Twenty years ago today, Ukraine’s citizens ratified their country’s independence in a nationwide referendum, thereby ushering in the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and launching their tortuous march toward a market economy, democracy and sovereignty.
Two decades later, the aims and expectations of Ukraine’s citizens have not been met. The country today lacks an independent judiciary to enforce the rule of law. Its economy is distorted by corruption, and its sovereignty is threatened by a weak economy and extreme energy dependence on neighboring Russia.

Yet it is precisely because Ukraine has completed only part of its march to democracy that thoughtful American and European diplomacy and engagement can help Ukraine complete its transition. One such opportunity will come on Dec. 19, when the European Union is due to hold a summit in Kiev. It had been expected that the summit would be an opportunity for the EU to sign a far-reaching association agreement with Ukraine that includes a “deep and comprehensive free trade agreement.”

Now that hope is under threat, in large measure because of the Oct. 11 jailing of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for “criminal abuse” of office. Though Poland, which holds the EU presidency, wants to proceed with an agreement, Brussels is preparing to put off signing the agreement, arguing that more time is needed to review the final text. Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for enlargement, told reporters on Oct. 22 that the EU was “disappointed” by the Tymoshenko verdict and declared that “there are certain conditions the EU and its member countries consider essential in order that we could make this last step in signing the agreement.”

Such an approach may be to the benefit of Brussels bureaucrats, who can boast of upholding human rights in the wake of the Tymoshenko verdict. But a decision to postpone the agreement would be a serious miscalculation for a variety of reasons.

By demanding that Ms. Tymoshenko be released before any agreement is signed, Brussels is turning Ms. Tymoshenko’s case into a political bargaining chip. If President Viktor Yanukovych satisfies Europe’s call for Ms. Tymoshenko’s release, he will be seen as horse-trading rather than truly remedying a flawed judicial process.

Since its independence, Ukraine has been a frequent subject of Western pressure. But far from working to remedy democratic deficiencies, such pressure has more often hindered or even reversed the process of reform. In the early 1990s, Ukraine was denied economic and technical assistance with its post-Soviet transition until it agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal. Though the country did eventually surrender its weapons, the absence of sound policy advice for the new Ukrainian state led to crippling hyperinflation and steep economic decline.

Similarly, in the early 2000s, President Leonid Kuchma became an international pariah for his alleged links to the death of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. As a result, Ukraine temporarily drifted closer to Russia’s orbit, with numerous pro-Western ministers and government personnel dismissed as a result of increased Russian influence over Ukrainian policy.

Yet when Ukraine’s citizens demonstrated their commitment to democratic values through the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Western response in terms of aid and assistance to the country was feeble. Little wonder that Ukraine’s leaders and citizens feel they are the whipping boys of the West.

It is important that this impression be combatted. Ms. Tymoshenko herself has called on Europe to sign the association agreement. She understands that a Ukraine that is linked more closely to the EU is more likely to make progress toward greater democracy than a Ukraine isolated and subject to Russian pressure.

While President Yanukovych deserves criticism for some regression in democratic practices and human rights, he is hardly building an authoritarian state. Ms. Tymoshenko’s wrong-headed prosecution has obscured the significant record of progress under Mr. Yanukovych: deep reductions in the size of government, lowered tax rates for big business and small entrepreneurs, reduced government subsidies for energy and the extensive prosecution of current government officials on corruption charges.

Democracy, too, Ukraine has made progress under Mr. Yanukovych. Major opposition parties recently reached a compromise with Mr. Yanukovych’s party on a new election law that gives opposition forces significant rights to monitor vote counting in local election districts. According to opposition leaders I recently met in Kiev, the law, though flawed, establishes a basis for a competitive parliamentary election next November.

Ukraine is on the path to becoming a vibrant market democracy. Its citizens are highly mobilized, its civil society well-developed and its media open to a broad spectrum of opinion. Any attempt, by Mr. Yanukovych or others, to establish an authoritarian state would require mass repression and would likely end in failure.

But Ukraine’s path toward reform can be significantly accelerated if Brussels and Washington adopt pragmatic policies that do not press Ukraine’s leaders, but rather create space for them to make the right decisions.

Should Mr. Yanukovych fail to answer a positive EU gesture on Dec. 19 by addressing the case of Ms. Tymoshenko and other jailed opposition leaders, the EU will have ample opportunity to voice its displeasure by recommending that its parliaments not move forward to ratify an association agreement. But signing the association agreement has to be the first step.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and coordinator of its Ukraine-North America Dialogue. This essay was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

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