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PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager
Program Coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council
In and of itself, Ukraine’s aspiration to move towards Europe is a sign of its focus on development and reforms. There are, however, a number of paradoxes which cast a shadow over the short-term implementation of this project.
The European integration myth is dangerous because it instils certain expectations in the population that need to be met in the near future. Failing to deliver on these implies the risk of another coup via street protests.
Ukraine is effectively replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Europe values democratic institutions because it uses them on a daily basis and has thus integrated them into society, whereas for Ukraine these same institutions have become a value in and of themselves, but their essence has been lost in the process.
In this sense, the Eurointegration process will take a long time, seeing as democratic institutions cannot just be introduced formally: they need to become a part of everyday life. Hence European politicians’ cautious statements as to Ukraine’s readiness to integrate into the EU.
Ukraine first embraced the European path during the 2004 revolution. Institutionally, this path implies the country’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. The recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution legitimise this drive. This very fact suggests that Ukraine is committed to development and reforms, but a number of paradoxes cast doubts on the project.
This article aims to dissect Ukraine’s European integration process in the context of various related factors, while highlighting some significant trends and producing recommendations for different scenarios.
Does everyone believe in Ukraine’s European future?
Four Years of EU–Ukraine Association: Teething Problems or Permanent Crisis?
The Ukrainian parliament in early February voted in favour of amending the constitution to enshrine the country’s intention to join the EU and NATO. The motion was supported by 334 MPs, with 31 voting against it (representatives of the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc).
Such amendments are typical of Eastern European countries. In October 2018, Moldova held a parliamentary vote on whether the country’s constitution should include European integration as a strategic goal. The Moldovan parliament did not support the idea. The constitutions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia do not contain provisions for these countries’ integration into the EU, but some of them have other official documents insinuating that they are interested in closer cooperation with the EU and NATO. Georgia’s national military strategy states that cooperation with NATO and the EU is a priority for the country’s foreign policy and security.
Incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has recently started voicing ideas that are indicative of his vision for the country’s geopolitical course: “Ukraine must turn into a powerful regional centre and a member of the EU and NATO so as not to become a colony of the Russian Empire once again.” According to Poroshenko, Ukraine is set to apply for EU membership and be provided with a roadmap for accession to NATO in 2023.
Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism
Russia views this as nothing but an attempt to score points in the presidential race, in which he is pitted against Yuliya Tymoshenko. The latter subscribes to the same agenda: “In the contemporary competitive world, where an intense fight for resources is just beginning, Ukraine cannot afford to stay on the sidelines. This is why we aspire for EU membership. At the same time, we must realise that we cannot be alone now that a war is being waged against us. We need NATO membership.”
Another presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, offers a more rational view: “I never pay visits if I’m not invited. I would hate to feel substandard. It would of course be cool to join [the EU and NATO], and if this were possible today then I, being a wise person… Well, I don’t want to insult anyone else, they are not stupid either. I have a question about NATO. What is it about? Does it mean troops that will protect us against aggressors? If it does, then fine, go cut a deal with them quietly. Who needs posters? If I need to, I will make a deal with NATO. Though their conditions are quite something… We are at war, which in itself is preventing us from joining NATO.”
Russia believes that amending the Ukrainian constitution would hinder the Minsk agreements. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov had this to say: “That President Poroshenko has pompously passed a law obligating Ukraine to join NATO makes me doubt very much whether he is going to adhere to the Minsk agreements. The residents of Donbass [...] are not required to reunite [with Ukraine] based on the Minsk agreements but based on the constitution, which now demands that the country join NATO. This is an act of provocation aimed at destroying the Minsk agreements.”
How to avoid becoming the unwanted stepchild in the European family
Russia and Ukraine: Four Scenarios for the Future
The European identity is historically a superstructure above the national identity. Ukraine’s problem is that it is trying to skip the phase of forming its own national identity in its desire to join the European family.
