DAVOS, Switzerland – Having been invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos as a global shaper to represent Ukraine in 2012, I discovered for myself how irrelevant my country is for anything discussed at the forum of the world’s elite.
The annual Davos meeting is all about looking into the future: manipulating human genetics, biotechnology, driverless cars, online education, cyber security, new forms of energy, digital mapping of carbon dioxide emissions and air quality, etc. Ukraine is not known for any of those innovations. Instead, it is known for its fascinating mix of corruption, crime and politics, which keeps it in the past.
This last week at Davos the most frequent question I was asked about Ukraine was whether imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko ordered to kill someone and whether she will end her life in prison.
Davos is not that much about nation-states and sovereign interests. In fact, Davos culture is defined by global elites who have little need for national loyalty. They view national boundaries as obstacles to doing business, spreading innovation or improving the human condition.
Although globalists dominate the scene, the share of leaders representing their nations is still significant. You see countries competing for attention both at the forum and its sidelines: you have Korea night, Japan night, Chinese and Azerbaijani receptions or even a Russia pavilion hosting events like the Leningrad concert.
Ukraine was represented by Viktor Pinchuk’s eponymous foundation that traditionally organizes two lunchtime events on the sidelines.
One event is usually based on a trendy topic and buzzwords likely to attract the Davos crowd, like “e-philanthropy” or “online education,” which have nothing to do with Ukraine but promote Pinchuk’s global aspirations. The other event is an update on Ukrainian politics for those interested.
This time, Pinchuk invited impressive guests, like Bill Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, MIT President Rafael Reif, and American venture capitalist Pieter Tielto to talk about how websites like Coursera (www.coursera.org) and Udacity (www.udacity.com) are changing education around the globe. The discussion was moderated by none other than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and centered on a 12-year old girl from Pakistan and her experience with online courses.
Since most of the panelists were from the United States the conversation revolved around problems of American higher education, like how to justify high tuition costs if everyone has access to free online knowledge.
A broader context for the discussion at the supposedly Ukrainian forum was missing entirely. Will access to e-courses offered by American Ivy League universities help young Ukrainian students transform their nation’s higher education and become more integrated with the global pool of knowledge? If so, how can the process be facilitated?
The second event, titled “Ukraine: East or West – The Wrong Dilemma?” which focused on Ukrainian politics, had a less international audience. Mostly it was attended by Ukrainians or friends of Ukraine, like Javier Solana, the European Union’s former foreign policy head, or Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland’s former president and board member of Pinchuk’s Yalta European Strategy conference.
The events not only differed by the global vs. local focus, but had a different atmosphere altogether, as Ukrainian guests are typically arrogant and self-important, especially when compared to those Westerners who spoke about online education the day before.
Pinchuk opened the discussion by saying that the question whether Ukraine should move East or West is irrelevant to him: “Ukraine: East or West? It is like Ukrainian lunch: borshch or cabbage rolls, first or second course? We want to eat both!”
According to Pinchuk, Ukraine can have both - special relations with Russia and integration with the EU. This was the anachronistic “multi-vector” foreign policy that his father-in-law Leonid Kuchma – who also came to Davos this year – propagated during his presidency. Perhaps, “multi-vector” made sense for Ukraine under Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Central European states like Poland were still outside the EU.
But any special relations between Kyiv and Moscow, in the form of a Eurasian or Customs Union envisioned by the Kremlin, are seen by EU diplomats as a step backward for Ukrainian integration with the West.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Boyko and Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, during the ensuing discussions, sided strongly with the naive view that Ukraine does not need to choose. Not surprisingly, this view was supported by former Russian Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin and Russian economist German Gref.
Boyko demanded respect for Ukraine as a “young and vibrant democracy” that does not want to be seen as a student of the EU. “No homework for Ukraine! My children would love that idea about their school as well,” the moderator of the discussion, Chrystia Freeland, wittingly summarized Boyko’s speech.
Kozhara claimed Ukraine is reaching political, economic and social stability and conducting reforms: a new tax code, pension reform, criminal code, customs code. These actions, he said, are moving Ukraine closer to Europe, with 2013 to be a key year.
On Feb. 25 a Ukraine–EU summit will take place, concluding the first stage of visa-free regime negotiations, followed by a summit in November, where the parties should finally sign an Association Agreement leading to closer political and economic ties if ratified. But Kozhara added, that Ukraine can also benefit from the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in a 3 plus 1 format. He argued Ukraine is a young, hungry nation that should not be made to choose between East and West, but needs both for growth.
