Ukrainian president may deserve to win Nobel Peace Prize

January 27, 2011
Antony T. Salvia

Yanukovych has made terrific achievements in just one year.

In February, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will mark his first year in office. Soon, both Ukrainian and foreign media will be hard at work “spinning” his record, both positively and negatively.

Some Western Ukraine-watchers are already serving up the usual fare: Yanukovych the Russian puppet, the clone of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, etc. Their usual simplistic formula: West (United States, Europe) equals good, East (Russia) equals bad, if not downright evil. Given that the East-West divide runs right through Ukraine, the harmful internal implications of such a formula should be obvious.

One well-known Western Ukraine-watcher writes: “The Yanukovych administration’s belief that they can successfully unite Putinism with European integration is fatally flawed.” And elsewhere: “I have no compunction in choosing Orange democratic ‘chaos’ over Eurasian authoritarian stability.”

Leaving aside what so-called “Putinism” means even in Russia, such caricatures – “Europe” versus “Eurasia,” “democratic chaos” versus “authoritarian stability” – have little to do with Ukraine’s actual circumstances.

Instead of one-dimensional invective, let’s look at what Mr. Yanukovych has actually accomplished.

One of his first actions was to cut a deal with Russia on natural gas transit to Europe, in exchange for price concessions for Ukraine’s consumption. He followed that up with dropping permanently the previous regime’s efforts to drag Ukraine into NATO even in the face of overwhelming popular opposition (so much for Orange Revolution-styled democracy), and opting for non-aligned status instead. He also reached a historic agreement with the United States on disposal of nuclear material, emerging as the star of the April 2010 Washington nuclear non-proliferation summit.

Ukraine’s adoption of non-aligned status has changed the strategic calculus in Europe. The result has been the emergence of a triangle of mutual interests between Europe, Russia and Ukraine, as Yanukovych has quite rightly pointed out. It is fair to say that Kyiv’s new approach to Moscow paved the way for the Deauville summit where France, Germany and Russia discussed the creation of a common European zone of military and economic cooperation as well as the reset in bilateral German-Russian, and Polish-Russian relations.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych has gone a long way toward answering Europe’s concerns about energy security, as his rapprochement with Russia tends to obviate the unsettling “gas wars” of the recent past. Ukraine has thus emerged as a vital factor for stability rather than an apple of discord.

So, instead of throwing brickbats at Yanukovych, maybe it’s time to ask: Is the president’s record to date worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize?

Let’s make some comparisons. When Barack Obama won the award in 2009, just months after taking office, he was the first to admit that he didn’t “deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize,” and that he would “accept this award as a call to action.” His humility in acknowledging that he had not yet actually accomplished anything of note was commendable, as was his stated determination to justify his having received the honor.

Some “transformative” Nobel laureates have included Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 for helping to settle the Russo-Japanese War; Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978 and Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yassir Arafat in 1994 (still striving to finish what Sadat and Begin started). One has to give some credit to Mikhail Gorbachev (1990) for paving the way for the peaceful ditching of Marxism-Leninism and the role he played in ending the Cold War. These Nobel laureates, as well as Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993, had solid records of accomplishment.

One can argue that Yanukovych’s support for non-aligned status for Ukraine has done more to solidify peace and stability in Europe that any act of statecraft since the fall of the Berlin Wall, giving rise to the prospect of a pan-European entente reminiscent of the European system that prevailed from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) to the onset of the Napoleonic Wars — a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe. That is no mean accomplishment after one year in office.

Judging by results, by tangible contributions to peace, Yanukovych’s achievements in a short period of time are impressive. It is reasonable to suggest that he be counted among the nominees.