Ukraine: Europe its brightest hope

In an interview with journalist Olena Tregub, political scientist Andreas Umland argues that Ukrainian integration into the European mainstream is of crucial importance, both for Ukraine and the EU. In his view, alignment with Europe should become Ukraine’s top priority.

Olena Tregub
9 May 2011

Olena Tregub: You’ve said it is exceptionally important, for both Ukraine and the EU, that Kyiv and Brussels develop a closer relationship. Why do you feel the EU has a special relevance for Ukraine?

Andreas Umland:



There are several reasons, relating to both domestic and foreign policy issues. First of all, in terms of the international community, Ukraine has to date been a relatively isolated country. While it is a member of 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 in the rapprochement with the EU would be beneficial. It would lead to an informal “securitisation” and gradual de facto – if not yet de jure – anchoring of Ukraine within the emerging trans-European political system. What is needed, in the near future, are as many low- and medium-level agreements with the EU and its member states as possible, leading to Ukraine gradually becoming embedded in European structures. In the long run, this should result in Ukraine’s full membership of the EU and, if it desires it, of NATO. 

O.T.: Yet Ukraine removed NATO membership from its official foreign policy aspirations last year. Is this end goal moving further away?

A.U.: In truth, by the time Ukraine enters the EU, NATO membership may well no longer be so important. In the coming years, the EU will presumably evolve further into more of a semi-state and will probably become a full-scale defence community that will provide security guarantees to its member states even more explicitly than it does today.

Even before attaining EU membership, any deepening of cooperation with Europe would send important signals about the course of future reforms in Ukraine (and perhaps even kickstart them)

 Andreas Umland

O.T.: What about on the domestic front? Why would European integration help in a country historically divided by whether to align more closely with Europe or Russia?

A.U.: Even before attaining EU membership, any deepening of cooperation with Europe would send important signals about the course of future reforms in Ukraine (and perhaps even kickstart them). It is universally acknowledged that Ukraine needs to fundamentally change its political, administrative, economic, social and educational system. However, the question of which socio-economic model exactly Ukraine should embrace remains a matter of dispute and the result has been stagnation, with little action. Within Ukraine different people have cited arguments for following different models – not only the European model, but also the US, Soviet, Russian, Belarusian, Chinese, Singaporean ones. It’s difficult to judge which one is best for Ukraine: all models have their pluses and minuses.

The main problem, of course, is not which exact model to choose, but whether any model is chosen and properly implemented (as is so often the case in life). Ukraine is in dire straits today and needs, above all, to act. Passivity is more dangerous than action. If Ukraine aligns itself more closely with Europe generally, the European model may gradually become the dominant one, and this would help reduce the time and cost of reform, since the EU has fairly detailed prescriptions of what countries have to do to further integrate their economies with Europe’s. Such concrete prescriptions may be what Ukraine today needs most. We have seen enough political quarrelling, heard too many semi-academic discussions, and observed sufficient “multivectoralism.” Many years and opportunities have been lost. It’s now time to move forward.

O.T.: Would you say EU integration of countries in East-Central Europe has been a success over the last 20 years?

A.U.: Overall, yes. In the early 1990s, a number of prominent political scientists doubted the chances of a quick and successful transformation in post-communist countries. And there was certainly a problem unique to these countries:  the necessity of making a rapid transition politically — from dictatorship to democracy — and economically — from central planning to market liberalism. Surprisingly, most of the post-communist countries were remarkably successful in their transitions from dictatorship to democracy. The prospect of EU membership partly compensated for the problems of economic transition. All of the East-Central European countries were offered early the prospect of membership in the EU. They reformed themselves, against this background, with more or less strong determination and relatively high speed. Eventually, they became members of the Union. Those countries, in contrast, that were not offered the prospect of membership, as for example Ukraine, are still in the grey zone between modern democracy and post-totalitarian autocracy.

O.T.: But is European alignment really an issue that can unite Ukraine?

