THE BLOG

Rescuing Ukraine's Tarnished Image

11/11/2013 05:17 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:56 EST

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An elderly Ukrainian woman waiting patiently to cast her ballot in last year's Parliamentary elections. Credit: Michael Bociurkiw

Just a few short weeks ago, a privately-funded PR caravan reached London to promote the rich culture and history of Ukraine. The charm offense, called Days of Ukraine, was funded by Ukrainian gas-trading billionaire Dmitry Firtash, through his Firtash Foundation.

It could be that the timing of the road show, coming just weeks before Ukraine is to be graded for graduation to the next step towards EU integration, is more than coincidental.

Painting a happy face onto Ukraine's tarnished image and having the nation's president magnanimously hint that a jailed opposition leader will be allowed to leave for medical treatment to the West seems just what sage PR advisers would prescribe on the eve of the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in November.

Even if the Days of Ukraine initiative had nothing to do with political motives, it is encouraging to see the private sector pitching in where the government has miserably failed. However, it is a well-known practice among Ukrainian billionaires to curry favour with the Government of President Viktor Yanukovych by lavishing millions on officially-sanctioned projects. Moreover it is in the oligarchs' interest to do everything in their power to prevent Ukraine being sidelined so badly that it has visa controls and other sanctions imposed on it by the EU. In fact, Firtash has been flirting with the West for quite some time: in 2010 alone he donated $6.7 million to Cambridge University.

Says Andy Hunder, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London:

"Sadly, Ukraine's current image isn't great -- many top-of-mind perceptions of Ukraine in the UK include: brawls in parliament, political opponents in jail, a presidential candidate being mysteriously poisoned, oligarchs, corruption, a botched orange revolution and stunningly beautiful girls, some of who flash their naked breasts in public in feminist protest movements. Much needs to be done to rectify this image."

Another oligarch who has spent millions to promote Ukraine and attract the global cognoscenti (such as Bill Clinton and Dominique Strauss-Kahn) is Victor Pinchuk, son-in-law of the former president of Ukraine, who since 2004 had been hosting his annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in the ornate Livadia Palace in Yalta. The stated aim of the annual parley is to "discuss and look for new ideas and views on paths to European, Ukrainian and global development." Aside from a Ukraine lunch at the annual Davos summit, Pinchuk has reportedly been donating millions to the Clinton Foundation.

Although the intention of these initiatives breeds some skepticism, it's fair to say that anything that helps boost the image of this pariah state is a welcome exercise. It is no exaggeration to say that, under the corrupt leadership of Yanukovych, Ukraine's stature in the world has plummeted to new lows.

As its much smaller and poorer neighbour, Moldova, looks forward to the Eastern Partnership summit, where it is likely to be offered an Association Agreement, Ukraine stands no such chance.

One major obstacle is the continued imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, The charismatic, two-time former prime minister was jailed for seven years in 2011 for abuse of office after a trial which Western governments and rights groups say was politically motivated.

While the fashion shows, art exhibits, lavish banquets and such in London pastes a welcome friendly and sophisticated shellac on Ukraine's brand, the political shenanigans back home continue to disgust even the most hardened European diplomats. Probably what has not helped are homophobic posters on Kyiv city streets that imply EU membership would open the door to gay marriages in Ukraine.

Take last year's Parliamentary elections, which observer groups branded as unfair and tainted by media bias.

"The 28 October parliamentary elections were characterized by the lack of a level playing field caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing and lack of balanced media coverage," the OSCE observer mission said in a report last October.

The election process was so bungled that lawmakers had to order a partial re-run, scheduled for Dec 15 in five problematic constituencies.

And as the presidential administration gears up for elections next year, observers say there will be a no-holds-barred attempt to keep Yanukovych in power. Even well before the 2012 elections, sophisticated gerrymandering and a brazen manipulation of laws and the media has taken place well before election observers had arrived. Media freedoms have been eroded to such an extent that experts say there will be no free television outlets by this time next year.

To be sure, the diplomatic mess Ukraine currently finds itself cannot be solely blamed on Yanukovych. The country is still reeling from the unfulfilled promise of the Orange Revolution, led by the charismatic, former central banker, Viktor Yuschenko. When he took office in January 2005, swept to power by an unprecedented tsunami of popular support, including from the West, the world was Ukraine's oyster. Now - that era is a terribly painful and regrettable memory, sullied by incompetence, political infighting and allegations of corruption.

Ukraine has been described by some diplomats as a kleptocracy under both men, and Ernst & Young last year put this country the size of France among the three most corrupted nations of the world together with Colombia and Brazil. (And just on Nov. 8, Fitch downgraded Ukraine to 'B-' -a negative development by any standard.

This puts the country a step closer to financial collapse - the the point where even loyal. deep-pocketed oligarchs may not be able to help save the country's image.

In these next few days, lenders and observers alike will be watching closely to see if Yanukovych can summon the political will to meet financial obligations, meet strict EU requirements for closer integration - and bring badly-overdue reforms.

As the opening verse of the somber Ukrainian national anthem goes - "Ukraine hasn't died yet."

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A poster currently displayed in Kyiv suggesting that EU membership will open the door to gay marriages in Ukraine.