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Europe's Share in the Ukrainian Malaise: The EU commits a historical mistake denying Kyiv a membership perspective

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Much can be heard from Western visitors of Ukraine or observers analyzing the post-Soviet region that Kyiv politics today is a "mess." Hardly anybody (least of all, Ukrainians themselves) will disagree. Even lowbrow EU citizens may come up with an opinion on current Ukrainian affairs, and criticize the ensuing political chaos, in Kyiv. Sometimes, Western ignorance mixes with European arrogance to re-produce stereotypes about Ukraine eerily similar to the way in which former KGB officers in Moscow would like to portray Europe's largest new democracy.

Worse, what mostly remains unmentioned in West European assessments of current Ukrainian affairs, is that the foremost Western organization dealing with Ukraine, the EU, bears responsibility for the current political disarray, at Kyiv. Most analysts would readily agree that the EU perspective played a considerable role in, or even was a necessary precondition for, the quick stabilization and democratization of post-communist Central Europe. Many political scientists would admit that, in Western Europe too, peace, stability and affluence during the last 60 years have been closely linked to European integration. However, few EU politicians and bureaucrats are prepared to state in public what would seem to logically follow, from these observations, concerning the Ukrainian case. If EU prospects and membership had a clearly beneficial effect from Tallinn to Dublin, then the absence of a European perspective for a manifestly European country means also - the absence of that effect, in the case of Ukraine.

The post-war notion of "Europe" is intimately linked to the economic, social and political dynamism of increasing pan-continental cooperation. When we say "European" today we often mean the EU and the largely positive repercussions which the integration process had and has on securing economic, political and social progress across borders. In the light of these historically recent achievements, some, however, forget about the state of Europe, in general, and of some European countries, in particular, before integration. Much of pre-war European history was, by contemporary standards, far "messier" than today Ukrainian politics is. Remember the League of Nations, Weimar Republic or Spanish Civil War?

Enlightened East European intellectuals too might admit that, without the prospect of EU membership, their countries could today look more like Belarus or Georgia rather than Portugal or Ireland. Both West and East European political elites and governmental apparatuses needed a road map towards a better and common future. Only when European integration, whether after the Second World or Cold War, provided such a vision was it that politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals of many EU member states got their act together, and made their countries more politically and economically successful.

If one admits the relevance of the prospect of, preparation for, and eventual attainment of, EU membership for the internal development of many European states, one should also acknowledge the effects that an explicit denial of such a vision has, on Kyiv's elites. Ukraine finds itself left in the "old Europe" of the pre-war period. Unlike politicians in most other European countries, Ukraine's leaders still have to navigate through a world of competing nation states, shifting international alliances, introverted political camps, and harsh zero-sum-games where the win of one national or international actor is the loss of the other. That is how domestic and European politics functioned across Europe before (and eventually resulted in) the two world wars. East of the EU's current borders these incentive structures are still largely intact and led to, among numerous other negative repercussions, the recent wars on the Balkans and Caucasus.

Most Ukrainians themselves would be the first to admit that Ukraine is today not ready for EU membership or even for the candidacy status. However, many pro-European Ukrainians find it difficult to understand EU policies and rhetoric concerning these issues: Why, on the one hand, is Turkey an official candidate for EU membership, and Romania or Bulgaria already full members, when Ukraine, on the other hand, is not even provided with the tentative prospect of a future candidacy? Is Turkey more European, and are Romania or Bulgaria really that much higher developed than Ukraine? Didn't the Orange Revolution and two following parliamentary elections - all approved by the OSCE, Council of Europe and EU - show the adherence of Ukrainians to democratic rules and values? Hasn't Ukraine been more successful than other post-communist countries in averting inter-ethnic strife and in integrating national minorities? Didn't the elites and population of Ukraine show restraint when tensions were building up between conflicting political camps, in Kyiv, or as a result of provocative Russian behavior, on Crimea?

Of course, there are also recent developments, in Ukraine, that point in the opposite direction. They include continuing governmental corruption, increasing political stalemate, stagnating public administration reform, or silting industrial restructuring. However, with every passing year since the Orange Revolution, one asks oneself more and more: Are the various setbacks in Ukraine's recent political and economic transition the reason for, or rather a result of, the EU's continuing unwillingness to offer a European perspective for Kyiv? May it be that one reason for Ukraine's frustrating domestic conflicts and halting economic transformation is the indeterminacy the country's foreign orientation? Could it be that the EU's demonstrative skepticism with regard to Ukraine's ability to integrate into Europe is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Aren't the leaders of the EU themselves, to some degree, becoming responsible for Ukraine's continuing failure to meet "European standards"?

As a result of EU introversion, Kyiv is left in a geopolitical nowhere land. Lacking a credible long-term vision of its own, Ukraine becomes the unofficial battlefield in a political proxy war between pro-Western and pro-Russian governmental and non-governmental organizations fighting for the future of this key, yet unconsolidated European country. Without the disciplining effect that a credible EU membership perspective provides, there is no commonly accepted yardstick against which the elite's behavior could be measured. Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals lack a focal point in the conduct of their domestic and international behavior. They are left to guess what the West's and Russia's "real" intentions with regard to Ukraine are, and how they should behave in order to secure economic development and political independence, for their country.

A stabilization of Ukraine is not only in the interests of the citizens of this young democracy, but should be also a key political concern for Brussels, Paris and Berlin. An economically weakened, politically divided and socially crisis-ridden Ukrainian state could destabilize and exhibit disintegrative tendencies. Ukraine's population could polarize along linguistic lines with a ukrainophone West and Center put against a russophone South and East. Such a development, in turn, could serve as a pretext for Russian intervention - with grave repercussions not only for East European politics, but also Russian-Western relations. In a worst-case scenario, the entire post-Cold War European security structure could be called into question.

The EU membership perspective constitutes a key instrument, for the West, to influence Ukrainian domestic affairs. The prospect of future European integration would reconfigure political discourse and restructure party conflicts, in Kyiv. Neither the Ukrainian common man nor Russia's political leadership are, in distinction to their stance on Ukraine's possible NATO membership, principally opposed to the idea of a Ukrainian future entry into the EU. Even an entirely official statement by the EU on a possible admission of Ukraine to the EU some day would oblige the Union and member states to little, during the next years. The Delegation of the European Commission at Kyiv is already engaged in a wide range of cooperation projects with the Ukrainian government. Offering Ukraine a European perspective would require only few practical changes in the current conduct of EU policies towards Kyiv. Yet, such an announcement would have a benevolent impact on the behavior of Ukraine's elites and make a deep impression on the population of this young democracy.

The EU's leaders should try to see the larger picture, remember the recent past of their own countries, and stop their unhistorical cognitive dissonance. They should try do understand Ukraine's current issues against the background of the West and Central European states' experience of instability before their participation in European integration. In the interest of the entire continent and all its peoples, they should offer Ukraine a European perspective sooner rather than later.

(This article appeared, in Russian and Ukrainian, first in "Zerkalo nedeli"/"Dzerkalo tyzhnia," and, in English, on the WWW site "Open Democracy" and in the weekly "Kyiv Post.")


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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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