As Poland shines, Ukraine sinks. Yet both their trajectories can be changed

By Timothy Garton Ash

While the EU is right to react firmly to the show trial of Tymoshenko, it shouldn't see history as a reason to give up on Kiev.


In a welcome display of firmness, EU leaders this week disinvited the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from important meetings he was due to have in Brussels today. Anything less would have been a pathetically inadequate response to the outrageous, para-Putinesque conviction of Yanukovych's political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison, a £120m fine and a three-year ban from holding government office after the end of her jail term.

The disinvitation (or "postponement") raises the interesting question where Yanukovych will be today. Earlier this week, asked about his planned Brussels trip, he reportedly said "I will fly in that direction in any case on Thursday … I am not going begging to anyone. If I need to, I will fly farther." Farther? This delphic comment presumably refers to his planned onward trip to Cuba and Brazil. But perhaps, on his mental map, it also lands him in Moscow? The EU must not let itself be blackmailed by the implicit threat so often deployed in Kiev: "If you don't embrace us just as we are, we'll fall into bed with Russia". In fact, though the methods of politically instrumentalised justice are his own, Vladimir Putin is unhappy about the Tymoshenko conviction too. It's a corrupt gas deal with his Russia that she's ostensibly being imprisoned for. (Corrupt gas deal? With Russia? Whoever heard of such a thing.)

No one is more concerned about all this than Ukraine's western neighbour, Poland, which has been Ukraine's most consistent friend and advocate inside the EU. As a symbolic expression of this friendship, Poland and Ukraine will jointly host the Euro 2012 football championship. Warsaw has used its first ever tenure of the EU's rotating presidency to plead that the union's struggling eastern neighbours should not be entirely forgotten amid the torments of the eurozone and the excitements of the Arab spring.

It was partly through Warsaw that Yanukovych had been sending European leaders private messages of likely concessions on the Tymoshenko case – thus giving the lie to pious protestations about the independence of Ukrainian courts. The president's own party has been proposing parliamentary repeal or amendment of the law on economic crimes under which she was convicted. The Tymoshenko sentence was thus a political foul which makes Zinedine Zidane's notorious 2006 World Cup head butt look like the height of gentlemanly fair play.

> Ukraine Map

The contrast between the trajectories of these two neighbouring countries could not be sharper. While Ukraine was having its show trial, Poland was holding a parliamentary election more normal, tranquil – even boring – than many western European ones. It resulted in the return to office of a perfectly sensible, if chronically reform-shy, party of the moderate centre-right, the Civic Platform, in coalition with a small farmers' party whose leader is rarely seen without his iPad. The country's economy grew by 3.8% last year. Its government has so far handled the modest tasks of the EU rotating presidency with aplomb.

To fly to Warsaw these days is like travelling to Madrid or Rome, except that you are less likely to encounter angry anti-capitalist demonstrators and nervous riot police. The country still has its fair share of the paranoid style in politics: represented most recently by the conservative nationalist opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's farcical insinuation that Angela Merkel was somehow helped to the German chancellorship by a Stasi past. It still has more than its fair share of poverty, especially in the east and south-east, where Kaczynski's support is strongest. But the direction of travel is plain. By any reasonable measure, the history of Poland since its velvet revolution in 1989 is a great success story.

Compare and contrast Ukraine since its orange revolution in 2004. Having witnessed that inspiring moment at first hand, I hoped that Ukraine would play catch-up in democratic transition as it had in velvet revolution. So did many Poles; not to mention many Ukrainians. The hopes – ours and, much more important, theirs – have been dashed. Many individual Ukrainian lives have improved. In many ways, they are more free. But the political and economic system remains mired in corruption, thuggishness and inefficiency.

In Transparency International's 2010 corruption perceptions index, Ukraine ranks 134=, alongside Zimbabwe. (Poland comes in at 41, well ahead of Italy and Greece.) And, just to remind you, the president who has just tried to remove a political opponent by locking her up is the same man whose attempt to steal the 2004 presidential election sparked the orange revolution. (A popular joke at the time was that Yanukovych was seeking a third term – the first two having been prison terms for criminal offences in his youth.) But that's also because the victors of the orange revolution, including Tymoshenko, were great disappointments in government – and no angels either.

Why this horrible divergence between two countries, significant parts of which belonged to the same empires or states for long stretches of history? Some point to the different external setting: the much weaker pull of the EU and the stronger hand of Russia, especially in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east. Others single out economics – as if this could somehow be divorced from politics and law. Others again point to deep cultural factors. Treading in the footsteps of the late Samuel Huntington, these vulgar Huntingtonians suggest that Ukraine's eastern, Orthodox cultural legacy somehow condemns it to democratic failure, while Poland's western, Catholic heritage predestined it for democratic success.

There's a grain of truth in all these theories. The EU has been lukewarm in relation to Ukraine – and not a few old west European EU member states are privately quite happy to see Ukraine crassly disqualifying itself. Poland's vibrant private sector, helped by millions of Poles who have worked and studied in the west, has been a big asset in that country's transition. It is remarkable to see how the frontiers of long-dead empires re-emerge on the election maps of post-communist democracies, including Poland's most recent one. But neither geography nor economy nor culture make inevitable fate.

As the American politician and thinker Daniel Patrick Moynihan wonderfully observed: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Good politics, good constitutions and good courts can, given time and luck, change the course of rivers. Degraded, drunken, corrupt societies – such as Poland might have seemed to the casual visitor 40 years ago – can become modern, open, democratic ones. And the liberal wager is that Orthodox, Islamic and Asian societies can transform themselves too.

This is not just a thought for the philosophical observer; it's a policy lesson for the EU. In post-communist eastern Europe, Bill Clinton's aphorism must be varied. It's the politics, stupid. Politics and the rule of law. The Tymoshenko case matters because in it politics and law meet in precisely the wrong way. That is why the EU must not go soft on this one, as it tends to. And if President Yanukovych wants to fly even farther – to Kamchatka, say – we should wish him bon voyage.
The Guardian