The European Union is poised to determine its future policy toward Ukraine. The opposition in the country, meanwhile, has called on the EU to sign a frozen association treaty and impose sanctions on the government.
A year ago, the head of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, declared that parliamentary elections in Ukraine, slated for October 2012, would be a litmus test for the country's democracy. It now appears as if the government in Kyiv has failed that test.
Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized last month's ballot as unfair. The incumbent Party of the Regions emerged as the strongest force in parliament after receiving around 30 percent of the vote through party lists. The opposition also did well. But the leading opposition figure, Yulia Tymoshenko, could not participate in the election because she still languishes in prison.
After the polls closed, it took around two weeks before the preliminary results were announced. Special police forces were deployed in many of the direct mandate districts. The opposition spoke of attempts at fraud, and a deputy chief of the central election commission slammed the parliamentary vote as "the worst in the history of independent Ukraine." In turn, the European Union has expressed growing concern about the situation in its eastern neighbor.
Merkel opposed to EU rapprochement
Against this backdrop, Brussels now has to decide the future course of its policies toward Ukraine. The main issue is the status of a stalled association treaty, which also foresees a free trade zone with Ukraine. The EU froze the association treaty a year ago, claiming that Ukraine faced a democratic deficit under the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych. The West has criticized the Ukrainian president's governing style as increasingly authoritarian.
Yanukovych says he would like to sign the association treaty with the EU, despite the cool relations between Brussels and Kyiv. The opposition and Tymoshenko have also asked Brussels to take this step. But this seems unrealistic at the moment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has clearly come out against signing the association treaty with Ukraine.
"The requirements for the treaty to be signed currently do not exist," the chancellor said during a meeting with her Polish President Donald Tusk last week in Berlin. Tusk, however, was more optimistic than Merkel, saying he hoped the treaty with Poland's neighbor would be signed by the end of 2013.
Many experts think the treaty should be adopted sooner rather than later. According to Ukraine expert, Stefan Meister, the EU should go ahead and sign the association treaty with Ukraine even though Tymoshenko is still in prison. That would give Brussels more influence over Kyiv, argues Meister, who works at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Just six months ago, Merkel compared Ukraine with Belarus. In both countries, people are suffering under "dictatorship and repression," the chancellor declared in a government statement. Merkel made her comments at the time the imprisoned Tymoshenko was on a hunger strike. Until just a few days ago, Tymoshenko had been on another hunger strike to protest against the results of the parliamentary elections.
The disputed vote brought Ukraine a step closer to "Belarusian conditions," in the view of many experts in Kyiv. The opposition is now demanding sanctions against the government similar to those the EU has imposed against Belarus. Tymoshenko, for example, is calling for a travel ban and bank account freezes to be imposed against leading Ukrainian government figures.
Many Ukraine experts would welcome such measures. Dmytro Schulha, the director of the Europe Program with the Renaissance Institute in Kyiv, has suggested linking travel bans to individuals accused of participating in electoral fraud.
"Sanctions against individual officials, members of the electoral commission, or other representatives would send a clear message to society and the political elite," Schulha told DW.
A Brussels' 'Plan B'
Andreas Umland and Irina Solonenko have suggested yet another option. The German expert on Eastern Europe at the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv and the Ukrainian journalist used the weekly newspaper, Dserkalo Tychnya, to introduce their 'Plan B' for Brussels.
In their eight point catalog, one suggestion for Brussels is to come up with a list of conditions that Ukraine has to meet prior to signing the association treaty. This list mentions issues that have drawn much criticism over the past several years, such as Ukraine's politically-motivated judiciary, or its curbing of press freedoms.
In addition, the authors advocate the signing of more association treaties between the EU and other former Soviet republics, such as Moldova and Georgia - possibly even before doing so with Ukraine. They reason that this would increase pressure on the Ukraine government, both at home and abroad.
Ultimately, the EU should offer a clear perspective to these countries for joining the bloc, the experts argue, making it obvious to Ukraine that it, too, would have this option.
But this last point, at the moment, seems rather unrealistic. Recently, the EU has demonstrated little interest in expansion; on the contrary, the voices calling for an end to expansion are getting louder.