Europe’s Forgotten Land

Ole Bang Nielsen of Denmark’s Berlingske Tidende provides a lot of useful background to the electoral dramatics currently going on in the Ukraine today (Europe’s Forgotten Land). Basically, the EU has dropped the ball – or has it?


It’s true that the Ukraine has been low on the agenda of any European politician or political organization for a long time, practically since it came into existence as an independent state at the end of 1991. Nielsen expresses this in a way that really drives the point home: usually, by the stage that any EU foreign ministers’ meeting got around to discussions with visiting Ukrainian representative it was already late in the meeting and most member-state officials would already be at least in the coat-check room, on their way out, leaving behind only the ministers from the country holding the EU presidency and assorted Commission officials – i.e. the ones who absolutely had to be there. Anyway, there was always that overarching question in the first place: Where do the boundaries of Europe lie? Most (but, admittedly, not all) would agree that Russia lies on the other side, but does the Ukraine as well? It can make a lot of difference in the degree of attention EU institutions are willing to devote to a non-member country whether that country is seen as a potential member – some day – or that possibility is ruled out.

Actually, though, for most of the almost thirteen years since the Ukraine’s independence EU functionaries have thankfully not had to beat their brains out over that question of whether the country truly belonged to Europe. Its performance both in the economic and political spheres definitively ruled out membership even being considered for a long, long time, even if the place had happened to be located, say, somewhere on the French-Spanish border: “a parody of a functioning democracy and of a functioning market economy,” as Nielsen puts it. The result: “Several times one had the impression of Ukraine opening doors to Europe, only to have Europe swiftly close them again,” a quote which happens to come from Viktor Yanukovitch, or the current prime minister whose victory in the election for president was just announced by the Ukrainian electoral commission authorities.


Of course, Yanukovitch has his own clear solution to this situation: forget Europe, and have Ukraine instead move closer politically and economically to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It may very well be that attitude, as held by the politician alleged to have been elected the Ukraine’s next president, rather than the fact of the disputed election itself that has prompted several member-states to urge that the EU adopt a more constructive and supportive policy towards the country. In other words, these countries don’t want to “lose” Ukraine to Russia; it should be no surprise that this group is made up of those member-states which border on her: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Nielsen even reports that these lands are rather suspicious over what they feel is a rather-too-compliant attitude on the part of the older EU states towards the shenanigans in Ukraine, springing from their desire not to offend Vladimir Putin. But this can’t be right: the official EU representatives for this period – as represented especially by the Netherlands, which holds the rotating presidency – have done everything you would expect to protest what has been going on with the election.

In a way, this concern from the Russia border-states of the EU is coming a little late. (Although it’s true that at least Poland does have a record of advocating serious consideration for the Ukraine’s EU membership which goes back a while; though of course even Poland has only been a member proper since last May.) They only get their chance to try to move the EU towards taking the Ukraine more seriously, offering a distant prospect of membership, if the alleged presidential election result can be overturned and the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko can make good on the presidential oath of office he went ahead and took at the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday. Otherwise, the country is likely to recede further into the Russian sphere of influence, perhaps irreversibly.


And why would that be a bad thing? Given the Ukraine’s history of political corruption, the bogus-ness of this presidential election was easily predictable. The only surprise is that citizens there are not letting it pass without a fight; they are no doubt inspired by the way stolen elections in both Serbia and Georgia led to civil (but mostly peaceful) unrest and the toppling of the leaders there. But even getting this election “right” – assuming that the challenger Viktor Yushchenko did in fact actually win it – will hardly be able to transform instantly the country’s political culture. And it does nothing to a corrupt set of attitudes in the business realm which in the past has literally led to Western companies (including one mobile-telephone service provider) abruptly withdrawing from operations there – the sheer volume of bribes demanded and administrative uncertainty didn’t make it even worth pursuing that market of over 50 million people. Meanwhile, for years many of the best and brightest among those 50 million, knowing the score only too well, have made their way out of the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Why does the European Union have to expand ad infinitum? And how is it that some of its politicians seem to think that membership is “owed” to countries because they are in some sort of trouble and/or could eventually pose some sort of a threat, despite their debatable “Europeanness”? On this very same subject, as Nielsen’s article points out, the EU will be hampered for quite a while in seriously considering the Ukraine for membership because Turkey has jumped the line and is engaging all the attention. What’s next? Promising eventual membership to Belarus, “Europe’s last dictatorship”?

In any event, those of you who don’t feel up on elementary facts about the Ukraine will definitely find this brief run-down from the Guardian useful – maybe even the part about the chocolate covered pork fat as well. And yes, the country’s record in the Eurovision song contest should be added to the reasons why Ukrainians probably really don’t belong in Europe.

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