Although the EU plays a crucial role in the future of Europe, the stability and development of Europe in the 21st century depends not only on the Union's internal affairs, but the Union's relationship to its European Eastern neighbors in the next years -- above all to Russia and the Ukraine. These relationships may be even more important than the EU's finances, reform and performance.
Should the EU, Russia and the Ukraine be able to find a sustainable basis for their daily interactions, gradual rapprochement, and eventual integration, Europe will have a secure future. If, however, Europe remains divided into law-based democracies, on the one side, and more or less authoritarian countries on the other, Europe's future will remain uncertain, the continent will continue to suffer from diplomatic rows and be haunted by agonizing political confrontation, and perhaps even run the risk of armed conflict in regions such as the Crimean peninsula.
The development of the Ukraine plays a pivotal role in the resolution of this issue. It is, among the Eastern Slavic countries, the least regressed towards authoritarianism. Moreover, it has remained consistently pro-European since achieving independence in 1991. The various Ukrainian leaderships have been remarkably inept in their attempts to reform their country's economic and social system during the last twenty years. Nevertheless, they all have stuck to the aim of attaining full membership of the European Union. The Ukraine thus remains a country amenable towards influence from Brussels and towards gradual Europeanization.
The future of the Ukrainian state will, to a great extent, also decide the future of Europe. As famously stated by Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1990s, a sustainable Ukrainian independence means the end of Russian imperialism. A stable and Europeanized Ukrainian state would help transform Russia into a proper nation-state and prevent the re-emergence of the Russian empire. It would thus remove a major obstacle for the creation of the Common European Home once envisaged by Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Union's leadership will thus be wise to focus on Kyiv. The recent involvement of Brussels with Kyiv has deepened, in contrast to many EU member states' still casual treatment of the Ukraine. Nevertheless, the daily practice and public rhetoric of Brussels' engagement with Kyiv is often all about "practical" matters. It is focused on down-to-earth issues in the interactions between the people and economies of both sides. Therefore, today's debates on the Ukrainian-European rapprochement are predominantly concerned with Brussels' planned agreements with Kyiv on deep and comprehensive free trade as well as on visa-free travel, which are to be concluded in 2011 or 2012. While these treaties will, without a doubt, be rather important, there are additional political aspects to the EU's engagement with the Ukraine. These larger dimensions signal a higher significance for Brussels' cooperation with Kyiv than is sometimes acknowledged in official debates about the purposes and aims of this process. As important as trade and tourism are for the daily lives of Europeans, the implications of possible failures and successes in the evolving EU-Ukraine relationship will go far beyond such issues as the free exchange of people and goods across borders.
The current rapprochement between the EU and the Ukraine has at least four distinctly political aspects that touch upon a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues. They raise questions concerning Kyiv's embeddedness in international structures, the direction of the Ukraine's domestic reforms, the impulses that a Ukrainian Europeanization might provide for a Russian re-democratization, and the significance of the European idea for the stability of the Ukrainian state. All of these dimensions have implications that transcend the question of the Ukraine's national development, and even reach beyond the limits of contemporary East European affairs. Indeed, the answers to each of these questions have far-reaching implications for the fate of European integration and security in the 21st century.
First, the Ukraine is a relatively isolated country within the international system. While it is a member of such organizations as the UN, Council of Europe, OSCE and WTO, it remains outside the major economic and security blocs of the Earth's northern hemisphere. Against this background, every new step that gets the Ukrainian state closer to the EU seems beneficial. It will lead to an informal "securitization" and gradual de facto -- if not yet a de jure -- anchoring of the Ukraine within the emerging trans-European political system. The current under-institutionalization of the Ukraine's links to the outside world should be constantly diminished, even though that can only happen via relatively small steps -- at least for the time being. What is needed in the near future for the Ukraine are as many low- and medium-level agreements as possible with the EU and its member states that would deepen, step-by-step, the Ukraine's embeddedness in all-European structures. In the long run, this process should lead to a full membership of the Ukraine in the EU as well as in NATO.
In fact, concerning the latter controversial issue, one could speculate that a NATO membership would not be that important anymore by the time the Ukraine enters the EU. This is because in the coming years the EU will presumably evolve further into a supranational quasi-federation. Most probably, further European integration will consolidate the notion that the EU is a full-scale defense community that would, even more explicitly than today, provide security guarantees to its member states. In any way, most EU members are NATO members, and the majority of NATO countries are also in the EU.
A second domestic effect of European integration is equally important. Deepening cooperation with Europe could send important signals or even provide critical impulses concerning the course, conduct and speed of future reforms in the Ukraine. It is universally acknowledged that the Ukraine needs to fundamentally change its political, administrative, economic, social and educational systems. However, the question of which socio-economic model the Ukraine should embrace remains a matter of dispute and source of stagnation. The confusion about the exact model to follow sometimes undermines the design, instigation and implementation of reforms. Various Ukrainian political forces are not only considering the European model, but are also interested in the US, Soviet, Russian, Belarusian, Chinese, Singaporean and other models.
