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Europe’s role in Ukraine’s malaise

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Westerners visiting Ukraine and observers analysing the post-Soviet space talk a great deal about Kyiv politics today being a "mess." Few, least of all Ukrainians themselves, would disagree. But sometimes Western ignorance about Ukraine combines with European arrogance to reproduce stereotypes eerily similar to those with which Moscow's former KGB officers like to portray Europe's largest new democracy.

Worse still, what is usually not mentioned in West European assessments of current Ukrainian affairs is that the EU, the foremost Western organisation dealing with Ukraine, bears responsibility for Kyiv's current political disarray.

Most analysts would agree that the EU perspective played a considerable role in, or was even a necessary precondition for, the quick stabilisation and democratisation 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 follow logically from these observations, in the case of Ukraine. If from Tallinn to Dublin the prospect of EU membership has had a clearly beneficial effect, then in the case of Ukraine the absence of a European perspective for a manifestly European country also means the absence of that effect.

The post-war notion of "Europe" is intimately linked to the economic, social and political dynamism of increasing pan-continental cooperation. When we use the word "European" today we often mean the EU and the largely positive repercussions which the integration process has had and continues to have on securing economic, political and social progress across borders.

However, against the background of these recent historical achievements, some forget the state of Europe generally, particularly some countries, before integration. Much of pre-war European history was, by contemporary standards, far "messier" than Ukrainian politics is today. Remember the League of Nations, Weimar Republic or Spanish Civil War?

Enlightened East European intellectuals might also admit that, without the prospect of EU membership, their countries today might look more like Belarus or Georgia than Portugal or Ireland. Both West and East European political elites and governments have needed a road map towards a better and common future. Only when European integration provided such a vision did politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals of many EU member states get their act together and make their countries more politically and economically successful.

If we are prepared to admit the relevance of the prospect of, preparation for, and eventual attainment of, EU membership for the internal development of many European states, we should also acknowledge the effect 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 a world of competing nation states, shifting international alliances, introverted political camps, and harsh zero-sum-games where  triumph for one national or international actor means defeat for the other. That is how domestic and European politics functioned before the two world wars, and eventually brought about those wars. East of the EU's current borders these incentive structures are still largely intact. Among numerous other negative repercussions, they have led to the recent wars in the Balkans and Caucasus.

Most Ukrainians would themselves be the first to admit that Ukraine today is not ready for EU membership, or even for candidate status. However, many pro-European Ukrainians find it difficult to understand EU policies and rhetoric on these issues: why is Turkey an official candidate for EU membership? Why are Romania or Bulgaria already full members, while Ukraine is not even offered the tentative prospect of future candidacy? Is Turkey more European? Are Romania or Bulgaria really that much more developed than Ukraine? Did the Orange Revolution and the two succeeding parliamentary elections - all approved by the OSCE, Council of Europe and EU - not show an adherence by Ukrainians to democratic rules and values? Has Ukraine not been more successful than other post-communist countries in averting inter-ethnic strife and in integrating national minorities? Did the elites and population of Ukraine not show restraint when tensions were building up between conflicting political camps in Kyiv, or when Russia was acting provocatively in Crimea?

Some recent developments in Ukraine also point in the opposite direction, of course. These include ongoing governmental corruption, increased political stalemate, as well as lack of progress on the reform of public administration and on industrial restructuring.

However, with every year that passes since the Orange Revolution, the question becomes more pressing: are the setbacks in Ukraine's recent political and economic transition the reason for the EU's continuing unwillingness to offer Kyiv a prospect of European membership? Or are they rather a result of that unwillingness? Maybe one reason for Ukraine's frustrating domestic conflicts and halting economic transformation is the fact that the country's foreign orientation remains unresolved? Is it possible that the EU's demonstrative scepticism with regard to Ukraine's ability to integrate into Europe is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are the EU leaders of the EU not to some degree responsible for Ukraine's continuing failure to meet "European standards"?

As a result of the EU attitude, Kyiv is left in a geopolitical nowhere land. Lacking a credible long-term vision, Ukraine has become the unofficial battlefield in a political proxy war between pro-Western and pro-Russian governmental and non-governmental organisations fighting for the future of this crucial, 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 behaviour could be measured. Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals lack a focal point in the conduct of their domestic and international behaviour. They are left to guess what the West's and Russia's "real" intentions with regard to Ukraine are, and how they should behave to secure economic development and political independence for their country.

The stabilisation of Ukraine is not only in the interests of the citizens of this young democracy. It should also be a key political concern for Brussels, Paris and Berlin. An economically weakened, politically divided and socially crisis-ridden Ukrainian state could destabilise and exhibit disintegrative tendencies. Ukraine's population could polarise along ethnic lines, with ukrainophone Western and Central set against russophone Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Such a development could in turn serve as a pretext for Russian intervention - with grave repercussions not only for East European politics, but Russian-Western relations too. In a worst-case scenario, the entire post-Cold War European security structure could be called into question.

The prospect of EU membership 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, opposed in principal to the idea of Ukrainian entry into the EU at some future date.

An official statement by the EU on the possible admission of Ukraine to the EU some day would oblige the Commission 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 the prospect of EU membership would require few practical changes in the current conduct of EU policies towards Kyiv. Yet such an announcement would have a benevolent impact on the behaviour 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. They need to remember the recent past of their own member countries, and stop behaving with a cognitive dissonance that denies their own history. They should try to understand Ukraine's current issues against the background of the instability their own members experienced before European integration.

In the interests of the entire continent and its people, they should offer Ukraine a European perspective sooner rather than later.

Dr Andreas Umland is a lecturer in contemporary East European history at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria ( ), general editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( ), and co-editor of the German-Russian journal "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe" ( ).

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