elections, but mostly because Yanukovych is so unattractive. He could address that problem by trying to change popular perceptions of his rule.

Yanukovych could court Orange voters by embracing the pro-European “civilizational choice” that the Association Agreement represents. Claiming to be more European than his democratic opponents alone won’t do the trick. Yanukovych would have to make a few striking personnel changes, take some symbolic steps, and adopt several policy shifts in order to persuade voters that his Europeanism is real.

For starters, he would have to replace the universally detested pro-Russian and pro-Soviet minister of education and science, Dmytro Tabachnik, with someone who has a less jaundiced view of Ukrainian language, history, culture, and identity. Vyacheslav Bryukhovetsky, the former president of Ukraine’s most Western-oriented university, the elite Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, comes to mind. Yanukovych would also have to sack the current, ineffective prime minister, Mykola Azarov, and replace him with a moderate technocrat with relatively clean hands, perhaps the multimillionaire confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko, known as the chocolate king. Or, if Yanukovych really wanted to push the envelope, he could turn to Yatseniuk or Klitschko. The head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Oleksandr Yakymenko, who spent most of his career in the Russian armed forces and is too closely associated with Yanukovych, would have to go, as a sign of changing times.

To show Ukrainians that he’s turning a new leaf, Yanukovych should vacate his palatial (and dubiously acquired) residence outside of Kiev and donate it to the people as a conference center, think tank, foundation, or museum. He could consider moving into an apartment downtown in walking distance of his office, abandoning the traffic-inducing motorcades that rile city residents. Reining in his older son Oleksandr’s excesses in the banking world and even encouraging him to go back to dentistry would also impress voters.

Yanukovych would also have to adopt new policies. To cut back on red tape and corruption, he could fire a good portion of the do-nothing state bureaucracy and raise the salaries of the remaining officials. To encourage healthy economic competition and wealth distribution, he could introduce a raft of policies that promote small and medium business and ensure that tenders are actually competitive. Promoting Ukrainian language and culture on the one hand while guaranteeing the linguistic and cultural rights of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities on the other would also underscore his serious commitment to supporting cultural diversity.

None of these measures is too difficult to pursue for an autocrat-president who currently has all the powers he needs to twist arms, distribute incentives, and implement his policy preferences -- especially with European support. Still, for Yanukovych, it comes down to a choice. He could transform himself from the president of a minority of Ukraine to the president of most of Ukraine, from an authoritarian detested by most Ukrainians to a democratic leader of all the people, from a source of European embarrassment to a showcase of EU effectiveness. With his political survival on the line, Yanukovych just might make the leap and change. After all, the ultimate survivor in Ukraine’s untamed political world already overcame his criminal convictions as a teenager and the disgrace of the Orange Revolution to become president.

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