It is difficult to judge which models are the most appropriate for the Ukraine. The main problem, however, seems to be not which exact model to choose, but whether or not a model is chosen at all -- and implemented afterwards. The Ukraine needs to act immediately. Passivity is more dangerous than action. A continuing rapprochement between Kyiv and Brussels means that the European model may gradually become the dominant one. This will hopefully reduce time, costs and energy in the process of designing, initiating and completing urgently needed reforms. The European Union has fairly detailed prescriptions of what other countries have to do to further integrate their economies with the European ones. Such concrete prescriptions may be what the Ukraine needs most. We have seen enough political quarreling, heard too many semi-academic discussions, and observed sufficient "multivectoralism." Many years and opportunities have been lost. The time has come to move forward.
If that were to happen, it could produce an effect somewhat similar to the one that the EU had on East-Central Europe immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In the early 1990s, a number of prominent political scientists were initially doubtful concerning the chances of a quick and successful transformation of the post-communist countries. Such skepticism emerged against the background of the so-called "simultaneity problem." What this meant was that the post-communist countries were confronted with far more demanding challenges than earlier democratizing nations in Latin America or Southern Europe. Unlike the latter states, the post-communist countries had not only to democratize, they also had to convert themselves from Soviet colonies into independent nation states and transition from socialism to capitalism. The simultaneity of these processes, the demands of which often contradicted each other, was a major problem leading prominent commentators to give pessimistic forecasts concerning prospects of the post-communist transformations. Surprisingly, most of the post-communist countries were remarkably successful in their transitions from dictatorship to democracy.
In a way, the EU membership prospect and accession process compensated for the "simultaneity problem." While these countries faced daunting domestic challenges, they received forceful ideological and practical support from outside. In the Central European and Baltic countries, there were also strong internal factors -- among them, usable pre-communist traditions and a generally pro-Western orientation, which greatly facilitated a successful transition. For Bulgaria and Romania, however, the pull of the EU may have been a crucial determinant of these countries' successful transitions. All of the East-Central European countries were offered early the prospect of membership in the EU. They reformed themselves with more or less strong determination and relatively high speed. Eventually, they became members of the Union. In contrast, those countries which were not offered a membership perspective and did not embark on an accession process, such as the Ukraine, are still in the grey zone between modern democracy and post-totalitarian autocracy. In these countries, the "simultaneity problem" has, as predicted by political scientists, corrupted the democratization and liberalization attempts.
Apart from anchoring the Ukraine internationally and providing guidance for internal reform, a third dimension of further EU-Ukraine rapprochement has to do not only with the interests of Ukraine but also with some larger aims of the EU. A successful Ukrainian democratization could have repercussions in the former Soviet empire as a whole. A sustainable Europeanization of the Ukraine would probably impress the elites and populations of other post-Soviet countries. It could, for instance, induce in Russia and Belarus a rethinking of the political paths that these countries have taken since the break-up of the Soviet Union. As the Belarusians and Russians are culturally close to the Ukrainians, they would take a functioning law-based democracy in Ukraine seriously.
In the medium-term perspective, the EU's support of Ukrainian democracy, civil society, and rule of law would thus also have a geopolitical dimension. To use a provocative metaphor, the Ukraine could one day become the EU's Trojan Horse -- with regard to Russia. Western advice concerning the necessity of democratization is often seen by Russians as being irrelevant, if not subversive, to their country in its intention. In contrast, an EU-promoted re-democratization of the Ukraine would be an argument more difficult to reject by isolationist Russians. If the Ukraine demonstrates that a largely Orthodox Eastern Slavic nation is able to create and sustain a democratic political system, this could also trigger a new Russian democratization. In a best-case scenario, the Ukraine could become the EU's instrument to bring Russia back into the European family.
A fourth aspect has recently made the rapprochement between the Ukraine and the EU even more important. During the past year, the relevance of the European idea for the Ukrainian state has further risen amid worrying domestic developments. Since the election of Viktor Yanukovych as President, the already-high social and cultural polarization of the country has risen further. For instance, a vivid indication of the growing fragmentation of the Ukrainian national community is the rise of Oleh Tiahnybok's nationalist "Svoboda" (Freedom) party.
Tiahnybok's party calls itself an "All-Ukrainian Association" and continuously proclaims its allegiance to Velyka Ukraine (Great Ukraine). However, "Svoboda" is de facto and even a potentially separatist party because of its idiosyncratic historical discourse. It has a strong base in the three Galician regions of L'viv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, but has far less support elsewhere. "Svoboda" promotes a kind of nationalism that is disliked in much of the rest of the Ukraine. Instead of contributing to the formation of a modern Ukrainian political nation, "Svoboda" alienates instead of attracting many Ukrainians.