Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ukraine at tipping point

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The current tug-of-war for Ukraine to join the European Union's Association Agreement or Russia's Eurasian Union is of global importance. The outcome will have lasting impact for Ukraine and the two protagonists, Europe and Eurasia, and for the balance between democratic and autocratic regimes worldwide.

Ukraine's orientation will determine whether Europe is enlarged to include its largest geographic country, or Russia's President Vladimir Putin succeeds in resurrecting a new Soviet-like empire to the concern of all.

Four years ago, Poland and Sweden, motivated by the difficult history with the Soviet Union, unveiled the ambitious Eastern Partnership for Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics. Ukraine negotiated the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Agreement (DCFTA). They were to be finalized in December 2011, but the 2010 election that brought President Viktor Yanukovych to power is derailing the process.

The countries would benefit from economic trade and further integration, and a visa-free zone permitting people to move freely throughout Europe. But requirements had to be met.

The president's stalling has disillusioned most EU members. In retaliation, they withdrew their offer despite its vital geopolitical importance.

Poland and Sweden continued pressing for European integration. So did Canada.

Each undemocratic turn the president took -- abandoning the rule of law, incarcerating opposition leaders, tampering with elections, personal profiteering of politicians and officials -- moved Sweden closer to the disenchantment of the European club. Only Poland kept working to make the EU enlargement happen.

Enough is enough, even for the most patient friends. Yanukovych must show movement on the 19 requirements prior to the November 2013 Vilnius Summit if he wants the agreement signed.

The key one is the freedom for opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. In failing to comply, Yanukovych has consistently underestimated the EU resolve to adhere to democratic principles. He has been wrong in hedging his bets.

A recent European Court of Human Rights ruling stating Tymoshenko's rights had been violated makes it impossible for the EU to sign. Last week, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, the host of the November summit in Vilnius was categorical: The EU will not sign the deal while the former premier is in jail.

So it's a cliff-hanger: Either Yanukovych opens the door for Ukraine to Europe or falls back into Russia's unloving embrace.

Already, Putin is showing his true colours by banning candy imports from Ukraine, then souring trade relations further with more trade restrictions and military fly-bys in Ukrainian airspace. To date, the tactics have backfired. Even Germany, one of the least supportive of Ukraine's European integration, told Russia to back off.

Politics is fluid, however, and the world's attention may be drawn away. The U.S.-Russia rapprochement precipitated by the Syrian crisis might prompt Russia to use this as a leverage to get its way with Ukraine.

Canada can play a role here: Continue to be a friend to Ukraine by ensuring it does not become a prize for Russia in the larger political play.

Putin's belligerent tactics serve to remind all democracies of Russia's dangerous past and unsavoury present. They call for greater vigilance, be it on partnerships on Syria or in containing its appetite in swallowing up neighbours like Ukraine. In the matter at hand, it means convincing Yanukovych to meet the most critical EU requirement: Free Tymoshenko.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's position has been supportive of this position. Now is the time to again apply all manner of diplomatic pressure to ensure Yanukovych does the right thing.

It would be a historic moment for Canada -- all democracies -- to complete the task of European enlargement initiated by Poland and Sweden to include Ukraine in the European zone. They need to act now to ensure the agreement is signed.

If it isn't, much of the effort Canada and others have put into liberalizing Ukraine will be lost. Ukraine and the EU will lose, and Russia wins.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former director of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is a founding member of the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A17

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