21.07.2011 | David Kramer, Damon Wilson & Robert Nurick

Mr. President, Time to Stop Digging Yourself Into a Hole


David J. Kramer, Damon Wilson and Robert Nurick write: Relentless prosecutions of Tymoshenko, other Yanukovych opponents lack credibility.

To: Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine

From: Three American friends of Ukraine

Mr. President,

Since winning the February 2010 presidential election in a free and fair process, you have achieved many positive things for your country.

Your ruling majority in parliament just adopted much-needed pension reform; the endless infighting that characterized your predecessor’s administration has come to an end; and as part of your overall efforts to deepen integration into Europe and its institutions, your government has made significant progress in finalizing free-trade and association agreements with the European Union.

But the good you have accomplished is in jeopardy unless you arrest the slide you and your government are on in the areas of democracy and human rights. For those who wish your country well, those trends are deeply disturbing.

A particularly prominent example of the deteriorating situation is the relentless prosecution of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whom you defeated in the second round of last year’s election.

Her case has come to be viewed throughout the international community as a gross misuse of the legal process to persecute leading political opponents.

But hers is not the only worrisome example. Yuriy Lutsenko, Interior Minister in Tymoshenko’s government, has also been a major victim of highly questionable prosecutorial zeal, having been relegated to jail since last December. 

Most critically, the process by which such prosecutions are being conducted lacks credibility both inside and outside Ukraine. 

Your representatives argue that investigations are being conducted against more than 400 current officials, but none of these cases appears to be directed against individuals of comparable status and political importance.

This creates the appearance that the security services and prosecutor general’s office are out of control – that they are seeking something, anything, to hold against her so that she can be convicted and thereby be deemed ineligible to participate in future elections.

That the European Human Rights Court will be examining this case reflects the firm belief that the judicial system in Ukraine is being exploited for political purposes, a view firmly inconsistent with European values and norms.

Mr. President, you need to put a stop to this immediately. Late last week amid growing criticism over the Tymoshenko case, you rejected any notion of intervening. If the judicial processes were respected as fair and impartial, this would be the right course to take.

But when they lack credibility, as they do here, failure to put a stop to them can only do grave damage to your EU integration push, leaving you without a critical balance in relations with your big neighbor Russia.

Selective prosecutions aren’t the only area of concern. The conduct of last October’s local elections fell far short of democratic standards, breaking a positive trend of some five years of elections in which Ukraine met the “free and fair” test.

The security services have assumed a more prominent role in society and are responsible for applying unwarranted pressure against civil society activists (foreign and domestic) and journalists.

Parliament has become more like a rubberstamp. Corruption, always a problem in Ukraine, remains a huge challenge at all levels of the government. Policy on education, religion, and language fosters fragmentation and infighting rather than national unity.

To be clear, as longtime supportersof Ukraine, we are no fans of the previous administration. The endless bickering between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko had a paralyzing effect on policy.

This was a period marked by economic crisis and ineffective governance. Corruption, especially concerning the 2006 gas deal with Russia, was a huge problem. It is hardly surprising then that the administration fell woefully short of the expectations that accompanied the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The five years that followed the Orange Revolution were a wasted opportunity. Ukraine cannot afford to head in the wrong direction for five more years. That is why we urge qyou to step in and put a stop to these anti-democratic actions before it is too late, before you leave the EU with no option but to suspend negotiations.

Left unchecked, the current trends in your country will move Ukraine toward kleptocracy and authoritarianism. That is not what you were elected to do, and it certainly would be disastrous for your country.

It is time to show leadership, Mr. President. There is a popular and wise saying in the West: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging – in other words, don’t make the situation worse by continuing with the actions that have created this serious situation in the first place. It is still not too late, but time is not on your side.

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, D.C.; Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank; and Robert Nurick is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. This article originally appeared in Kyiv Post

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