Do No Harm

Ukraine is a country in intensive care of democratic transition, but it still remains the only hope of liberal democracy in the whole of Eastern Europe. The Dutch people now face a choice between helping to help treat it with reform or leave it in the cold.

Nederlanders, as a Ukrainian who has a thing for your country, I need to talk with you. I came to think of myself as an unapologetic Netherlandsphile: I speak some Dutch and had my fair share of disappointment with De Oranje’s losses in football tournaments. I had graduated from a prestigious Dutch university with cum laude distinction. Probably on top of my class of seventy Dutch and international students in our Master program on European Studies. I went sailing to the Oosterzee and put on orange for the flamboyant Koninginnedag street parties. I’m honored to call some Dutch people my friends. But the most important thing that I borrowed from your culture is speaking directly and honestly about (often uncomfortable) issues. This is exactly what I intend to do in the next dozen of paragraphs, so bear with me, alsjeblieft.

With this personal history, it is all the more disconcerting for me to think of the Netherlands voting “nee” to the Association Agreement on Wednesday. I can’t (and won’t) tell you how to vote in the upcoming referendum, although it truly pains me to see that a certain section of your mature democracy is willing to use my country as a dummy for a political beating of your government and Brussels. Looking at preliminary polls, this section is far from the majority, but they are now poised to have their victory if the silent majority decides to stay at home.

I know that you’ve been reading a lot of negative news about Ukraine in the past several months: stolen paintings, stalled reform and hung government. As a citizen of Ukraine and a political analyst by trade, I’m probably even more disappointed by this news than you are. But, amid this media gloom, some shoots of often-overlooked progress in Ukraine still give me hope that my country will follow the path to a liberal democracy.

Rechtsstaat in the making?

Despite the fact that Ukraine has been at war with Russia and pro-Russian militants for two years, the Ukrainian government is not narrowing the citizens’ liberties but gradually extending them under the pressure from its civil society and international institutions. Access to justice is supported by conscientious lawyers and Western donors: a network of centers providing free legal aid to poor citizens, financed by the government but not controlled by it, has achieved acquittals for hundreds of innocent people across the country. It is these lawyers who are resuscitating Ukraine’s shaky rule of law.

Despite the economic hardship and insecurity, the civil society has kept faith in the liberal ideals of the Maidan. What is striking is that it’s happening not only in Kyiv but in smaller towns in the provinces. Last year, in a shipbuilding town of Mykolaiv in the south of Ukraine, dozens of volunteers crowdfunded and supported the local democratic candidate, who eventually defeated a well-connected candidate financed by the oligarchic money. After blatant electoral violations in the mining town of Kryvy Rig in central Ukraine last year, thousands of people came to the streets to demand re-election. Their bid to change a local power broker was unsuccessful: the incumbent kept his seat. But the activists tried to restore political competition in their city, a cornerstone of a democratic system, despite risks to their jobs and even personal security.

LGBTI rights remain an issue in Ukraine due to widespread ignorance, but the country is making a slow progress to defend their rights. Under the pressure from the civil society, the Ukrainian parliament passed amendments to the Labor Code that prohibit the employment discrimination of all minorities, including the members of the LGBTI community. There were indeed thuggish attacks on the gay pride held in Kyiv in June last year and an equality festival in Lviv in March this year. However, Ukrainian policemen protected the first event at the price of their own health and launched investigation of attempts to disrupt the second event. A well-known Ukrainian LGBT activist recently published an article saying that rejection of Ukraine’s association bid would undo a lot of progress for the LGBT community. Just like other former Soviet countries undergoing democratic transition, Ukraine needs time and social dialogue to nurture respect for its LGBTI citizens.

Liberal Democracy in the Illiberal Region

Russian state-sponsored propaganda paints Ukraine as a hotbed of ethnic nationalism. That could not be further from the reality here. Ukraine is gradually integrating its ethnic minorities in its political life without infringing on their cultural rights. A Hungarian party, KMKS, has been elected to the regional council in Transcarpathia, the diverse multi-ethnic region in Western Ukraine. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar community banished by Russia’s occupation forces from Crimea, has been elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament last year and now chairs the presidential ant-corruption advisory council. The Ministry of Education is financing a project to publish books for Crimean Tatar children in their native language, whereas just to the South in the occupied Crimea, Russia is purging their cultural institutions.

Meanwhile, dozens of Russian journalists and activists who had fled political persecution in Russia found shelter in Ukraine. Young Belarusians move to Kyiv for a freer political climate; some start to speak fluent Ukrainian in no time. Surrounded by revisionist Russia, Soviet Belarus and “not-zero-problems-anymore” Turkey, Ukraine probably remains the only hope for liberal democracy in Eastern Europe.

Some opponents of the Association Agreement in the Netherlands claim that the Agreement will support corrupt officials in Ukraine. The reality is the opposite. Corrupt officials and greedy oligarchs would be happy to see the Agreement blocked or discredited: because that would postpone Ukraine’s badly-needed economic and social modernization. It is easier to profit from the monopolized economy, which is poorly integrated with the European Union and its more efficient institutions. It is easier to keep political power by exploiting the poor and legally-unprotected population which has no idea of a European alternative. It is much easier to make covert deals with Russia, if a founding nation of the European Union tells them “we’ve changed our mind on this”.

Do No Harm” is a well-known medical principle, but it works in international relations too. Ukraine’s political illnesses, of which AA opponents talk so often, can only be cured by consistent modernization efforts nurtured within the country and supported from the outside. This is what the Association Agreement offers. The Ukrainian people are ready to undergo that long treatment of their country: a recent poll shows that three out of four Ukrainians want the Netherlands to sign the Agreement. Corrupt elites, pro-Russian agents and oligarchic puppets are surely within the remaining 25% expecting a “no”. We will see if their hopes will come true on Wednesday, when the Dutch go to polls.

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About Evgen Vorobiov

I am an analyst of international relations, currently working on civilian security issues. In the past 3 years, I've done research on Ukraine's regional politics, on EU-Ukraine Association process and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I hold a Master's Degree (cum laude) in European Studies and International Politics from Maastricht University (The Netherlands). I tweet regularly at @vorobyov as a private person. In addition to native-level Ukrainian and Russian, I speak fluent English, passable German and Polish, basic Dutch and French.

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