The European Union ran into a new iron curtain last month in its hopes of extending human rights, rule of law, and democracy to former Soviet-bloc states. Ukraine, after forceful arm-twisting by Russia, rebuffed an offer to start down the road toward EU membership, triggering mass protests.
The offer still stands for Ukraine to link up with the world’s largest economic union, a testament to the EU’s patient confidence that its “soft power” values will eventually attract people living to the east under corrupt, semidemocratic regimes. Georgia and Moldova, while much smaller than Texas-size Ukraine, did sign up for a future with the EU. They hope to join Poland and other former communist states that opted for the Union’s democratic freedoms and open markets.
A Ukraine that leans firmly toward Europe would help cement the EU project of creating a continent with long-term peace and prosperity. Polls in Ukraine show EU membership remains popular. But about half of Ukraine’s 46 million people are Russian-speakers who live in the east and south. Many of them prefer to remain a satellite state of Moscow, perhaps even joining a trade union, which has been proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin’s economic threats against Ukraine to keep it from joining the EU reflect a historical strategy by Moscow to control its nearby states as buffers against potential enemies. Yet such a strategy runs counter to Russia’s more current inclination to rely on the global marketplace for trade and investment, reflected in its joining the World Trade Organization in 2012.
Yet Russia still has a lingering Soviet tendency to regard rights as coming from the state rather than seeing rights as naturally inherent in each citizen. This East-West divide was reflected in how Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reacted to huge pro-EU protests in recent days. At 4 a.m. Saturday in the capital of Kiev, special riot police with clubs descended on peaceful protesters. The violent action led to hundreds of thousands of people protesting Sunday.
President Yanukovych fears losing a presidential election in 2015 if Russia retaliates with trade sanctions – as it did for a week last August. He also fears releasing his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison, a condition for signing the EU agreement.
The EU may need to wait for that election – assuming Yanukovych doesn’t rig the voting as he did in a 2004 election – in hopes it will result in a leader who firmly seeks EU membership.
Like other Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians are moving toward the ideals of democracy, especially the notion that rights exist separate from the state. “The sacred rights of mankind,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself.”
The Soviet-era Iron Curtain fell more than two decades ago thanks in large part to the idealistic example set by the West. That example can still serve a reforming purpose for Ukraine.