It’s been a turbulent few months in Ukraine. What began at a summit in Vilnius in November as part of the EU’s ongoing effort to create a Europe “whole and free” now looks increasingly like it could result in a Ukraine that is not whole and perhaps not free. As Ukraine has moved from peaceful demonstrations to lethal battles between police and protesters, and from President Victor Yanukovych’s ouster to Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula, Ukrainians and outside observers alike talk openly of the country's collapse or descent into civil war.

Back in November, it all seemed so simple, or so the story goes. Many observers argued that the offer of the Association Agreement with the EU, which would boost Ukraine’s economic and cultural ties with Europe, presented the country with a simple choice: the path of modernization, liberalization, the rule of law, and greater integration with the West; or the course of authoritarianism, cronyism, stagnation, and integration with Russia. After signaling for months that he would sign the agreement, Yanukovych rejected it. Many thought the gambit could never work, and the crowds that gathered on the Maidan seemed to prove them right. The mass protests, according to most media coverage and commentary, were a sign that Ukrainians, like the Polish and Baltic peoples before them, want the prosperity and predictability that would flow from EU accession.

There is both truth and falsehood in this narrative. For 20 years, Ukraine has done little more than tiptoe toward Europe and a liberal economic model. It is certainly true that Ukrainians are not happy with the result. Elections have been relatively free and competitive, but few other elements of liberalism have followed. Across Ukraine, people express deep dissatisfaction with the corruption and lawlessness that has marked their post-Soviet history. They want security, an end to the abuse of power, a legitimate democratic process, and above all the prosperity that comes from the rule of law. To the extent that these are the values that constitute Europe, Ukrainians want to be part of Europe. 

But the idea of Europe and the reality of integration into the European Union are not the same thing. When pollsters from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, in November, asked Ukrainians whether they wanted their country to join the EU, just 39 percent said yes (37 percent favored the Russian-led Customs Union). If pollsters had asked whether they supported the government scaling back energy subsidies, laying off workers, and reducing services in order to cut its budget deficit, the number might have fallen into the single digits. But EU integration would, indeed, force Ukraine to make such reforms to move its economy closer to European standards. And joining Europe requires far more than just economic reform. 

And therein lies the rub. Although geographically proximate, Ukraine is still institutionally distant from Europe. No Ukrainian government to date has shown genuine willingness to close that gap, and citizens have long been divided on whether they ought to try. Despite what opposition leaders say, there are few signs that Ukraine’s new interim government, led by new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, will be much different. Some of its first steps are even oddly redolent of the country’s recent past.

In the four years that Yanukovych was in power, he used his control of the courts and the parliament to selectively prosecute his enemies, expropriate business rivals, change the constitution to his liking, and accumulate wealth and power (and a number of gaudy houses). In its first days in power, the new government has installed its own loyalists in the prosecutor’s office, the police, and the courts; impeached Yanukovych without using constitutionally mandated procedures; freed its political friends and issued arrest warrants against its enemies; and turned a blind eye as armed militias brandished their Kalashnikovs in government offices and invaded the homes and offices of political rivals. Despite the new government’s revolutionary rhetoric, a revolution that just replaces old faces with new faces is no revolution at all. It is only when the old, patrimonial, and politicized institutions are replaced with new ones that Ukraine will truly find a place in Europe.

The prospects for democracy are uncertain. There was a moment of hope for a stable transition to more democratic government late last month. After protests turned violent in Kiev and over 70 people were killed (most by government snipers), Yanukovych and the opposition signed what amounted to a power-sharing agreement, brokered by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland, to return to the 2004 constitution (with a weaker presidency and stronger parliament). Constitutional revisions, the disarmament of the militant groups, and early presidential elections would follow. But militant protesters in Kiev’s Maidan quickly torpedoed the deal. Although Ukraine has returned, nominally, to the 2004 constitution, little else has gone as planned. All of the newly appointed ministers in the opposition’s new government are from familiar opposition parties or from the Maidan: if power is being shared, there is no evidence of it yet. 

There is no question that Yanukovych’s departure is an opportunity. He was not the only patrimonial politician in Ukraine, but he was the most important one. With his avarice, repression, and tendency to overreach whenever he felt he had the upper hand, Yanukovych created the conditions of his own downfall. If Ukraine was to find a place in Europe, he needed to go.

But Yanukovych needed to go via a legitimate election. His removal from office upset the country’s delicate internal politics and opened the door to Russian intervention. Yanukovych’s exit and the partial collapse of his Party of Regions, which represented a significant portion of the south and east of the country, left key pro-Russian constituencies unrepresented at a critical time. The new government exploited the situation by quickly abolishing a law allowing the country’s regions to make Russian a second official language.   

The Russian military has now stepped into the breach, invading Ukrainian territory under the pretext of restoring constitutional order and protecting the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens. The citizens of southern and eastern Ukraine deserve to have their interests better represented in the new government, but the Russian military is not the representation they needed. Indeed, if President Vladimir Putin were truly concerned with the rights of ethnic Russians, he didn’t need to invade Crimea -- there are 143 million Russians at home waiting to be liberated from his own authoritarian rule.

Imposing economic sanctions on Russia is an appropriate and necessary response. But the surest way out of Russia’s efforts to divide the country is to restore legitimacy to the government in Kiev through both presidential and parliamentary elections. Nothing is more important to Ukraine’s European future. 

But elections will not be easy now that Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil. Even before Russia’s move, tensions were high as the new government showed no willingness to rein in the most militant factions on the Maidan or to crack down on vigilante efforts against the old regime. Pravy Sektor, a coalition of far-right militants, has already declared its own ban on the Party of Regions and the Communist Party and called on its members and nonmembers alike to attack both groups. Last week, the government rewarded Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Pravy Sektor, with a high-ranking security post; the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced official collaboration with nationalist paramilitary groups and is allowing them to continue to operate on Ukrainian soil. In Crimea, elections would be held under Russian occupation.

Fortunately, Russia has an incentive for Crimea to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty and take part in Ukrainian elections: for two decades, Crimean voters have provided crucial electoral support for pro-Russian parties and presidential candidates. Without Crimea, Yanukovych could never have won office in the first place. If Crimea leaves Ukraine, Ukraine will move further from Russia. 

The EU and the United States, for their own part, must also get Kiev to clean up its act. If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it is that the new government needs outside help, especially financial aid, to survive. Western governments should use assistance as leverage to constrain extreme actions and ensure fair elections that bring to power a legitimate president and a representative parliament, regardless of geopolitical loyalties. That scenario, which might just keep Ukraine whole and free, would benefit the EU, the United States, and Russia together. It is the only truly European course. If this contest does not take place in the voting booth but in the streets across the country, from Kiev to the Crimea, there will be nothing European about it.

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  • KEITH DARDEN is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.
  • More By Keith Darden