Essentially, Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Democratic institutions are paramount for European countries because they use them on a daily basis, thus integrating them into a single commonwealth, whereas Ukraine sees value in the institutions themselves and disregards their content.
European integration is first and foremost about practices. People may believe in different values, but they all act according to the same rules. European institutions imply a relatively transparent mechanism for making and implementing decisions. Throughout its long history, the European community has come up with a set of rules that allow for different values to co-exist under a single institutional umbrella. This involves a process of negotiations, which certainly complicate and protract decision-making processes but simultaneously make them transparent and acceptable enough for negotiating parties which adhere to differing values.
In this sense, integration into the EU takes a long time since the European institutions do not need to be introduced formally but rather as part of everyday practices; hence the cautious statements by European politicians as to Ukraine’s readiness for Eurointegration.
Ukraine’s European partners are fairly reserved when commenting on the country’s prospects of joining the EU and NATO. EU envoy to Ukraine Hugues Mingarelli says that “the progress in the implementation of the planned tasks [under the Association Agreement] [...] stands at 52%”, and that in some sectors, including taxation, transport, customs control, and intellectual property, such progress has been quite limited and discouraging. Mingarelli also said that certain individuals in Ukraine were seeking to undermine the reforms.
Joining the European identity requires forming a deep understanding of what Ukraine is and what its borders are.
Ukraine’s relations with the EU and NATO have a long history. Cooperation first began in 1991. Recently NATO approved the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. Ukraine’s relationship with the EU was given a new lease of life in 2014, with the signing of the political portion of the Association Agreement. The economic portion was signed several months later. Amounting to over 1,000 pages, it lists the targets and fundamental principles of Ukrainian-EU cooperation. The names of the document’s seven chapters indicate the priority areas for cooperation: political cooperation, security, justice, freedom, trade and associated issues, economic and industrial cooperation, financial cooperation, combating fraud as well as institutional and broader provisions. All these chapters contain certain requirements for the parties that are to be met by certain deadlines. In particular, the Ukrainian government on September 17, 2014 adopted an action plan to implement the Association Agreement in 2014–17; on October 25, 2017, a document for 2017–2025 was adopted. The European Commission regularly publishes reports on Ukraine’s progress under the agreement. The latest such report was published on November 8, 2018; it indicates that Ukraine is making certain progress, but that it is still a long way away from meeting all the targets set in the document. The headline speaks for itself: “EU report: Ukraine makes important progress in its reforms, but more needs to be done, in particular on the judiciary and fight against corruption”. Overall, the report highlights problems associated with electoral legislation, human rights in Crimea and in the east of Ukraine, and the humanitarian situation in the territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government. The EC pays special attention to the observance of human rights in Ukraine. While praising the Kyiv Equality March, the authors of the report are unhappy about the way International Women’s Day was held on March 8. As for the situation in the east of the country, the EC reiterates that there has been no breakthrough in the negotiating process, and that the situation is effectively at a standstill. In this sense, 2018 did not produce any success for the Minsk format.
The EC report pays special attention to corruption: even though Ukraine has set up institutions dedicated to fighting corruption, the detection rate for corruption-related crimes remains low. The EC believes Ukraine’s economy is truly making some progress, but the report indicates that the economic growth since 2014 has been solely due to external support. The document also notes a lack of foreign investments. Overall, the report highlights certain impediments to reforms while also stating in no uncertain terms that Ukraine’s success is directly dependent on external resources. It should also be noted that the authors are content with Ukraine continuing with the reforms and with the population supporting the drive towards Europe.
Identity for the sake of integration
Crimea and Punishment
Could it be said that Ukraine has brought its national identity up to the level of a civil nation? Opinion polls indicate as much. Most of the respondents believe that Ukraine is a civil nation. However, different respondents may have different visions of this concept. Whether they all understand it similarly remains a mystery for sociologists.
