The Debate 

John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon and Chair of the All-Party British Ukrainian Parliamentary Group, led a debate this afternoon at Westminster Hall on UK relations with Ukraine. 

The issue was raised after Ukraine’s President Yanukovych chose to hold off signing an Association and Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreements with the European Union. 

Since then the matter of a debate has become much more urgent in light of the Ukrainian government’s use of violence against peaceful protestors. 

Whittingdale recently attended the European Strategy Conference in Yalta where both Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov spoke of their desire for Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnus and in doing so, to forge stronger links with Europe. 

This strategy was supported by all political parties in Ukraine, except for the Communists, and appropriate proposals were tabled in the Ukrainian Parliament with the view to meeting the set requirements for the signing of the Agreement. 

The Protests

Some twelve weeks later, however, the situation has become vastly different. Tensions and instability are rife as protesters continue to dominate Independence Square in Kyiv in scenes reminiscent of the 2004 Orange Revolution. 

The protests initially began as a means for Ukrainians to voice their dissatisfaction with President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement; yet in light of the violence and repressions sanctioned by the government, the protests have now become a stand for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ukraine. 

Whittingdale argued that the sight of innocent protestors being beaten on the ground by special forces is wholly unacceptable and that those responsible should be held personally accountable. Western media outlets have shown how Ukraine’s government employed tear gas and truncheons to disperse protesters. The clashes on 1 December left at least 7 people hospitalised. A further 35 protestors were arrested and concerns have been raised (as these people have since disappeared) regarding Ukraine’s selective justice system and continued corruption. 

In reaction to the government’s repressions, protestors have resorted to violent means themselves such as the felling of Lenin’s statue in the centre of Kyiv. 

These protests indicate that a large number of Ukrainians are keen to turn away from the influence of Moscow towards Europe. 

Despite concerns that an agreement with Europe would have negative repercussions on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, the economic benefits of an association with the EU would be a powerful stimulant to Ukraine’s economic growth. It would open up a free market of 500 million consumers to Ukraine.  Furthermore, reliable studies have shown that GDP and wages would also rise. 

Participants in the debate called upon the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to do what it could to stop the immediate violence and work towards a long term solution. 

In addition to John Whittingdale’s assessment of the situation in Ukraine, Pauline Latham, the MP for Derbyshire, said that she hoped that other members of Parliament would condemn the violence on  innocent Ukrainians. She labelled the actions of the Yanukovych administration as ‘draconian’ and said that this in itself hailed the need for a new era of greater respect for human rights in Ukraine. 

What next? 

The debate ended on an optimistic note with a variety of speakers noting the positive relationship between the UK and Ukraine. Once Ukraine is ready to sign the Association Agreement, the UK will be a willing partner and will lend support to foster Ukraine’s closer relationship with the EU. 

The British Prime Minister and other European delegates have already made it clear to President Yanukovych that the door to the EU remains open and that it is up to Ukraine whether it takes up that offer.

The pressure being exerted by Russia was also raised during the debate and was deemed to be unacceptable by the FCO. In the modern world every country should respect the sovereignty of another and its right to enter into agreements that it considers to be appropriate. 

Ukraine was described as an important friend and partner of the UK and one contributor to the debate stated that ‘now is the time that we must support them [Ukrainians] and we must not turn our backs on them’. Another related to the Ukrainian protesters outside the UK’s Parliament being heard during this debate and paralleled this to the protesters on the Maidan in Kyiv (Independence Square) - “their voice needs to be heard throughout the world”.

In the short term, President Yanukovych has agreed to round table talks with civil society groups and former Presidents Yuschenko, Kuchma and Kravchuk. This hopefully represents a genuine attempt to prevent the protests from escalating into an ongoing battle between Ukrainians and Ukraine’s special forces. 

In the long term, Ukraine faces some formidable political and economic challenges; the country is massively in debt, the judicial system requires urgent reform and corruption needs to be rooted out. Meanwhile, the forthcoming re-run of parliamentary elections on 15 December need to be conducted in a free and fair manner, in accordance with international standards. 

Yvanna Kurlak

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Ukrayinska Dumka


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