But economic growth, particularly if captured by a small elite with authoritarian inclinations, does not constitute a democracy. And democracy is a sine qua non for any dreams to bring Ukraine closer to the EU.
Kudrin put the argument on the table that Ukraine will move faster towards the EU together with Russia, which is getting closer to the West, planning to enter the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Russian gross domestic product per capita is twice that of Ukraine, which he believes means that Russia is moving faster towards Europe than Ukraine.
Like Kozhara, Kudrin sees the EU narrowly as an economic project rather than a political community. Thus, Russia does not have any interest in “moving toward EU” politically because – like Britain – it fears seeing its clout diluted and prefers to play solo.
But Ukraine is not Russia, and is much more affected by EU policy. While oscillating between the two blocs, Ukraine is missing the train heading West and with it the only chance to play an important role in European affairs. Instead it becomes a passive observer of events it has little influence over, decided either in Moscow or Brussels.
Gref made a point that Russians respect and understand Ukrainians better than Europeans. “I even understand the Ukrainian language well,” revealed Gref.
He compared the choice between Russia and the EU to the choice between lunch with Viktor Pinchuk and lunch with the British queen. “We may all choose lunch with the queen, but we are only invited by Pinchuk,” said Gref, implying the EU not very open to Ukraine, unlike Russia.
As an opposing view, Ukrainian politicians like Vilali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatseniuk expressed the opinion that Ukraine should move in the Western direction more decisively.
They were supported by people who understand well the EU’s frustration with Ukraine and its oscillatory policy, like Solana and Kwasniewski.
No integration with the EU is possible until Ukraine decides that it wants to be a modern democracy where economic and political freedoms are guaranteed, government can change because the opposition can win elections and where rule of law, supported by independent courts, is more important than the rule of partisan if not outright authoritarian politics. Russia has little to teach or offer Ukraine on the road to Europe.
“I would like to speak in Ukrainian because it’s a Ukrainian lunch,” Klitschko started off, winning him a round of applause. He continued in Ukrainian saying that Ukraine’s priority is Europe. “However, it is not clear where we are moving,” Klitschko said.
Klitschko wondered if President Viktor Yanukovych had an answer to the question and why the president did not show up for the discussion. Yatseniuk also chose Europe and reminded about Tymoshenko being in prison as a result of selective justice.
Solana said that Ukraine has already experimented with the eastern direction as part of the Soviet Union, a project that failed miserably, and now Ukraine must pick its priorities.
At the end of the discussion, Kwasneiwski rose and tried to convince – in a passionate speech – that Ukraine must become a student of Europe, like Poland was. Although it might be seen as a humiliation in the short run it is worth it in the long term, an investment in the future.
Former President Leonid Kuchma criticized Kwasniewki’s address by saying that even if Poland was against the EU, the EU would still accept it. He failed to notice that no country that opposes integration with the EU would have been able to commit itself and its society to decade-long painful negotiations and reform – as was the case with Poland – without the domestic political and emotional support for the difficult process.
Then Kuchma challenged Solana: if shale gas is so good and Solana is praising Ukraine for signing a contract with Shell at Davos, why don’t Europeans want to explore it themselves?
Solana answered that there is not enough shale gas under the European continental shelf. He could have added that American and European companies are conducting an expansive search for shale gas in Poland and that other countries have significant reserves, though environmental concerns are holding them back.
The shale gas contract with Shell was the only visible result of Yanukovych’s visit to Davos. It remains unclear why Yanukovych keeps going to Davos and skipping discussions about Ukraine. Out of 50 heads of states present at the forum this year, Yanukovych did not have a bilateral meeting with a single one of them. He participated in a single Davos event – a panel entitled “Accelerating Infrastructure Development.”
In a poll, 57 percent of the audience present at the Ukrainian lunch voted for the EU while only 6 percent voted for the customs union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
It was clear though that nobody present at the Pinchuk lunch was up to decide where Ukraine should really move. Yanukovych, the key decision-maker in Ukraine, decided to ignore the event.
For him, the choice between East and West is indeed the wrong question, just like for Ukrainian businessman Oleksandr Yaroslavsky.
When asked if Ukraine should go East or West, Yaroslavsky showed teeth in a predator’s grin: “Where the money is!”
“And where is that?” a journalist asked.
“I won’t tell you.”
Leaving the lunch, a German businessman summarized: “I think Ukraine risks losing its place in history.”
Olena Tregub, a native of Ukraine, is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.