A.U.: I believe so. A third aspect that makes the rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU important is the ability of the European idea to keep Ukraine united at a time when the integrity of the Ukrainian state is increasingly open to question. Since the election of Viktor Yanukovych as President, the social and cultural polarisation of the country, already high, has increased further. A vivid expression of the growing fragmentation of the Ukrainian national community has been the rise of Oleh Tiahnybok’s nationalist, so-called “Freedom” (“Svoboda”) party.

O.T.: In his speeches though, Tiahnybok promises to unite the nation…

A.U.: Indeed, Tiahnybok’s party calls itself an “All-Ukrainian Association”, and continuously proclaims its allegiance to Great Ukraine (Velyka Ukraïna). Yet in reality, Svoboda is a regional party and, because of its idiosyncratic historical discourse, implicitly a separatist party. It has a strong base in the three Galician regions of L’viv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, but far less support elsewhere. Svoboda promotes a kind of nationalism that is disliked in much of the rest of Ukraine. Instead of contributing to the formation of a modern Ukrainians nation state, Svoboda alienates more Ukrainians than it attracts.

However, in the case of an escalation of political conflicts in Ukraine, Svoboda could still become a source of instability of the Ukrainian state. For example, in the event of another Ukrainian uprising resembling the Orange Revolution of 2004, Svoboda might be able to organisationally capture and ideologically impregnate the Galician part of the protest movement. In view of the unacceptability of Svoboda outside Galicia, this could disconnect Galician civil society from that of the rest of Ukraine. Such a division could transform a new Ukrainian mass civic movement from an anti-regime protest into an anti-state action. A regionally and ideologically fragmented anti-governmental mass action would not bode well for the integrity of the Ukrainian state. And that’s just one example of the deepening divides emerging in Ukraine – there are others as well.

Against this background, the idea of European integration gains further significance. It is a factor that still unites the Ukrainian political, intellectual, economic and social elites as well as large parts of the population of Ukraine. There are, of course, also important historical events or figures — like the Holodomor or Taras Shevchenko — that unite rather than divide Ukrainians. However, concerning the present and future of Ukraine, there are not that many unifying concepts beyond some general wish for affluence, stability and security. Rejoining Europe might be the most important and least controversial concrete idea which has wide acceptance among the elites of western, central and eastern Ukraine – though somewhat less so in the south, it has to be admitted.

O.T.: But stepping back for a moment and looking at it from the other perspective, what does the EU stand to gain by integrating Ukraine?

To use a somewhat provocative metaphor, Ukraine could become the EU’s Trojan Horse with regard to Russia. Western advice is often seen by Russians as irrelevant to their country and subversive in its intention. An EU-promoted re-democratisation of Ukraine, in contrast, would be an argument more difficult to reject...

Andreas Umland

A.U.: Apart from anchoring Ukraine internationally, and providing guidance for internal reform, there’s another dimension: a successful Ukrainian democratisation could have repercussions in the former Soviet empire as a whole. A sustainable Europeanisation of Ukraine would probably impress the elites and populations of other post-Soviet countries. In Russia and Belarus, for example, it could It could induce a rethinking of the political paths that these countries have taken after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Belarusians and Russians are culturally close to the Ukrainians: a functioning law-based democracy in Ukraine would be taken seriously by them.

The EU’s support of Ukrainian democracy, civil society and rule of law therefore has a geopolitical dimension. To use a somewhat provocative metaphor, Ukraine could become the EU’s Trojan Horse with regard to Russia. Western advice concerning the necessity of democratisation is often seen by Russians as being irrelevant to their country and subversive in its intention. An EU-promoted re-democratisation of Ukraine, in contrast, would be an argument more difficult to reject by isolationist Russians. If Ukraine demonstrates that an Orthodox Eastern Slavic nation is able to create and sustain a democratic political system, this could even trigger a new Russian democratisation too. Who knows, Ukraine could well be the EU’s instrument to bring Russia back into the European family.

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