Ukrainians’ attitude towards the course of Eurointegration and NATO membership can be judged by opinion polls conducted by leading Ukrainian research centres. In particular, according to the Razumkov Centre, the country's cooperation with Europe is a priority for 45.8% of Ukrainians, while 12.6% are in favour of establishing closer ties with Russia. At the same time, 6.9% would like to deepen cooperation with CIS countries. It must be noted in this regard that among all the country’s regions, the western-leaning foreign policy receives the most active support in Western Ukraine (75.5%), while the Donbass and eastern part of the country advocate for closer cooperation with Russia (29.7% and 22.4%, respectively).
Democratic Initiatives Foundation says 52% of Ukrainians believe the country needs to join the EU, 34% are opposed, and 15% are on the fence. Explaining their desire to join the EU, 38% of those polled cited their desire to improve their living standards, 27% mentioned corruption in the country, and 26% said they would like to visit EU countries without visas. Every fifth person polled said joining the EU should help young people study at European universities without any restrictions.
Ukrainians believe the country cannot join the EU because of corruption (43% of the respondents), insufficient economic development (38%), low living standards (28%), the war in Donbass (21%), and problems associated with democracy and human rights (17%). A total of 60% of those polled believe the country needs to continue with reforms even if the EU refuses to grant it membership because Ukraine needs reforms regardless of its foreign political course. Interestingly, the number of people who consider themselves European is gradually growing (44% as of late September 2018 versus 38% in July 2017). To feel European, Ukrainians said they need a certain level of income (46%), to feel protected by the law (34%), and have respect for the value of democracy and human rights (21%). A total of 17% of those polled said they needed to feel free in order to feel European. A different survey by Democratic Initiatives indicates that people who are prepared to support Ukraine’s NATO membership cite the idea that NATO will provide the country with security guarantees as their key argument. Those opposed to NATO membership most often say that Ukraine may find itself involved in combat actions on the side of the alliance.
Ukrainians tend to associate the push towards European with high living standards, respect for the law and human rights, and a low level of corruption. Paradoxically, Ukraine could achieve all these things without joining the EU and NATO. After all, any benefits are generally created because the majority of the population follows certain rules. This, however, requires a certain motivation for reforms, and adapting to the new rules takes some time.
Formally integrating into the EU would not help solve all these problems. The argument that the prospect of joining the EU and NATO would motivate the country to change does not exactly hold water because people would tend to think there would be no point in joining the EU once they have already achieved a certain level of development, economic welfare, and respect for the law.
Joining the European identity requires forming a deep understanding of what Ukraine is and what its borders are. Integrating disputed territories into the EU as a way of resolving a conflict within society has proved to be ineffective in the past. Attempts to integrate Serbia and Montenegro demonstrated that the mechanism does not work for a country in conflict. The Eurointegration mechanism involved the EU resolving internal conflicts with the stick-and-carrot approach, with the carrot coming in the form of the prospect of EU membership. Serbia, Montenegro, and a number of other countries with internal conflicts and territories wishing to secede were used as test subjects in attempts to preserve their borders with the carrot of potential EU membership dangling in front of them.
However, in actuality such situations are resolved on an ad-hoc basis, not on the basis of international law and the principle of territorial integrity. Montenegro has since become an independent country, and Kosovo has seceded from Serbia. The latter now needs to settle the Kosovo conflict by effectively recognising it as a separate territory if it ever wants to join the EU. As far as the founding EU members, such as Spain, are concerned, the territorial integrity rules are much stricter.
As for Ukraine, the very idea of Eurointegration resulted in an escalation and the loss of the country’s territorial integrity in 2014. European institutions are partially effective in societies with different socio-cultural backgrounds. For eastern Ukraine, Soviet values have proven to be even more important than they are for Russia itself. In his research on national construction in post-Soviet territories, Vladimir Lapkin demonstrates the phenomenon of post-Soviet secession, with the process being backed by nostalgia for the Soviet past and not a classical nationalist drive. Lapkin says: “These ‘special separatists’, unlike ‘classical separatists’ who attempt to oppose their ethno-national project to the dominating ethnic nation (or its simulacrum), promoted ideas that were absolutely impossible within the political mainstream of the universally Imperial 1990s and 2000s. For lack of a better example, they would often appeal to an ‘idealised USSR’ or a ‘revived Russian state’.” 
