There's no love lost between Europe and Ukraine's ruling regime -- or certainly between the Western press and Kiev. Indeed, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who unseated the pro-Western leaders of the Orange Revolution, is commonly depicted outside his country as an oppressive and reflexively pro-Russian figure. But while there's certainly something to this unflattering characterization, there's a bit more to the man -- and a lot more happening in Ukraine than the authoritarian picture most commentators paint.
It's certainly true that democracy in Ukraine is now under severe pressure. My conversations with Ukrainian civic leaders and investigative journalists during a visit last month left little doubt that they feel squeezed. The government gives them significantly less leeway to probe hot-button issues such as pervasive corruption than they had under the previous administration. Journalists who run afoul of the government often get called in for "chats" with the authorities, and their organizations are subjected to audits and inspections that hinder their work. What's worse, in the long term, there is no countervailing force to check Yanukovich and company should they decide to become even more undemocratic.
The 2012 parliamentary elections will be an important test of Yanukovich's willingness to adhere to democratic norms. Civic leaders worry that the government will game the outcome by instituting election rules that favor the ruling party and by packing the election committees with party loyalists. The opposition is on the defensive: Divided and demoralized, it has little popular appeal. The trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is also widely seen as politically motivated and based on flimsy evidence, though there is little sign that the opposition will be able to transform it into an issue that mobilizes public protests.
Still, Ukraine continues to have a lively press and a plethora of civic organizations. And there's an incongruent combination in the public sphere: Apathy abounds, but polls reveal that 45 percent of the citizenry is willing to join street demonstrations. So Ukrainian democracy, while under duress, is by no means demolished.
There's no doubt the president and his Party of Regions, which enjoys a stronghold in Ukraine's Russophone east, have worked to reverse what they considered the gratuitous anti-Russian stance of the previous president, Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich's cabinet contains vociferously pro-Russian individuals, the school curriculum is being revised to de-emphasize the Orange Revolution, and official foreign-policy pronouncements are invariably positive toward Russia. Yanukovich also made it clear that Ukraine would not join NATO -- a concession he made flat-out, without seeking anything in exchange.
Perhaps most controversially, within two months of his inauguration, Yanukovich signed the Kharkiv Agreement with Moscow, which extended Russia's Black Sea Fleet's lease on the base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol by 25 years, with an additional five-year option.
Yanukovich's decision to ink the deal wasn't simply a sign of submission to his powerful eastern neighbor. He did so in exchange for a favorable deal on Russian gas, which seemed at the time as if it could shave $3 billion off its gas import bill. (Alas, the deal may not have been all that he hoped for: Ukraine, which abuts Russia and buys more Russian gas than any European country -- almost 40 billion cubic meters, about two-thirds of its consumption -- still pays more than European importers do.)
There's another part of Ukraine's foreign policy, meanwhile, and it doesn't get covered as much. Ukraine's current leaders, despite their authoritarian bent and Moscow's clear opposition, are in negotiations with the European Union on an accord called the "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" (DCFTA). (Yes, it's an ungainly moniker, but we're talking about the EU bureaucracy, after all.)
The DCFTA tends to be mislabeled as a plan to phase out tariffs in EU-Ukraine trade. It is actually about much more. Aside from trade liberalization, it envisages regulatory convergence on a raft of issues, ranging from the environment and energy policy to intellectual property rights. It also includes benchmarks on democracy and good governance.