President Leonid Kuchma was finally able to meet President George W. Bush at the June NATO summit in Istanbul. Over the last three years the Bush administration had rebuffed attempts by Kuchma to return to the cozy U.S.-Ukrainian relationship of the 1990s under President Bill Clinton. Kuchmagate in 2000 and then the Kolchuga radar scandal with Iraq in 2002 had led to a cooling of relations between Ukraine and the U.S., as well with other Western governments and international organizations.
During these three years the Council of Europe had twice threatened to suspend Ukraine’s membership when Kuchma had attempted to railroad through constitutional changes in April 2000 and January 2003. Kuchma ignored advice to avoid the November 2002 NATO summit in Prague because of displeasure over his authorization of the sale of Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq in July 2000 — only two months after Clinton’s last visit to Kyiv to cement the U.S.-Ukrainian “strategic partnership.”
At the Prague summit, the NATO-Ukraine Committee was purposefully downgraded to the level of foreign ministers. The seating arrangement at the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) was even changed from English to French, ensuring that Ukraine would not be next to the United Kingdom or United States.
This week in Istanbul, NATO and U.S. relations with Ukraine had sufficiently improved to return to regular seating arrangements. The NATO-Ukraine Committee also met at the presidential level. But, little else had fundamentally changed since the West’s “cold war” with Ukraine in 2000-2003.
Kyiv traditionally blames the European Union for the poor state of EU-Ukrainian relations. Specifically, Ukraine resents the EU’s unwillingness to adopt a NATO-style open-door policy for Ukraine. Yet, while NATO does operate an open-door policy, the Kuchma leadership has not shown any interest in doggedly pursuing membership. The reason is, as former President Leonid Kravchuk has pointed out, that Ukraine — despite its declared intentions — does not really seek NATO membership. The same is probably the case with the EU. “There is no need to look at individuals as there are authorities who do not want to join NATO and under various pretexts says that they do not want us there,” Kravchuk lamented (Ukrayinska Pravda, June 30).
It is far easier for the authorities to claim that Ukraine is “not ready” for NATO membership or that the EU is “unwilling to consider Ukraine as a future member. The alternative would be to pursue domestic reforms, because of the benefits they would bring to Ukraine. In the process this would bring Ukraine closer to NATO membership, as well as force the EU to change its mind about not giving Ukraine a membership option.
For now, the October presidential elections take precedence over Euro-Atlantic integration. Whether Ukraine will be allowed (or not) to join NATO and the EU is not on the radar screens of Kuchma and his allies this year. Their only preoccupation is how to survive if challenger Viktor Yushchenko wins the presidential elections.
This creates a difficult challenge for Western policymakers. On numerous occasions prior to the Istanbul meeting, the NATO Secretary-General and the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA NATO) repeatedly urged Ukraine to hold free and far elections and for Kuchma to leave office, rather than stand for a third term (nato-pa.int). The United States repeatedly raised similar demands.
Ukrainian authorities reacted to the PA NATO statement by denouncing it as “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state . . . Ukraine categorically refuses to accept such a tone,” Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, advised “our foreign friends” (Ukrayinska Pravda, June 11).
While praising Ukraine’s military reforms and adaptation to NATO standards, U.S. and NATO officials have severely criticized its democratic shortcomings. This discrepancy flows from personal commitment. In the military field, Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk is committed to NATO membership and pursues policies within his ministry to achieve this goal. Within the political field, Kuchma’s jurisdiction, there is no commitment to the Western values that underpin NATO (and the EU). Ukraine’s gradual democratic regression began in the late 1990s and has worsened this year due to the impending transition to a new presidency.
Thus Ukraine has a contradictory approach to NATO. While it is meeting NATO’s requirements in the military field, it has a democratic deficit. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer praised Ukraine’s military modernization while advising, “In the first instance it is essential to strengthen political declarations with concrete actions in [Ukraine’s] internal political life” (Ukrayinska Pravda, April 17).
This approach to NATO makes nonsense of Kuchma’s March 25 decree ordering the State Council on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration to fulfill the 2004 Ukraine-NATO Action Plan. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage pointed out, “Democratic elections are the standard that underpins the Ukraine-NATO Action Plan” (Ukrayinska Pravda, March 25). Yet, the Ukrainian authorities are only too well aware that their candidate — Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych — is unlikely to be able to win a free and fair election; two-thirds of Ukrainians do not even believe the vote will even take place.
Bruce Jackson, head of the U.S.-NATO Committee, advised Ukraine to show greater tolerance toward the opposition, halt interference in politics by the Security Service and Tax Administration, and improve the status of the independent media (Ukrayinska Pravda, March 15). But, as is often the case in Ukraine’s relations with the West, both sides are speaking past each other, as the Ukrainian authorities sincerely believe that freedom of the press already exists in Ukraine. As to temnyky (secret presidential instructions), Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the Presidential Administration, explained to Istanbul participants, “What you call censorship is in reality state policies” (Ukrayinska Pravda, June 29).
Because NATO has an open-door policy and the EU does not, Ukraine’s relations with NATO should be far better than those it has with the EU. Yet, this is not the case. Marchuk repeatedly dampens Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO by saying it is unlikely until around 2011-2015. Kuchma refuses to even give a date, merely saying that Ukraine is not politically and economically ready for NATO membership. NATO officials, such as Douglas Bereuter, head of the PA NATO, and Jackson, believe otherwise. They have said that Ukraine could join as early as the third round of NATO enlargement, scheduled for 2007. Many Russophile states in the EU, such as France, never supported EU enlargement, and insisted that Ukraine should not join the EU unless Russia is also invited. In NATO the situation is more favorable, as influential member states actually support Ukraine’s membership.
These differing policies and opinions leave a paradoxical situation where NATO and Western governments are stating that Ukraine could join NATO earlier than even Ukrainians themselves. Usually post-communist states have lobbied for earlier admission while Western governments have advised caution. The Ukrainian case is different because the lack of democratic reforms, which is holding back Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration, benefits Kuchma and the ruling elites.