Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Hostage Crisis

How one woman's fate is derailing Ukraine's European dream.

Homer sang of Helen of Troy, the woman whose "face launched a thousand ships." This week it's time to write, somewhat more modestly, of another woman -- a flamboyant politician by the name of Yulia Tymoshenko, who played a starring role in Ukraine's storied Orange Revolution a few years ago. Now her fate seems to be determining whether her country's 46 million people take a historic step closer to Europe or slide back into the embrace of the Kremlin.

Next week a group of high-ranking politicians from the European Union and Eastern Europe will be meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to decide on the prospects of several countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. The small republics of Moldova and Georgia both have good chances of signing agreements with the European Union that will open up paths to expanded trade and travel. That's because both countries have gone a long way toward demonstrating their respect for European values of tolerance, freedom, and the rule of law.

Moscow won't be happy to see these two countries orient themselves to the West -- especially Georgia, which occupies a strategically sensitive spot between Europe and resource-rich Central Asia. But Vladimir Putin and his friends in Moscow undoubtedly know that there's little they can really do to frustrate the European dreams of these smaller countries. Despite intense economic (and military) pressure from Russia, neither Georgia nor Moldova has shown much inclination to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, a rival bloc that embodies Putin's effort to revive the old USSR (and, along with it, Russia's dream of regional dominance).

But Georgia and Moldova, whose combined population is about the same as London's, aren't really the headliners at Vilnius. That role belongs to Ukraine, the giant stepchild of European politics. Ukraine, too, was also supposed to sign some far-reaching documents at next week's Vilnius summit. That's because its population of 46 million (about the same as Spain's) and its considerable human and natural resources make Ukraine a potentially attractive member of the European family. At the same time, though, Ukraine is a monumental mess -- to an extent that would make it hard to deal with even under normal circumstances.

And circumstances are far from normal. Ukraine is a country of myriad problems. Strictly speaking it's a democracy, since it does have regular competitive elections, a relative degree of media freedom, and a surprisingly vibrant civil society. Yet these pluses are more often than not obscured by entrenched corruption, the nefarious doings of organized crime groups and politically connected business tycoons, and the still-powerful security service, which traces its ancestry straight back to the old Soviet KGB. At the top of it all sits Viktor Yanukovych, an elected president who tends to act more like an entitled monarch.

Yanukovych never tires of repeating his desire to see Ukraine move closer to Europe. Yet he's probably done more than anyone else to complicate his country's progress toward that goal. Since he became president in 2010, Yanukovych has systematically undercut the rule of law. He's pressured the courts and the media, engaged in parliamentary strong-arm tactics, and exacerbated the country's oligarchic system by rewarding his cronies with vast economic privileges. Meanwhile, he's done almost nothing to dry out the morass of corruption.

Yanukovych doesn't necessarily see it that way, of course. He would argue that he's set a positive signal against sleaze by arresting several leading politicians on corruption charges. The problem is that the politicians in question also happen to be his main political opponents. One of them, Yulia Tymoshenko, is the leader of the Fatherland Party, the core of the opposition alliance that campaigned against Yanukovych in the presidential election three years ago and lost. Her fiery rhetoric and trademark wraparound braid (see photo above) have made her Ukraine's most recognizable political figure -- even despite the fact that she's been in jail since October 2011.

The European Union doesn't accept Yanukovych's argument that Tymoshenko simply ran afoul of the law. Brussels says that she's a victim of "selective justice," jailed less for her alleged abuses of power than for her role as the leader of the opposition. Few serious observers of Ukrainian politics would probably disagree with that (though those who know Ukraine well wonder whether she's entirely above reproach, given her past high-ranking position in the notoriously corrupt natural gas sector and her considerable personal wealth).

The EU has made Ukraine's invitation to sign the two documents on offer at Vilnius -- a mainly political "Association Agreement" as well as a "deep and comprehensive" agreement on trade -- conditional on Tymoshenko's release (preferably under the guise of allowing her to travel to the West for medical treatment). Some EU governments insist that she should be granted a full-blown pardon, which Yanukovych has persistently refused to grant, since that might allow her a political comeback that could threaten his own hold on power. Given the enormous focus on her role, it's small wonder that many observers (including Tymoshenko herself) have referred to her as a "hostage."

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian parliament deliberated over a proposed law that would have allowed for Tymoshenko, who's suffered from ill health during her imprisonment, to seek medical treatment abroad. The deputies voted "no" -- effectively quashing a compromise that would have allowed Ukraine to sign the agreement in Vilnius. No one should have any doubts that the lawmakers who scotched the bill were following the preferences of their president. Yanukovych's Party of Regions dominates parliament, and its members uniformly voted for keeping Tymoshenko in jail. EU emissary, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski thereupon announced that the deal was off. The Ukrainian parliament has thus effectively derailed Ukraine from its European track.

