After Belarus Sanctions, What about Ukraine?

The decision on sanctions against Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the wide range of Belarusian officials is very encouraging for many in Ukraine. At the same time, it is very difficult to have any optimism about where President Yanukovich is taking the country.

Shopping in Paris. 'For the Ukrainian elite, Belarus-type exclusion from the EU would be a tragedy' (Photo: globalr)

  The first year of the Yanukovych presidency was marked by severe restrictions on democracy and civil liberties. Mr Yanukovich has established absolute control on parliament, the government, police, judiciary, security services, the public prosecutor's office and local administrations - in some cases by illegitimate or at least doubtful means.

All state institutions are serving to strengthen his regime, not democracy. There are many cases of pressure on journalists and civil activists. There are a series of new criminal prosecutions with a clear political motivation.

Does anybody in Brussels see a big difference between the regimes of Mr Lukashenko and Mr Yanukovich? If Yes - just wait. It seems like the last fragments of hope will soon be gone.

The EU was, sadly, among those who nurtured illusions about Mr Yanukovich one year ago. Of course, it was a great pleasure to receive him in the EU capital on his first presidential visit abroad.

Doubtless, Europe was tired of the permanent fighting between the former president, Viktor Yushchenko, and former PM, Yulia Tymoshenko. It wanted stability and real reforms. So it is partly understandable that Europe closed its eyes to the dubious and undemocratic developments taking place in Ukraine during the last year. The time has come to open those eyes.

Europe's repeated demarches about the new Kiev's anti-democratic manouevres, like the criminal prosecution of political enemies, do not have much traction with the Ukrainian authorities. The last case - the ban on Mrs Tymoshenko from visiting her friends in Brussels - is clear evidence.

Europe is mistaken in thinking that if it threatens to freeze progress on the Association Agreement or the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, Mr Yanukovych and his crew will grow a new-found respect for human rights defenders or independent, government-critical journalists.

Let's get real. Genuine European integration stands in diametric contradiction to this administration's interests: an EU-model free press, independent judiciary and an anti-corruption drive is not what they want. Their primary interests are personal wealth and power.

EU demarches and veiled threats will not stop this country heading down the road to being another Belarus. But the threat of sanctions is quite another matter.

The big men of Ukraine are highly tied-in to Europe, in terms of their personal wealth. Being rich in a poor country like Ukraine, they keep their money in EU bank accounts, they take vacations in EU beauty spots and they like to go shopping on the avenues of Paris, London and Rome.

For the Ukrainian elite, Belarus-type exclusion from the EU would be a tragedy. This is the one kind of EU instrument that carries force.

I am not advocating urgent sanctions against Mr Yanukovych and his team. This is neither realistic nor appropriate at this stage. But the EU does need to act pre-emptively, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after a catastrophe of the kind which happened on 19 December in Minsk.

The threat of sanctions - conveyed to the elite either privately or publicly, but clearly and firmly - could put a brake on this country's slide into authoritarian rule. Ukraine is important. Europe - don't be late.

EU Observer