27 Jan 2014

How the EU Can and Should Help Ukrainian Civil Society

John Stuart Mill once remarked that inaction can cause as much harm as action, and in either instance the perpetrator is justifiably accountable. Reflecting on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, his words aptly describe the impact of a complete lack of action on the part of the EU with regards to the Euromaidan protests. The demonstrations, which started in November of last year, began as a very peaceful public display of will for closer European integration.

Although Ukrainian civil society has been actively protesting for almost three months, Ukrainian political elites have chosen to ignore the protestors and instead opted last week for making the very act of protesting virtually illegal. Unauthorized tents, wearing a helmet at a protest, independent media activities, group violation of public order, collecting information about a judge or police officer and possibly just using the internet, depending on who you are of course, are now offenses punishable by fine or imprisonment. (An ERCAS partner organisation, CHESNO has published an infographic explaining the new regulations.)

In response, the once peaceful demonstrations have turned ugly, with protestors and riot police clashing violently, resulting in the first Euromaidan deaths. The US response was decisive, with the Embassy issuing visa bans for selected authorities and those involved in violence against protesters. Canada has also publicly stated it will not rule out sanctions. The World Economic Forum has also recently rescinded an invitation it had extended to Ukraine’s Prime Minister Azarov to speak.

What should the EU do to help Ukrainian civil society?

Since reports of violence toward protestors first emerged in December, however, the EU has responded with statements condemning the violence, but failed to take more decisive legislative action. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stated that sanctions “are not the order of the day” but did recall the Ukrainian ambassador after the recent wave of violence. As the protests become more and more violent, calls by civil society groups for Europe to take a more active and influential role by enacting targeted sanctions (visa bans and freezing assets) against Ukrainian leaders is now reaching fever-pitch.

Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich and his son Alexander are both accused by civil society of squirrelling away ill-begotten funds in overseas bank accounts. President Yanucovich’s assets have ballooned since taking office, thanks to several mysterious and lucrative real-estate deals, and Alexander’s assets have swelled from around $7 million to a staggering $510 million since his father was elected.

The Anti-Corruption Action Centre, a prominent Ukrainian civil society group, started a separate website to amplify the cause and petition European, EU and US leaders. At yanukovich.info, the group states:

“We believe that the authoritarian regime of President Viktor Yanukovich has been fueled by proceeds of corruption laundered via the international financial system through the network of shell-companies and professional intermediaries.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed all members of the parliament who voted for repressive laws and all those involved in violence could become the subject of such targeted measures. A special initiative, For Accountability, includes updated lists of people involved in the repression of peaceful protests, the violation of human rights, or the criminalisation of power in Ukraine.

In both the US and the EU, legal framework for seizing assets is already in place; all that is required now is the political will to use it. Financial institutions are in fact required to review the source of assets for Politically Exposed People, and freeze accounts if the source is illegal.

There is also a precedent for such action: the EU blacklisted 600 of Slobodan Milosevic’s supporters, including his wife and Swiss banks froze 57 million pounds in assets.  More recently, the EU issued travel bans for individuals responsible for violence against Belarusian civil society.

The EU could also provide for an immediate institutional response.  According to Jim Greene, Ukraine expert and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Statecraft (UK), the EU could ‘appoint somebody to investigate/coordinate responses to the nexus between the criminalisation of power in Ukraine and EU jurisdictions’.

Although many argue that the use of sanctions might be counter-productive, this is not true in every case, and may not be true for the Ukraine. Domestic pressure from Ukrainian society appears to be quite strong in support of targeted sanctions, and clientelistic networks that sustain the regime might fall apart once affected by such targeted measures. Above all, it is a good opportunity for the EU to show that it is capable of protecting its values inside its territory before the cost of inaction becomes even higher.