WORLD AFFAIRS.  After writing last week’s blog, “Yanukovych Faces EU Integration and History,” I was sorely tempted to write this week’s first draft by simply taking last week’s text and substituting “European Union” wherever “Yanukovych” occurred. Now, now, you might say, that’s no way to treat Europe, which, as everyone knows, is the most “decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous community” (my words from the blog) in world history. After all, these modifiers don’t exactly spring to mind when one thinks of Ukraine’s president. Indeed, you might say their opposites do.

Personally, I like Europe: I travel there all the time, study the place, read its literature, and admire its cultures and languages. But—and there is always a “but” after such a grand opening statement—I have no illusions about the European Union. Although it’s definitely a “decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous community,” I’m not at all sure it represents, as Lenin might have put it, the “highest stage” in human development. The EU, as anyone who’s been to the place knows, is profoundly flawed.

The ongoing crisis in Greece and a few other countries is only the tip of the iceberg. The EU has shown a remarkable capacity to avoid making important decisions—in no small measure due to its cumbersome decisionmaking rules—and an equally remarkable tendency to rush headlong into world-changing decisions (the fateful introduction of the Euro in 2002 and the 10-country expansion of the EU in 2004 being just two examples). The EU suffers from a “democratic deficit” that has turned many of its own citizens against it. It meddles in everyday life, while lacking anything resembling a strategic vision. And, finally, it and its member states routinely sacrifice the “European values” that supposedly lie at the core of the entire European project on the altar of crude self-interest. A case in point is Europe’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s fascistoid Russia. Were Europeans—and especially Germans—motivated solely by the lofty ideals of their founding documents, they would have broken off relations with the Kremlin years ago. Instead, those relations thrive.

As hypocritical as that is, it’s also perfectly understandable. Despite the rhetoric, all states, all international organizations, and all do-gooding NGOs are motivated by both ideals and self-interest. As well they should be. If human rights and other moral absolutes determined all foreign policy, no one would be on speaking terms with anyone, and the world would not be a better place.

Which brings me to Ukraine, of course, and the question of whether the European Union should sign an Association Agreement with President Yanukovych. The answer is yes, precisely because the EU has been, is, and should be motivated by both human rights and self-interest.

Ask yourself this question: Will the human and civil rights of Ukraine’s 40 million–plus citizens be better off with or without the agreement, inside or outside the EU’s front yard? The answer should be obvious. The agreement will provide Ukrainians with a certain cover, a shield against the predations of the Yanukovych regime. No agreement, in contrast, will mean both the absence of such a shield and, far worse, Ukraine’s likely drift into the Putin-dominated Customs Union, where human and civil rights are violated as a matter of course.

Is Yanukovych Ukraine’s association with Europe the best possible outcome for human rights? Of course not. That would be a democratic Ukraine’s association with a democratic Europe. But not only is the best the enemy of the good, but the second best is good enough. A few weeks ago, Ukraine’s LGBT organizations wrote to Brussels, asking that Europe’s visa regime with Ukraine not be liberalized until Ukrainian law guarantees all rights to the LGBT community, on the grounds that opposition to sexual discrimination is an “absolute imperative” of EU laws.

Beware of blithe invocations of absolute imperatives that privilege human rights over humans. According to the absolutist logic of this appeal, no one—including Ukraine’s gays—should have the right to travel more easily to Europe until everyone—including Ukraine’s gays—enjoy full protection against discrimination. Extend that logic to the Association Agreement and you must conclude that it’s better for Ukraine to be consigned to Yanukovych’s authoritarianism and Putin’s despotic bloc than to be associated with Europe, because Ukraine is not yet fully democratic. If that makes sense to you, please consider cutting off your nose to spite your face …

Or consider Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s most prominent political prisoner. Should she be freed as a condition of the agreement’s being signed? According to the “absolute imperative,” yes. Will she be freer if the agreement is not signed? Hell, no. Unsurprisingly, Tymoshenko supports the agreement. Among other things, she knows quite well that her fate, like Ukraine’s, is likely to be far rosier if Brussels has some leverage with Kyiv than if Moscow calls all the shots.

How about self-interest? It’s obvious that Ukraine would benefit from an Association Agreement, but would Europe? Once again, the answer is yes.

First, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s aggressive neo-imperialism, it’s become perfectly clear that failure to sign the agreement will mean that Ukraine will be swallowed up by Russia or the Customs Union, or both. By upping the ante and revealing his intentions, Putin has done everyone, and especially Europe, a great service. One can’t pretend any longer that Ukraine will somehow muddle through without the agreement. It won’t. Europe’s self-interest in all this is obvious. If it feeds Ukraine to Putin, it will encourage an aggressive Kremlin foreign policy that will have immediate destabilizing consequences for the security of the EU’s easternmost members—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. So if you want to destabilize the EU, keep Ukraine out. It’s that simple.

Second, irrespective of Putin’s designs, having a big, geostrategically pivotal state with enormous economic potential on the EU’s side is obviously good for the EU’s security and, in time, prosperity. There is no scenario in which Ukraine’s progressive transformation into Europe’s Zimbabwe could be good for Europe. In contrast, an increasingly “decent, liberal, democratic, stable, and prosperous” Ukraine can only enhance Europe’s own security, stability, prosperity, as well as decency, liberality, and democracy.

In sum, Europe is facing history as much as Yanukovych is. So let me put the case for human rights and self-interest in a way that Europeans—and especially Germans—may immediately understand. If they want to continue sipping their cappuccinos in peace and quiet, they’ll take a moment to look up from their smartphones, stare history in the face, and permit imperfect Ukrainians inside their cafes. 

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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