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The EU Has Lost the Plot in Ukraine

Aeschylus, the “father of tragedy,” is credited with the invention of a plot device known as deus ex machina in the fifth or sixth century B.C. In a nutshell, when in the course of a play the situation seems utterly unsolvable, a thoroughly unexpected event occurs that resolves the situation and allows the plot to go forward. In Greek drama an actor was either dropped down from a crane or emerged upon stage via a trapdoor. The audience reaction was an immediate and emotional one, thankful that the gods chose to intervene in such a way. Whether by accident or design, the European Union’s sanctioning of certain former Ukrainian officials has often resembled a sort of deus ex machina – it is the nearly magical key to solving the unsolvable problem, and it is intended to inspire a sense of moral awe and appreciation from among the hoi polloi that the gods have acted and done so appropriately. However, the EU are no dramatists. Their sanctions have turned the tragic situation unfolding in Ukraine into the modern equivalent of Moose Murders, and it’s beyond time the farce of ham-handed sanctions be yanked from the world’s stage.

The presumption of innocence has been the basis of Western law for almost two millennia, separating a legitimate court from a witch-hunt. However, in their zeal to find a scapegoat, the European Council has seen fit to shift the burden to the accused. Early last year it compiled a secret list of those former Ukrainian officials it deems responsible for the use of force in and during the Maidan. But it’s obvious to even the most casual of observers that they have acted entirely too quickly. It took the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s word as fact and, after unilaterally determining a fair and open trial to be too time consuming, considered the listed individuals guilty of the atrocities charged and froze their assets accordingly. The unexpected list was compiled in secret and remained secret until Ukrainian activists obtained it and leaked it to the world. The Council did not advise the accused of the existence of the list, the evidence used to justify the inclusion on the list, or any other pertinent documents or evidence related to a person’s place on the list. Nor does the council provide this information to the European Court of Justice, which, to its immense credit, has consistently fought against this system.

The Court already threw out one set of anti-terrorism sanctions against the Tamil Tigers as it was based apparently upon “imputations derived from the press and the Internet”. Another set of sanctions against the Iranian central bank were thrown out because they were based on reasoning too vague to respond with anything other than a “general denial”, as the arguments had nothing to do with the relevant case law. One of the individuals sanctioned by the EU at Kiev’s behest, former Minister of Tax Oleksandr Klymenko, took to YouTube to express his frustration at the shortcomings of the sanctions regime. In a video ironically titled “Revolving doors” that borrows a page from M.C. Escher’s absurdist drawings, the former minister castigates the hypocrisy of the EU, which denies the accused any legal remedies.

The Council is quickly losing credibility in this arena (assuming of course that they had any to begin with) due to their “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. This spring, Yanukovich’s security chief was dropped from the list after the Ukrainian authorities (from whom the EC clearly takes its marching orders) failed to initiate formal legal proceedings against him and for failing to present any evidence to back up Kiev’s claims. EU officials have stated that they intended to prevent the flight of stolen assets from the Ukraine by acting quickly. But, in the typically paternalistic fashion for which the EU has always shown to its eastern neighbors, due process is for friends and family only.

The entire debacle begs the question as to whether sanctions are even appropriate to begin with.  Sanctions have traditionally been used to change behavior of leaders and governments. However, the sanctions in question have been levied against people no longer in power. While sanctions can serve a secondary punitive function, the sanctions levied against officials in a past regime serve no such function. The EU has simply let itself be used as a tool of punishment against others, with no regard for pesky things like “facts” and has taken sides in what is essentially a war between competing clans of oligarchs vying for power in Ukraine. Powerful individuals associated with the Yanukovych regime dodged the sanctions bullet, as they cultivated a new system of patronage with the current Kiev leadership, while others saw their assets frozen for a year before being taken off the list. In short, after almost two years, not even a single penny has been recovered from the former Ukrainian elite and not a single official has been sent to jail for the defrauding the state.

Allowing Ukraine to pervert the sanctioning mechanisms of the EU (such as they are) simply undermined whatever credibility the EU may once have had on the world’s stage. While the EU fiddles with its sanctioning process, Kiev burns, and the perpetrators either escape trial entirely, or, due to the failure of any credible due process, become martyrs to the ridiculous sanctioning process. Kiev’s justice system should have investigated and punished those responsible for the Maidan atrocities, instead of involving the EU. The deus ex machina has lost its effectiveness, as we’ve all seen this imperialist play from the West far too many times. It would be comedic but for the stench of Ukraine’s dead just offstage, and for the faces of the future victims of the EU’s ineptitude waiting in the wings.

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Theodoros Papadopoulos is a London-based researcher, specialized in the institutional evolution of Eastern Europe.

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