Flickr/Bogdan Seredyak. Some rights reserved.
In November 2004, at the height of the Orange Revolution, the separatist wing of the ruling, pro-Russian Party of Regions held a big meeting in Severodonetsk. The gathered party leaders (including then-PM Viktor Yanukovych) and their supporters, along with guest of honor Yury Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, suggested that eastern and southern Ukraine might "pursue separatism rather than coexist under an 'Orange' government in Kiev".
The success of this event brought new fears to citizens loyal to a united Ukraine and heralded a new time of loathing for the eastern Ukrainian authorities. For years, the anti-western sentiment was efficiently promulgated by these local authorities, for example that of Donbas, the region where Severodonetsk is located.
Today times have changed for the Ukrainian elite, and separatism has been supplanted by the need to integrate with the EU. After years of negotiations between Ukraine and its European partners, the Association Agreement, which would provide a framework for cooperation between the EU member states and Ukraine, is finally looming on the horizon. It may appear strange that the government pursues such a pro-European policy under a Yanukovych presidency, but it is important to realise that this is an effort motivated not by values, but by pragmatic interests – the abolition of visas for Ukrainian traveller, a free trade zone and, ultimately, EU membership.
It is ironic that the Party of Regions should now fight the anti-western prejudice it once thrived upon – but they have tried, through various initiatives to promote a better image of Europe. However, this remains a mostly 'bottom-up' approach, and educational and enlightening efforts by the local authorities remain few and far between in the easternmost regions, notably Donbas. While the authorities are reluctant to promote the integration process, international organizations and Ukrainian activists are struggling to introduce European values and discourse to Ukrainians and the considerable Russian-speaking minority.
One of these local initiatives was the Camp for Europe. It was highly symbolic that this camp, which gathered about thirty participants from all-around Ukraine, yet predominantly from Donbas, was held in Severodonetsk between August 29 and September 1, 2013. This summer school was organized by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and I was lucky to be among the participants. The discussions at the camp made it clear that Europeans and Ukrainians are eager to discuss the future of Ukraine after signing the Association Agreement, but that we should not forget about the Ukrainian government’s authoritarian and undemocratic record to date. And that there is still the possibility that the Ukrainian government might change its mind and refuse to sign the agreement later this year.
The current political situation in Ukraine strongly suggests that there is a lot of indecision, reluctance and outright hostility on the government side towards European values and policies. Hence, it is perfectly natural to remain skeptical about the prospects of further European integration for Ukraine. For instance, Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, could fail to pass the laws necessary to sign the agreement. Or the Constitutional Court of Ukraine could rule that the agreement would violate the Constitution. Even the EU could refuse to sign the agreement if it feels Ukraine is simply passing laws to theoretically comply with the Agreement framework with no intention of actually implementing them.
There are, in sum, many ways to derail the whole process. While the summer school in Severodonetsk offered a much more positive perspective and promoted the Association Agreement, fulfilling an important task of bringing European optimism to Donbas, Ukrainians like me cannot help but despair at a situation where the European values are being hypocritically embraced and brandished by the post-Soviet apparatchiks. There is no guarantee they will make any effort to implement these values once they get what they want.
A good illustration of this is the fight against all types of discrimination. In theory, the Association Agreement emphasizes the need for government and public efforts to fight discrimination, but a mostly conservative Ukrainian society feels uneasy about sexual minorities – perhaps even more so than about ethnic or religious minorities. Consequently, the rights of LGBT people remain unrecognized and neglected in Ukraine. There is hope that the Association Agreement will bring this issue into the public discourse and help change the attitude towards these minorities in Ukraine as, after all, fighting discrimination is part of the European integration process. Yet the inefficacy and hypocrisy of a recent anti-discrimination bill passed by the Ukrainian parliament has demonstrated the reluctance of the government to embrace European values.
It appears quite clearly that the government is unwilling to transform society, breaching its promises to European partners. Many Ukrainians think it's now up to society itself to exert more influence on the government, to force it to foster democracy, the rule of law and equal rights for all citizens. But such an enterprise will take time and concerted efforts.
The future of Ukraine is ultimately in the EU, but there are a lot of dangers to the integration process right now. Given the many pitfalls on the way, it is the responsibility of the Ukrainian public to do everything possible so that the EU project for Ukraine is not consigned to oblivion, as was the case with its NATO ambitions. Nevertheless, Ukrainians have the power to change their society for the better. In this situation, democratic European values can serve as the guiding principles of progressive change instead of self-defeating stasis.