Last week I was in Canada speaking at a conference on Ukraine. Ukraine is important to Canada because the country is home to a large Ukrainian diaspora community, with some 1.3 million residing there.
They came in several waves. First, at the end of the 19th century from the Galychyna region (then part of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire), which was in those days a particularly poor and over-populated region with few employment opportunities. New waves came with the establishment of Communism in the 1920s, the outbreak of World War II and the repression placed on Soviet Ukraine by Stalin. After this the gate was closed, with a new wave of migration only beginning following Ukraine’s independence in the 1990s.
The Canadian Ukrainian community is very active and closely monitors political developments in the country, which has helped shape Canada’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. The conference was entitled “Ukraine at the crossroads.” It brought together experts to discuss political developments in the country. The “crossroads” concept is nothing new when discussing Ukraine, because the country has found itself at many crossroads over the years and the question is always the same. Where is Ukraine going? This time the two options discussed were: a future that adheres to European values and principles and one that would bring Ukraine towards greater “Putinism,” which was presented by a number of the other speakers.
Having traveled to Ukraine many times, I know it to be a wonderful country. Ukraine has everything -- energy resources, wonderful agricultural land and an environment perfect for tourism -- yet Ukraine’s politicians have proved to be their own worst enemies and have so far failed to deliver a bright future for Ukraine’s patient citizens. Ukraine’s potential has, for the most part, been unexploited and the country has found itself treading water for much of the last 20 years. Politics in the country are, to say the least, chaotic and loaded with political rivalries and conspiracies with big business simultaneously sitting in the Ukrainian parliament as well as in the boardroom.
Ukraine’s geostrategic choice is Europe. Since its independence, Ukraine has aspired to be part of the EU although this desire has not always been followed by actions, nor has it been reciprocated by the EU. Indeed, for a long time many in the EU even had trouble recognizing Ukraine’s European identity, preferring to base relations through the prism of Russia.
Ukraine, unlike its neighbor Poland, was not offered prospective membership. It was told to get its house in order and carry out far-reaching reforms first. Unfortunately, without a clear goal to aim for, Ukraine’s elites struggled and failed. This outcome suited most of all big neighbor Russia, which almost sees Ukraine as an integral part of itself and has always opposed Ukraine’s EU dream.
Today Ukraine finds itself at a low point. Canada, like other nations, is concerned over democratic standards and the rule of law. In the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine became a beacon of democracy in the Eastern neighborhood, a model for other countries to follow. However, developments over the last 18 months, including the criminal case and subsequent sentencing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have dimmed Ukraine’s light, with Ukraine’s leadership being accused of selective justice.
These developments have cast a rock into Ukraine’s relations with the West and in particular with the EU. While the two partners already have close ties, cooperating in numerous different areas, over the last five years, Ukraine and the EU have been negotiating a far-reaching association agreement, including a deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement. While there is still no prospective membership, these two agreements will deepen ties to a degree never before witnessed with a third country and certainly bring Ukraine one step closer to one day being fully absorbed into the EU family.
However, in order to have the agreements signed and ratified the EU wants to see improvements in democracy and the rule of law. First this means holding free and fair parliamentary elections on Oct. 28. The EU will be carefully monitoring the pre-election period as well as the event itself for signs of irregularities. Progress has also been called for on constitutional reform, the fight against corruption, improving the business climate, and judicial reform. At the same time Kyiv will also have to beat back the Russians, which continue to play cat and mouse with Ukraine, including in ongoing gas negotiations. With a newly assertive Vladimir Putin back in the Kremlin, he will be ready to fight tooth and nail to keep Ukraine where he sees its natural place -- at the side of Russia.
Ukraine has spent too long drifting. It is time for words to be tuned into real actions and results through an inclusive and transparent process supported by civil society. There should be no more crossroads; therefore let us hope that this crossroads will be the last one because the alternative would be catastrophic, not just for the Ukraine but for the entire region.
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