This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
While many Ukrainians still want to join the European Union, foreign policy plays a much smaller part in this vote than the Western media thinks.
As Ukrainians prepare to choose their new parliament, the Western media continues to paint a familiar picture. Once again, the election is seen mostly through the lens of the struggle between “pro-European” and “pro-Russian” forces. The “pro-Europeans” are mostly represented by President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s “Popular Front”, and Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s “Civic Position”. If they win, the commentators say, Ukraine will finally take firm steps on the path to Europe. But if the “pro-Russians” – represented mainly by the Communists, the “Opposition Bloc”, and the remnants of the Party of Regions, now called “Stronger Ukraine” – gain the upper hand, the country’s progress to European integration will stall.
This view greatly exaggerates Europe’s role in the elections. While many Ukrainians still want to join the European Union, foreign policy plays a much smaller part in this vote than the Western media thinks. Most parties likely to enter the new parliament are not campaigning on anything related to Europe. The key issues that determine how Ukrainians will vote are the conflict in the Donbas and the question of internally displaced people, along with the economic issues of how to avoid a default and how to keep the gas flowing this winter. On all these issues, except maybe the energy supply negotiations, the EU has played a supporting role at best (for example, in facilitating negotiations with the IMF and World Bank), and a marginal one at worst (for example, in the Minsk negotiations on the ceasefire in the Donbas).
However, this is not necessarily an indication that the EU-Ukraine relationship is souring. After the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in the east, Ukrainians’ appetite for joining the Moscow-led Customs Union dwindled. But the main Europe-related issue now is the need to implement the Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) between the EU and Ukraine, signed earlier this year and now in the process of ratification by the EU’s national parliaments. This important but humdrum task is not the kind of thing that can excite voters.
Another reason that the campaign is not that focused on Europe is that the EU’s member states have lost some of their appeal over the past year. Most Ukrainians see Europe’s reaction to the popular protests on the Maidan last November as having been too little, too late. Brussels and the European capitals first failed to see the real cause of the protests; many thought the protests were about the EU, rather than about Ukrainians’ anger at how the ruling elites mismanaged their country. Later, as the protests continued and turned violent, the EU failed to react quickly enough. By the time it sent mediators to Ukraine in late February, more than 100 people had died on the streets of Kyiv in clashes with riot police.
The EU’s best course of action in the current Ukrainian crisis is to focus on principles, not personalities. Europe should support any party and government that is willing to tackle corruption and implement much-needed sweeping reforms, whether in the energy and business sector, in state administration, or in education. Emphasising issues rather than parties would be the best way for the EU to regain credibility among Ukrainians. Brussels should not worry about the victory of the “pro-Russian” or the “pro-European” side in the elections – these labels are far less meaningful than foreigners like to think. For Ukraine, the upcoming elections are mostly a domestic affair, just as elections are in most other European countries. The EU’s real concern should be whether any of the parties that enter the new parliament can recognise the gigantic task of rebuilding the Ukrainian state – and finally get down to taking action.
Jana Kobzova is associate policy fellow at ECFR.
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.