Since late November, when Ukraine’s president, Victor Yanukovych, refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, protesters have congregated in downtown Kiev.
They are defying what they see as a blatant attempt to maintain a post-Soviet world order in a country aspiring to the European system based on the rule of law and respect for citizens. While the protesters have braved frigid temperatures and attacks by government riot police, no credible opposition candidate appears capable of harnessing the protestors’ outrage to negotiate on their behalf. To the southwest, in Bulgaria, protests are now entering their seventh month. Sparked by a controversial cabinet nomination but now largely focused on rampant corruption and poor governance, the protestors are voicing their frustration with a political class they see as rapacious, venal, and uninterested in resolving serious issues such as widespread poverty, wage stagnation, and rising unemployment.
And while the protesters’ calls for greater transparency and an end to the kleptocratic rule of successive governments in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, institutionalized since the fall of the Berlin Wall, no unifying figure has emerged around which the protestors have been able to coalesce. Similarly to Ukraine, the movement for political change, however extensive it may be within the country, has stalled, leading protestors in both countries with little recourse but to shout their demands at an increasingly deaf leadership who will not heed their cries for new elections.
In Ukraine, it does not appear that any of the main opposition leaders has what it takes to obtain the protestors’ backing. The first, Arseny Yatseniuk, who leads the center-right party of Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and former prime minister imprisoned by Mr. Yanukovych, lacks charisma to appeal to a broad swathe of protesters. Neither Vitaly Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion, nor Oleh Tyagnibok, an ultranationalist whose political party has faced accusations of racism and extremism, have engendered a great deal of excitement. Moreover, none of the three figures saw the protests coming, and each lacks a clear message or strategy on how to move forward. Ms. Tymoshenko may be the only figure capable of rallying the masses, but her release seems unlikely.
Adding to the protestors’ grief, the government recently survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence on December 3rd, and Mr. Yanukovych, while in Moscow on December 17th, cut a deal with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, under which Ukraine would receive a steep discount on the price of natural gas and $15 billion in loans. This move ensures that Ukraine will remain firmly planted in Russia’s sphere of influence and provides Mr. Yanukovych with an economic lifeline that will allow him to avoid negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which had made clear its economic assistance was contingent upon significant adjustments to the economy, government, and judiciary; changes which would have curbed the oligarchic status-quo under which Mr. Yanukovych has thrived since the fall of communism.
Mr. Putin’s largesse also provides Mr. Yanukovych with the money needed to pay for pensions and other social services in the run-up to presidential elections due to be held in early 2015. Opposition leaders are unable to offer counter incentives to compete with Mr. Putin’s promise, leaving them with little else to do but make one pro-European speech after another to dwindling crowds.
If Ukraine’s opposition is left wanting, Bulgaria’s is nonexistent. Although demonstrations continue daily in Sofia, where students have led protests in front of parliament and staged sit-ins at other institutions, the protestors’ demands vary. One faction occupying Sofia University, Bulgaria’s most prestigious academic institution, holds daily workshops to discuss their shared vision for the country, identifying ways to foster an entirely new political environment with morals, transparency and responsibility. Another group of protesters, voicing their frustration largely on the streets, seems to have little appetite for such abstract discussions, channeling their anger instead on the day-to-day struggles of poverty and vanishing public services. A credible opposition figure or political party capable of bridging this gulf seems unlikely to emerge, and the government has not yet granted any concession to the protestors.
Increasingly worried about growing antagonism across much of Europe concerning the future of the European Union (EU), Brussels should be encouraged by events in Ukraine and Bulgaria. But however inspiring the events in Sofia and Kiev may be, EU leaders must surely recognize that merely being a member country, as Bulgaria has been since 2007, does not guarantee corrupt leaders and oligarchs will cease to exist or that weak institutions will suddenly be made strong. Indeed, the current protests taking place in Bulgaria may foreshadow future political developments in Ukraine should the country become a member of the EU during the next decade. And as events in Bulgaria illustrate, the hard work of developing inclusive political institutions and uncorrupt opposition parties should begin before accession to the EU, not after.
Leaders in Brussels would therefore be wise to acknowledge the dearth of viable political options in countries struggling on its periphery to become part of the EU, as well as in member states who have been unable to escape their communist past, and redouble their efforts to develop credible political alternatives that reflect citizens’ growing demands for more accountable and transparent leadership.
This article was originally posted in Foreign Policy Blogs.