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Building a Viable Ukraine: Can the EU Deliver?

Image: Wanderherr/Wikimedia

It has been clear for some time that EU governments, and most of their publics, find the thought of extending military support to conflict-ridden Ukraine wholly unpalatable.  Debates regarding the pros and (mostly) cons of sending European military aid and European peacekeepers have run their course throughout European capitals without much enthusiasm.

Against this background another struggle has begun to receive the attention of pundits, and rightly so. It is the long and arduous battle for a viable Ukrainian state, one that is built on a functioning democracy, a competitive economy, and the rule of law. This vision entails a process that The Economist has aptly termed de-oligarchisation and—most importantly—the ultimate objective of countering corruption.  If this vision is to succeed, the EU and Ukraine will have to demonstrate that they are as committed to each other as they claim to be.

“You keep reforming, we keep supporting”

The EU-Ukraine summit which took place on 27 Aprilwas characterised by the demands of the former for more resolute and swift progress on reforms (including measures in economic competition, political decentralisation, and anti-corruption) on the part of the latter. In sum, the message to Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, as delivered by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was, “you keep reforming, we keep supporting.”

For its part, the Ukrainian government has pointed out that it has already implemented several reforms, even though the country’s security is in tatters and its economy in a tailspin as a result of the Russian-sponsored and -enabled violent conflict in the eastern Donbas region. As Prime Minister Yatsenyuk pointedly remarked, the financial assistance provided to Ukraine constitutes just one tenth of that doled out to Greece, which is facing “no war and no Russian tanks.”

This sentiment is of course understandable. But Europe is absolutely right to keep up the pressure on Ukraine. Its economy suffers from structural inefficiencies, and most of its industrial sectors are uncompetitive monstrosities lorded over by self-enriching billionaire oligarchs. Yet, no scourge is greater than the endemic, all pervasive corruption that permeates every strata of public life and economic activity. Bribes are paid for receiving “public” services such as medical appointments, “expediting” various administrative certificates, “securing” employment, and “ensuring” favourable school and university marks. The extent of state capture is so great that public service is treated by those “serving” as a quick and efficient means of self-enrichment, with a favoured method being the plunder of public funds and state assets. Thanks to decades of Soviet economic planning, the lawlessness of the so-called transition years, and despairingly low salary levels, graft has taken on a cultural dimension: a popular sentiment is “take advantage of the system whenever you can.”

Ukrainians deplore this engrained corruption. In fact, they have revolted against it in their hundreds of thousands during the bitter, tragic, and, for some, fatal winter of 2013-2014 during what has become known as the nation-wide Maidan movement. The multitudes that had poured into Kyiv from across the country and staged protests in their own cities, the Ukrainians of all ages and walks of life that had spent days, nights, and weeks holding the EU flag in temperatures far below zero, and the dozens that eventually gave their lives doing so, were not simply demanding a technocratic association agreement with the EU.

For them, moving closer to Europe meant finally doing away with the “sleaze” (as authors Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer term it) that had become emblematic of the Yanukovych administration and political economy at large. Like citizens of many countries facing EU reforms, their “great expectations” were that Europe would finally hold corrupt domestic elites to account. For those participating in the Maidan demonstrations, and for a huge number of Ukrainians ever since, an association agreement with the European Union represented, for the first time, a hope for the rule of law, transparency, and accountability: quite simply, for a better future in a better country.

But can the EU deliver?

Thus, in addition to pressing the current Ukrainian government on the speed and extent of reforms, the EU should honestly ask itself – how ready is it to fulfil these hopes? How closely does it really want to be “associated” with Ukraine? The answers to these questions will dictate how many resources it is willing to invest into ensuring that reforms are actually implemented. More than just rewarding progress with financial assistance, this entails providing oversight on the ground on a meaningful scale. The EU rightly prides itself on fostering democratic transformation and economic transition within its associated and candidate countries, and those that have since become members. The Central and Eastern European states, but especially Romania and Bulgaria, come to mind in this regard. What distinguishes these cases from the Ukrainian one is that the EU wanted them as members of the Union, and as a result, invested in making sure that they had fulfilled the necessary criteria. The anti-corruption drives reached deep and wide. Speaking of Ukraine’s EU membership is of course premature, but the key question of how much the EU really wants it still stands.

If the answer is “enough to invest considerable resources,” then the crucial place to focus on is the implementation of governance, the rule of law, and counter-corruption reforms. The EU Delegation to Ukraine and the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform (EUAM Ukraine) are already providing valuable, much-needed assistance on the ground. Yet, to achieve truly meaningful results, this presence must be expanded in terms of mandate, resources, and geographic and administrative reach. Ukraine is a large country, and local administrations beyond the power-centre of Kyiv are those most in need of the EU’s assistance and oversight. Again, this would be a resource-intensive endeavor for the EU, and an intrusive one from the perspective of Ukraine.

However, if both parties are as committed to each other as they claim to be – and as the Ukrainian people are routinely told they are – the most logical, and most potent next step is to scale up the EU’s presence in Ukraine to a level that can really deliver change, particularly when it comes to ensuring the rule of law and countering corruption.  In Ukraine, Europe’s order hangs in the balance. If its leaders and people want to, the EU has the means to prevent it from falling.


Julia Muravska is an Analyst at Avascent. She holds a PhD  in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where her research examined the emergence of the defence equipment market in the EU. Previously, Julia worked for the Defence and Security Programme of Transparency International UK, with a focus on counter-corruption in defence procurement and defence corporate initiatives.

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