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Alexander J. Motyl
Integrating an Authoritarian Ukraine into Democratic Europe?

A distinguished group of Ukrainian and Western analysts has recently argued that Europe should make Ukraine's integration into European institutions conditional on the Yanukovych regime's adherence to democratic standards.

Thus, they argue: "The EU should advance free trade and political agreements only if the Yanukovych administration demonstrates its clear commitment to European values." In other words, no democracy in Ukraine, no integration with Europe. Alas, "no democracy, no Europe" is the worst possible advice-for Ukraine, for Europe, and, by the way, also for Russia. This is not to say that Europe shouldn't be tough with Ukraine. Nor is it to say that an authoritarian Ukraine should become a member of the European Union. It is to say, however, that strategic goals should guide strategic choices and that even an authoritarian Ukraine should be integrated into European institutions. Let me explain.

What's the best imaginable outcome for Ukraine? I suspect most more or less reasonable people would agree that it should be democratic, market-oriented, modern, and Western. You can interpret those words any way you like, but it's clear that their polar opposites are authoritarian, oligarchic, backward, and anti-Western.

Remember: Ukraine is not a small country comfortably surrounded by prosperous and peaceful democracies. Ever since NATO and the European Union expanded to its borders, Ukraine's been trapped in a geopolitically untenable no-man's-land between Europe and Russia. Moreover, Ukraine currently stands at a crossroads. If it signs a free-trade agreement with the EU and moves toward associate membership, its chances of becoming democratic, market-oriented, modern, and Western will grow. If it does not move toward Europe, Ukraine will either remain isolated in that no-man's-land or, far more likely, move toward the Russia-led Customs Union, membership in which guarantees that Ukraine will become authoritarian, oligarchic, backward, and anti-Western. Why is that?

Whether or not Ukraine becomes democratic and market-oriented-and modern-pretty much depends on Ukraine, its government, and its people. That said, international institutions can and do nudge countries in specific directions. Democratic and market-oriented institutions promote democracy and markets, while authoritarian and oligarchic institutions do not. Institutions have this effect because they compel governments and people to play by their rules, and repeated rule-following, even if rules are frequently violated, tends, over time, to lead to an internalization of rules. Ask yourself this. What's better for Ukraine? That Ukrainian oligarchs should hobnob with the rich and mighty in Davos or in Minsk? That Regionnaire elites should negotiate with Brussels or with Moscow? Where are they more likely to learn, or be forced to adapt to, democracy and markets?

Here are two more equally rhetorical questions. Is it better for an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine to be in a free-trade zone with democratic and market-oriented Europe or in a customs union with authoritarian and oligarchic Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan? And is it better for Europe for an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine to be in a free-trade zone with democratic and market-oriented Europe or in a custom union with authoritarian and oligarchic Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan?

As I argued above, an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine will be nudged toward democracy and the market by Europe's institutions. Obviously, Ukraine won't become fully democratic and market-oriented overnight. But it will creep in that direction, as Ukrainians travel to Europe, as European economic ties with Ukraine are strengthened, as Ukrainian elites are forced to walk and talk like Europeans, as Ukraine slowly enters the European vocabulary and consciousness, and as European values slowly enter the Ukrainian vocabulary and consciousness. In contrast, an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine will only become more authoritarian and more oligarchic as part of any economic and political association led by today's authoritarian and oligarchic Russia. Indeed, such an outcome would condemn Ukraine to economic backwardness for decades to come, as Ukraine would be transformed into Russia's hinterland. And since Russia is the hinterland of the West, that would make Ukraine the hinterland of a hinterland. Some prospect, right? So take your pick-creeping Europeanization or rapid hinterlandization.

The analysts I cited above appear to believe that keeping an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine out of Europe would be good for Europe. But the exact opposite is true. Such a Ukraine would be prone to instability-after all, authoritarian states with weak economies are unstable-and likely become a neo-colonial appendage of a neo-imperial Russia. For a pivotal state the size of Ukraine to be unstable cannot be good for Europe, and for a pivotal state the size of Ukraine to become subservient to Russia cannot possibly be good for European, and more generally Western, hopes of a normal relationship with a "normal" Russia.

One last rhetorical question. Is it better for a democratic and market-oriented Russia (a country that does not yet exist) for an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine to be in a free-trade zone with democratic and market-oriented Europe or in a customs union with authoritarian and oligarchic Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan? Naturally, Russian imperialists and authoritarians prefer an ingathering of Soviet lands, but just because they want that doesn't make it right for Russia. If democracy, the market, modernity, and the West are good for Ukraine, then they must also be good for Russia. And there's no way that such a Russia will be more likely to emerge if an authoritarian and oligarchic Ukraine joins up with an authoritarian and oligarchic Russia.

Ukraine's moving toward Europe is good for Ukraine, good for Europe, and good for Russia. It's also good for the Ukrainian opposition: where would you prefer to be a harassed democrat-in Europe or in Russia? And, yes, if Viktor Yanukovych manages to push Ukraine toward Europe, it'll also be good for him. But so be it. The interests of the Ukrainian people must surely trump those of Yanukovych. To insist that today's Ukraine shouldn't join Europe until Yanukovych becomes a democrat is not to cut off one's nose to spite one's face. It's to cut off one's face to spite one's nose.

Jun 24, 2011