Torn between two neighbours

Observations on Ukraine

One of the hottest attractions for the thousands of Ukrainians who stroll along the busy promenade of the Crimean Black Sea resort of Yalta is the chance to be photographed acting out their favourite fantasy. Some choose to sit astride an enormous Harley-Davidson motorcycle wearing leathers emblazoned with the American flag, while others prefer sitting atop a gilded throne, dressed from head to foot in the outlandish aristocratic costumes of pre-revolutionary France.

It is anyone's guess what Lenin, whose statue still stands at the far end of town, would have made of all this. But for these Ukrainians, eight months after people power triumphed over Soviet-style ballot-rigging, it is a welcome relief in a country struggling to make a life outside the influence of its Russian neighbour.

The bright glow of the orange revolution that swept President Viktor Yushchenko to power last year has dimmed in recent months as Ukraine has confronted the reality of what it needs to do to become a prosperous, democratic European country. Fundamental economic change is vital, but it will be painful, and already Ukraine's parliament has refused to agree even to the preliminary reforms needed to join the World Trade Organisation.

Political and legal reforms are needed, too. Corruption is endemic in a system hamstrung by the instincts and practices of its Soviet past. Things are so bad that in July Yushchenko proposed sacking all 20,000 of Ukraine's traffic police, claiming they went on patrol only to extract bribes from innocent motorists.

For reformers, the key to maintaining the momentum and popular support for this long and difficult process is the prospect of eventual membership of the European Union. They point to the experience of Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states as examples of how the EU can be a powerful lever for domestic change. What is more, many reformers say, Europe has a moral obligation to sustain what was born on the streets of Kiev last November.

Yet all this comes at a time when Euro referendums in France and the Netherlands have severely weakened enthusiasm within the EU for expansion. Much of the French debate in May centred on the perceived dangers of the "Polish plumber" and the prospect of Turkish membership. In these circumstances many governments are calling for a halt to enlargement for the foreseeable future.

So a recent conference in Yalta of Ukrainian reformers and EU representatives was timely - and that it met in the palace where 60 years ago Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill discussed the division of Europe was a neat reminder of how the people of eastern Europe suffered as a result of forces outside their control.

For Ukraine, the historic relationship with Russia has not been simply about subjugation but also about an almost involuntary desire for protection. Roughly 50 per cent of Ukrainians are Russian-speaking; the southern Russian naval fleet is still based up the coast at Sebastopol; Russia continues to meet most of Ukraine's energy demands. Without encouragement from the west, through the EU and Nato, this former Soviet republic might well turn its face eastward again.

The threat hung over discussions at the conference, where the delegates inclu- ded the former British minister Stephen Byers. All agreed that the EU should offer greater incentives to Ukraine to support reform, although Byers was realistic about the chances of actual membership - "We all know that it is not going to happen soon," he said. Most observers believe that, even with EU support, Ukraine is at least a decade away from completing the necessary economic and political reforms needed to join.

For now, the Ukrainians themselves must make the running. In so doing, they may well wish to heed the call issued by the speaker of their parliament, Volo-dymyr Lytvyn, who told the conference: "Before we can feel European, we Ukrainians need to begin by finding out how to feel Ukrainian." That would be a start, although it may not please the seaside photographers of Yalta.