The apparent victory of Viktor Yanukovych in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election is yet another setback to the idea that the world is rapidly becoming a more democratic place. The candidate whose fraudulent claims of victory in 2005 led to the much hailed “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Losing candidate Yulia Tymoshenko has vowed to challenge the results in court and has threatened to bring her supporters out to the streets in a replay of the Orange protests, but the reports from international observers suggest that the elections, whatever little irregularities popped up here and there, passed the smell test. It’s likely that Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s threats are part of the next round in Ukrainian politics as the newly elected President and the Braided One maneuver for power.
All politics is local; the Ukrainians voted the way they did mostly because of domestic political factors. The two wings of the Orange Revolution wasted the last five years feuding and spatting with one another; Tymoshenko and the outgoing president Viktor Yushchenko could never get over their political and policy differences. Had the two movements united they might well have won the latest election despite a 15% fall in Ukraine’s GDP since the advent of the global financial crisis. Most observers think that Yanukovych is a bit more pro-Moscow and a bit more predictable than Tymoshenko; given Ukraine’s economic difficulties and given that it will be hard for the new president to gain effective control of Ukraine’s parliament, Yanukovych is likely to experience some rough sledding in office.
But if the Ukrainians voted mainly for domestic reasons, the international implications of their choice are being widely studied. In a nutshell the consensus seems to be: Russia up, US and EU down.
Overall, I think that’s right, but the devil is in the details. It’s going to be important not to ‘overlearn’ the lessons of the Ukrainian election — but it would also be wrong to ignore them.
The first lesson–that US and EU power is waning in the region and that Russian power is increasing–is true up to a point. The United States made a serious mistake in the 1990s. The decision to expand NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union made sense from the standpoint of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, providing them with both the psychological boost of membership in an elite western club at a time when the road to EU membership looked rocky and long and the new post-communist governments were still finding their way. But there’s a catch. If you put “No Fishing” signs up on the east side of a lake but not on the west side, it’s a bit like putting “Fish Here” signs on the west bank. Poland and Bulgaria are NATO members; Georgia and Ukraine aren’t. Russia is fishing.
In hindsight, the choice that we made to extend NATO farther east in gradual steps might have been a mistake. Russia hates NATO expansion and always has. To some Russians it looks like the inexorable approach of a hostile alliance that endangers the motherland; to others it is a constant humiliating reminder of Russian weakness and the west’s arrogant presumption after 1989. The expansion was annoying when it was limited to the former Warsaw Pact Soviet allies; it was maddening and infuriating when it extended to territories that were once part of the USSR like the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The prospect of a new wave of expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and push right up to the Russian frontier, was a worst case scenario nightmare for Russia.
If we were going to expand NATO eastward, we probably should have done it all at once, making agreements in principle and establishing basic interim security treaties with those countries whose actual entry might have to be delayed. What we’ve done instead is like pulling a bandage off tiny bit by bit, endlessly prolonging the agony. We should have ripped the whole thing off twenty years ago. (We should have also thought much more seriously than we ever have about the likelihood that expanding NATO probably ultimately entailed bringing the Russians in as the only way to stabilize the security situation across Europe.) Now the combination of Russian opposition (which, among other things, reduces European enthusiasm for expansion), geopolitical instability (do we want to get sucked into a new Russia-Georgian war?) and the general decline of US interest in Europe make a strong new push for expansion unlikely — even if the Yanukovych government wanted to join NATO.
So here we are: stuck with a security fault line in Europe, while the Russians will continue to fish where there aren’t any signs.
If the American dream of pushing NATO out to the Russian frontier is now fading away, the EU’s hope of transforming its neighborhood by its power of attraction is also running into trouble. Since 1989, the EU’s chief diplomatic trump card is its ability to offer other countries access to the world’s largest market and membership in a very generous and prestigious club. For the mostly poor and formerly communist countries to the east and south of ‘Old Europe,’ the chance to get into the EU (which meant, among other things, free access to better paid jobs in the west for their young) was the most exciting opportunity ever. Country after country made extensive efforts to remodel its laws and business practices to meet European requirements and standards. The hope of joining the EU is one of the few powerful forces for peace and democracy in the tempestuous Balkans; even the Serbs are willing to send the occasional Serb accused of war crimes for trial if there is no other way to keep the membership process on track. (more…)