Ukraine’s pivot towards the West has barely begun, but fatigue and frustration are already setting in.
With a snowstorm raging outside, Olha draws a stack of banknotes from her bag and starts inserting them in the ATM. By the end of a lengthy operation she has banked some 1200 hryvnia. Yet with the hryvnia devalued over 300% since 2013, it amounts to just €40.
In her mid 30s, Olha belongs to the new generation and the professional class behind reformist forces in Ukraine. Despite a decent monthly salary of over €500 euros (the minimum wage stands at some 1600 hryvnia or €55 euro), she struggles to have anything resembling the life of a young European, while real estate property or even savings are well beyond her reach. Other social strata are obviously worse off and struggle just to pay their rising gas and electricity bills - side effects of the macroeconomic reforms that the government has put in place over the last couple of years at the behest of the IMF, often a precondition to the loans Ukraine depends on to avoid bankruptcy.
Two years ago, many had hopes for a closer association with Europe, seen then as a beacon of rule of law and better prospects, in contrast to the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of Putin’s Russia. Yet there is now a post-Maidan disenchantment with Europe. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that key member states have dragged their feet and failed to honour their promises to Ukraine. There is also a logical concern about the rise of anti-migration and Putin-friendly forces on both sides of the Atlantic, and questions about the future of the EU. These add to tensions resulting from war against Russia and its proxies in the East, with its human toll and polarizing political impact.
Oligarch-run media outlets and populist leaders increasingly promote anti-EU messages that would not look out of place in Brexit Britain. And pro EU Maidan actors and government officials, weary after years of hard work in a deteriorated political context, complain that “the EU is not delivering” – critiques amplified by their political opponents.
Ukraine’s Europhobic forces include a motley crew of pro-Russian Opposition Bloc members (who have reached out to like-minded forces within the EU), nationalists (such as EU-bashing Oleh Liashko of the Radical Party, or the far right Azov Batallion, now constituted into the National Corps Party), and recalcitrant elements in the ruling parties who torpedo reforms. Some of these forces toy with the notion of a “Third Way for Ukraine” - neither Russia nor EU. Meanwhile, in the background, constant pro-Russian and anti-Maidan misinformation fans the idea that the Ukrainians were wrong in vouching for decadent Europe and will be let down.
While crisis-torn EU has experienced a substantial loss of leverage across its neighbourhood, even in areas under the enlargement framework such as the Balkans, it has thus far enjoyed a positive influence in Ukraine. Pressure from Europe and American, in conjunction with civil society pressure and the IMF, explains some of the progress made since 2014. Yet that clout could be dented and reformists disempowered should the EU’s deliverables fail to materialize, or should more spillover effects from a bickering Union continue to negatively impact politics in Ukraine.
The stalled visa liberalisation affair epitomizes this threat. Visa free travel is one of the EU’s most valuable carrots, and was a positive incentive for anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine. Yet the current perception on the ground is one of a never ending procrastination of the process. Typical intra-EU clashes about the conditions for implementing an ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, allowing a temporary suspension of the regime, are hard to explain to Ukrainians, who only see foot-dragging by governments more concerned by their own domestic politics than with Ukrainian – or even European – interests. If the visa-free regime continues to be put off after the French and German elections in 2017, the EU’s credibility will be even more severely damaged.
Indeed, every sign of promise for struggling Ukrainians seems to precede another blow from one or more EU actors. Shortly after the announcement of an agreement on the visa regime, the Dutch PM Mark Rutte, under pressure from the rise of Geert Wilders, unilaterally threatened to scupper the entry into force of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. Despite the agreement having already been ratified by the other 27 members, Rutte demanded legal guarantees that the Agreement sets no military assistance obligations nor a commitment to eventual EU membership for Ukraine. Though the Agreement with Ukraine entails nothing of the sort, additional guarantees and clarifications were granted at last week’s European summit. Rutte wanted to go further and rule out membership altogether, but this was a no-go for other EU countries. The message sent by this episode to average Ukrainians, as Olha put it, was clear: “do not expect anything from us - even if things get worse” (after Crimea and Donbas, the unsettling fall of Aleppo is in the minds of many in Kyiv) and “we do not really see you as Europeans”.
As a result, the EU’s image has again deteriorated, obscuring substantial assistance in other areas, just when it most needs credibility and unity to muster all leverage to avoid the unravelling of the Minsk process and stemming a counter-revolution of Ukraine’s powerholders and oligarchs - especially in a context of the rise of illiberal politics in Kyiv that divide society and put pro-EU reformists under siege.
Many Ukrainians, if not their unreformed elites, have proved more committed Europeans than many in the EU. Their misfortune, as a well-known Ukrainian intellectual noted, is doing so just when the West foolishly toys with collapse. Their feat is that the vast majority of them have not yet gone down the chauvinistic and populist road as many in the well-off EU and US have. But this might change if Ukraine is left behind, à la Yalta, to war, economic crisis and populists.
As is usually the case in similar transitions, many reforms will only yield results in the mid-term. Hence the best European strategy is patience, staying the course and stepping up pressure on reforms – especially those regarding the Sovietised law enforcement sector. Over-concentrating on the political aspects of the Minsk process, and pushing them hastily, could lead to the mistakes made in Bosnia or Macedonia, as power-sharing arrangements tend to empower spoilers and derail democratic consolidation.
Ukrainians are a resilient people. They will muddle through in finding their own way in democratic state-building, attempting to leave behind the previous system and its pernicious, mafia-style politics - while they preserve their sovereignty too. Europe can contribute to that process and even find some new raison d’etre. In the old days, European countries would invest harder in staying united over parochial whims and recognize common interests. Nowadays, at a minimum, some Europeans should at least strive to respect that old principle of ‘do no harm’ to partners and neighbours, distant and not so distant.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.