Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight champion of the world and parliamentary deputy in Ukraine announces that he will run for the country’s presidency in 2015. The race already looks like it will be anything but a clean fight, according to Josh Black.
The run-up to November’s EU summit in Vilnius has brought out the worst in EU-Ukraine relations, as well as the best. Squirming under diplomatic pressure and increasingly being isolated as a cause of the blockage in negotiations with the EU, President Yanukovych first floated the idea of Yulia Tymoshenko being allowed to leave the country for medical treatment, then said she might be freed if Parliament repealed the Soviet-era law under which she was convicted.
With one concession another opening closes. An amendment passed in the Supreme Rada seeks to make explicit a restriction on holding high political office to those who have been resident in Ukraine for the past ten years. Klitschko often trains in Germany and while most Ukrainians are proud of his sporting achievements, the aspersions on his patriotism may hit home, especially in Ukraine’s more nationalist western regions, which haven’t learnt to love Tymoshenko either.
Klitschko himself used the passing of the bill to denounce creeping authoritarianism and announce his candidacy. The battle for the presidency starts now, but the main character in that fight is not Klitschko, but the incumbent.
Ukraine’s President, Victor Yanukovych, has got himself out of many tricky fights. His career in politics seemed over when he was not only defeated as a candidate in 2004’s presidential election but was heaped with opprobrium for having benefitted the widespread fraud that prompted the Orange Revolution. Unlikely as it is, he made an impressive comeback that saw him become Prime Minister in 2006 and President, finally, in 2010.
Since then, the government of Ukraine has been characterised by allegations of corruption and petty authoritarianism. Andrew Wilson, an expert on Ukraine, says the Yanukovych administration has nobbled the courts and is waging war on media freedoms. The main challenger in 2010, Yulia Tymoshenko, was sentenced to a seven-year jail term a year later for breaching prime ministerial convention.
The European Union thought that its response would be straightforward. In 2012, few of its leaders were willing to attend an international football match as guest of the President. They felt that they could embarrass Yanukovych diplomatically, then pressure him into releasing Tymoshenko by dangling the incentive of EU integration in front of his government. Yanukovych responded by altering new laws that were deemed oppressive, pardoning a former Interior Minister, Yuri Lutsenko and appearing ambivalent about joining a Russian-led trade association. For a long time, there was only quiet, and progress seemed possible even without meaningful political reform or an amnesty for the former Prime Minister.
The EU will not be able to react quickly to this latest challenge to its democratising ambitions. Its constitutional consultant, the Council of Vienna, has been largely ignored, by Ukraine at least. It can pledge support for Klitschko, and continue to repeat that Ukraine will not qualify for an Association Agreement, as Carl Bildt has suggested.
But in the short term, the failure of the Vilnius summit would cast a terrible shadow over the EU’s foreign policy. The EU has to choose whether it is willing to sacrifice its credibility, one way or the other. The answer will more likely have to come from Ukraine itself. If, for the first time, Klitschko can build a coalition to oppose the law, then perhaps he is ready for politics after all.