This is a tragedy. There's no question that Ukraine's citizens would be better off by embracing the EU -- which is probably why a majority of Ukrainians favor closer ties with Europe. About as much of Ukraine's trade now goes to Europe as it does to Russia. Every Ukrainian government for the past 15 years has made closer ties with Europe a priority. All this demonstrates that many Ukrainians understand that having incentives to live up to EU norms can only improve governance and reduce corruption at home.

Russia's reaction to this mess is noteworthy. Since the Ukrainian parliamentary vote Putin has accused the European Union of "pressuring" and "blackmailing" the Ukrainians with its demands. This is a cynical inversion of the actual state of affairs. If anything, Europe has "pressured" Ukraine merely to live up to the high standards of European law.

The Russians, by contrast, have made no secret of their willingness to hit Ukraine with every sanction they can muster in the event that Kiev should sign the Vilnius agreement. Echoing similar actions against other countries that seeking intensifed relations with Europe, Moscow has imposed a harsh customs regime on Ukrainian imports that could cost Kiev as much as $2.5 billion in losses by the end of the year. A Russian minister has spoken openly of supporting separatists in the Russian-majority eastern provinces of Ukraine. Russian operatives have organized a campaign that claims that closer EU ties will bring same-sex marriage to Ukraine, a policy opposed by a majority of Ukrainians. Yanukovych has held at least three closed-door meetings with Putin in recent weeks, which have put a notable damper on the Ukrainian president's pro-Europe zeal. (Among other things Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, which Moscow has used in the past as a lever for enforcing its will. One can only imagine that Putin made a point of wielding that threat again.)

Given such pressure, Ukraine might have found other excuses for not signing the deal in Vilnius. Yet it's the Tymoshenko issue that has given Europe's opponents in Kiev a perfect excuse for sabotaging the agreement. Europe's leaders certainly deserve praise for demonstrating their high standards of adherence to human rights by elevating Tymoshenko's cause to such prominence. But has turning her case into a deal-breaker really helped the ideals such advocacy was designed to advance? If Ukraine slips back into Russia's embrace as a result, 46 million people who might have otherwise seen a notable improvement in governance and human rights will find their hopes betrayed. (This is precisely why Tymoshenko herself has said that her cause should not be used to thwart closer ties with Europe.)

And yes, I know. The likelihood that Ukraine will actually join the EU -- particularly at a time when Europeans are still struggling to overcome their own economic malaise -- is small. Skeptics point out that Turkey, another big European aspirant with imperfect democratic institutions, signed its own Association Agreement back in 1963, and its membership has yet to materialize.

Yet the case of Turkey also demonstrates how taking the desire to join Europe seriously can prove beneficial in itself. Over the past few years Turkey has done a great deal to make its economy Europe-compatible, fueling dramatic growth, and has taken enormous steps to reform governance, reducing corruption and promoting the rule of law. No one would argue that the situation in Turkey is flawless -- but compare it to where the country was 10 years ago and it's very hard to make a case for a return to the past.

Ukraine deserves a similar chance. Contrary to a lot of the reporting this week, Kiev's decision doesn't mean an end to Ukraine's European prospects. There will still be options for helping Ukraine to move in the direction that's really conducive to its interests. The West needs to do everything it can to make that happen.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Does the World Need a Vatican Spring?

Pope Francis wants to reform the church. But does that mean giving believers a vote?

Pope Francis has been a busy man. Ever since his election as Bishop of Rome eight months ago, he has single-handedly managed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church. He has eschewed the sartorial splendor and lavish residence of his predecessors. He has demonstratively washed the feet of prisoners (including women, Roma, and Muslims) -- a moving spectacle that attests to his devotion to the downtrodden of the world (and also offended some traditionalists). In one of his most moving gestures, he embraced and kissed a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.

At the same time, he's made it clear that he's not going to leave it at symbolism. He has chided the church establishment for being "obsessed" with sexual politics to the detriment of its central mission of proclaiming the gospel. He has  called for a new "missionary spirit" and decried "obsolete structures." He has pushed for a law aimed to bring financial transparency to the Vatican and has set up a commission tasked with offering proposals for church reform. (Significantly, only one of the eight cardinals chosen for the group was from the Curia, the church's administrative heart -- and the home of many of its most entrenched interests.) All this makes perfect sense for a man who looked to one of the church's greatest reformers for his regnal name.