The attempt to build Ukraine’s identity based on a path to Europe is going to backfire on politicians: what we have here is an inverted structure. Politicians are trying to fill the niche of national integration with procedural senses. As a result, we end up with the myth propagated by Roland Barthes .
Amendments to the Ukrainian constitution on integration with the EU and NATO
Ukraine chooses the Western democratic development vector
Ukraine is moving towards European integration and the introduction of European institutions
Ukraine’s development and prosperity in the future
Ukraine’s choice of Europe and the West will lead the country to success and prosperity
Publicly, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the notional context of a snake oil capable of handling a number of Ukraine’s current problems, including those concerning the economy, the social sphere, territorial integrity, and the government’s legitimacy. The underlying vector towards European integration and the introduction of European institutions may actually create the potential and motivation for action, but the myth that integration with the EU and NATO may bring about prosperity completely negates all initiative to actually do something.
None of the presidential frontrunners deny that the drive towards Europe could be difficult or even fatal. The concept of Ukraine needing to become part of the EU and NATO due to Russian aggression is a temporary one. It only aims to secure the legitimacy of the current regime and will stop working once Russia has begun mending its relations with the West following the protracted crisis. Ukraine will once again be faced with the problem of building its statehood.
Publicly, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the notional context of a snake oil capable of handling a number of Ukraine’s current problems
Bulgaria's experience demonstrates that an economically weak country integrating into the EU results in a number of new complications, which necessitate spending money on a number of programmes and projects. In fact, EU grants do nothing to ease domestic tension. It is true that EU membership enables citizens of less developed nations to migrate to more developed states. Effectively, what the EU does is integrate human resources. In this situation, no one is interested in developing the weaker countries’ economies because this would lead to an inflow of the workforce into the developed economies. Ukraine is thus becoming a source of human resources for Europe, including cheap young labour and surrogate mothers.
It should be noted that, according to the Centre for Economic Strategy, statistics for Ukrainian immigrants as of 2018 vary between 0.7 and 4 million people. It is estimated that 2.6–2.7 million Ukrainians may reside abroad at any given time. The figures could look different if Ukraine had a uniform base of surrogate mothers. The BBC cites Sam Everingham, the founder of the Sydney-based charity Families Through Surrogacy, as saying that Ukrainians’ requests for surrogate motherhood services jumped by as much as 1,000% in 2016–18. Poland became the most preferred immigration destination in 2014–16, with immigration flows growing by 40%. Russia remains the second most coveted destination, but immigration to that country has been waning. Overall, the number of Ukrainians going abroad to make money in 2014–16 was three times as high as in the previous years of the country’s independence. It should be noted that the immigration trend emerged back in 2009, perhaps due to the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2010 presidential election: Viktor Yanukovych’s victory meant a lot to the country’s eastern regions but did not necessarily suit its western territories. The composition of the migrant flows changed in the years following the 2013–14 revolution, with more immigrants related to industry. This is largely due to the widespread cessation of industrial activities and the lack of industrial funding. Qualified migrants account for just 2% of the entire number of permanent or temporary immigrants.
Internal migration should also be taken into consideration. As of 2018, people were mainly leaving the Donetsk, Luhansk, Vinnytsia, Cherkassy, Kherson, Sumy, Mykolaiv, Kirovohrad, and Zaporizhia Regions, i.e. eastern and central territories of the country. People are understandably leaving the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions due to the ongoing war, but those leaving other regions do so because there is nothing for them there, as major enterprises cease operations. Ukrainians mostly relocate to Kyiv, the capital city which offers more job opportunities, as well as to the Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Dnipro Regions. This trend is consistent with the Ukrainian oligarchs’ tendency to develop the Kharkiv and Dnipro Regions, which are their homesteads. Lviv and the adjacent areas are appealing to Ukrainian residents because they border Poland and also offer relatively higher living standards, which translate to development prospects. Lviv is additionally valued for its high environmental standards. Оdesa prevails by being a seaside city, with a major port and a number of industrial enterprises.