But it's Pope Francis's latest initiative that has the greatest potential to shake up one of the world's oldest institutions. Within the past few weeks the Vatican has begun dispatching a questionnaire to parishes around the world to ask Catholics about their views on family life and sexuality in preparation for a landmark synod (a church-wide conference) on those issues next year. It's the first time that any Pope has done such a thing.

It's certainly not a move that's calculated to soothe traditionalists. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for one, doesn't seem especially keen on distributing the survey to parishioners, and hasn't moved to post the document to its website -- in notable contrast to their British counterparts.)

For the church's many critics, of course, such a move is long overdue. Shortly before Pope Francis ascended to the throne, the liberal German theologian Hans Küng wrote an article in the New York Times calling for a "Vatican Spring." For Küng, the contemporary church is an "absolute monarchy" just like Saudi Arabia, the result of changes a millennium or so ago that bequeathed to Catholicism a "centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism, and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy." It's this underlying lack of opportunities for participation that has alienated believers (especially women and young people), Küng believes, leaving the church in dire need of top-to-bottom renovation: "Behind the facade," he wrote, "the whole house is crumbling."

There's no question that the arrival of Pope Francis has coincided with one of the greatest crises in the modern history of the church. The long-running sexual abuse scandal, the revelations of financial shenanigans at the highest level, and the stunning resignation of Benedict XVI, Francis's hapless predecessor, had stained the reputation of the church and left Catholics around the world deeply demoralized. "The Vatican needs purgation at the top, to enable real renewal from below," wrote Ross Douthat, also in the New York Times, shortly after Francis's election. Douthat is a conservative Catholic, one whose views ultimately diverge quite starkly from Küng's. But that gives you an idea of how pervasive the sense of the need for change has become.

Is greater democracy the answer? There are those who certainly believe so. They point to the vast gap between church teachings and the views of many believers. Recent polls show, for example, that 76 percent of Catholics in the United States believe that the church should permit birth control, while around half of them approve of same-sex marriage. Unless the church leadership becomes more responsive to such views, argue reformists, the current exodus of believers is likely to continue. To bolster their case, they argue that the early church -- precisely the church of Peter and Paul, in the first decades after the crucifixion of Jesus -- was a decidedly un-hierarchical affair, an institution where believers essentially governed themselves and ironed out their own doctrinal and political differences.

Others respond that such views are simplistic. The modern church encompasses 2,000 years of tradition and embraces 1.2 billion believers around the world. Those Catholics represent a vast range of languages, cultures, and political views. Yet they all profess a common faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of humankind -- a transcendent vision that you either believe or you don't. That's not really a matter of governance or political philosophy. The job of the church is to maintain this essential unity of the faith while accounting for the pastoral needs of its diverse membership.

And that's always going to be a challenge. "I think for the vast majority of Catholics there's no serious problem with the fact that it's not a democracy," says Leslie Tentler, a history professor at the Catholic University of America. "It just isn't. I think what people really resent, though, is that no one listens to people's experiences, people's values, people's doubts when it comes to aspects of the Church's teachings that do bear on their lives quite immediately."

What this should remind us is that it's problematic to treat the church as if it's just another political organization. It's not. It's a community of faith -- and that means that the things that are most essential about it ultimately don't depend on poll results. "The church is the ongoing ministry of Christ in the world," says Michael Sean Winters, a commentator with National Catholic Reporter newspaper. "When we say someone is a good pope or a bad pope, we mean that he's someone who would've been a good friend of Jesus when he walked on the earth. And that's not up to a vote."

Winters applauds the pope's move towards greater consultation as exemplified by the new survey -- a practice, Winters says, that is already well-established in the Latin American church. (Francis was a cardinal in Argentina before he ascended to the papal throne.) But Winters cautions that no one should be expecting Francis to change fundamental church teachings -- that, he says, just isn't in the cards.

What the new pope is trying to do instead is to move away from the political and ideological squabbles that those teachings have sometimes inspired in the past and to re-focus on the church's core mission of proclaiming the "good news" of Christ -- as the pope has tried to do with his public demonstration of love for the poor and the deprived. And that, says Winters, is what the papacy should be about: "There is Peter -- healing the world."

I'm not a Catholic, and I don't agree with all of the church's positions. But I'm glad that it exists. We live today in a world that's often degraded by greed, waste, and reckless consumption. We all too often demonstrate our contempt for outsiders, the weak, the poor. So I'm glad that there's someone out there who's prepared to offer a fundamental spiritual critique of our mores -- so that we don't have to leave it to the bankers, reality TV stars, or posturing politicians. A reinvigorated Catholic Church, confident in its own sublime mission but tolerant and inclusive, could serve as a powerful force for good in the world. So I wish Francis well. Let's hope he can pull it off.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images