The intra-Ukrainian migration trend indicates that the country’s once-developed regions are increasingly shedding people. Residents of eastern regions mostly relocate to Russia thanks to their cultural identity with that country. Residents of central regions head for the West, Poland specifically. One could conclude that Ukrainians are seeking a better life abroad, but it would be erroneous to believe that this trend has been apparent for the past five years. Internal migration indicates that people continue to be driven by economic stability, while ideology obviously takes a back seat. People naturally find it easier to migrate to the regions of the country which are more likely to embrace them (residents of western and central regions aim for Europe, whereas residents of eastern territories go to Russia), but economic and social stability is the greater component. Society remains disintegrated when it comes to foreign political issues. Europe remains an absolute priority for the majority of the population, as evidenced by immigration statistics and the opinion polls.
Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz shared this information: “According to different estimates, there are nearly 2 million Ukrainians in Poland working in such key economic sectors as construction, agriculture, and services. We value their contribution to the development of our state.”
The Eurointegration myth is dangerous because it instils certain expectations in the population that need to be met in the near future. Failing to deliver could result in another coup via mass street protests. In this sense, the more pragmatic politicians will have greater public support and, consequentially, a greater chance of staying in power. People should not promise something they cannot deliver on, but here is Ukraine signing up for Eurointegration and joining NATO without first calculating the risks and its own capabilities.
The Eurointegration myth is dangerous because it instils certain expectations in the population that need to be met in the near future. Failing to deliver could result in another coup via mass street protests.
Poroshenko says the course towards Europe will help Ukraine avoid Russian “colonisation”. In actuality, there are a number of trends, including labour migration, that indicate that Ukraine is growing increasingly dependent on Europe and becoming a source of human resources in many ways. Whether this trend meets the country’s European aspirations is a question that none of the current Ukrainian politicians can answer.
Moving on to recommendations regarding Ukraine’s Eurointegration drive, there are a number of points to be made. First, politicians need to come up with a uniform set of values and legitimacy that would be relevant to most of the country’s population. We could hypothetically suggest the idea of the country’s independent economic development. With its favourable geography, Ukraine may well become an economic hub, a target for effective investment, and a growth point for innovative projects. For this to happen, however, the country first needs to shed its dependence on any single strong external actor, be it Russia, Europe, the U.S., or, in the longer term, China. It would be fairly possible to create effective, law-governed economic institutions without joining the EU and NATO.
Second, Ukraine needs to mould its youth in a way that would facilitate negotiating practices and an ability to achieve compromise. No matter how skilful the Western European advisors may be, Ukraine will have a hard time introducing democratic institutions unless society revises its long-standing habits. Introducing brand new institutions is always a complicated process that involves breaking established behavioural patterns. This is primarily the mission of educational establishments. The mere drive towards Europe is not going to unite the nation in any significant way.
Ukraine should also stop picturing Russia, or any other country, as its nemesis because this only works as a short-term solution. Seeking out external enemies is only good as an interim method of legitimising a government and securing public unity. The method has a number of disadvantages. First, consolidating against an external enemy requires a particular exertion of forces; no system is capable of holding out for long under stress. Second, the external enemy’s environment may change radically. Third, a country that is defending itself expends much of its strength on defence, not on development.
Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.
1. Vladimir Lapkin. Problems of Nation Building in Multi-ethnic Post-Soviet Societies: Ukrainian Case in Comparative Perspective // Polis. 2016. No 4. Pp. 54–64.
2. Roland Barthes. Mythologies. M., 2019.
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