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Ukraine and the European Union – (Almost) Lost in Translation

November 11, 2010
By Andriy Portnov

After the last presidential elections in Ukraine, the European Union gave its approval for the unconstitutional method in forming the governmental coalition in the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada. The coalition was formed not by the parliamentary fractions but by the individual deputies. Later, this way of coalition formation (never applied in President Yushchenko’s times) was legitimized by the Constitutional Court. That enabled the Party of Regions to concentrate all the power in their hands, despite the very modest electoral advantage of Viktor Yanukowych over Yulia Tymoshenko. Such legitimization would not have been possible without international consensus on approving the new government. And that consensus has emerged from the perception of the current Ukrainian political situation as being a "dangerous chaos," but not as being a "growing democracy" or offering "pluralism".

This example definitively illustrates Ukraine`s problem with explaining its situation to the international public. It is not just about the language barrier (though the generally poor level of language knowledge in Ukraine remains a serious problem) but also about the capacity to "translate" the local specifics into the internationally accepted notions of modern democratic political culture.  

Many members of the European Union (whose lack of a common and complex EU strategy toward Ukraine seems to be obvious) have conscious and non-conscious fears of Ukraine regarding possible destabilization of its relations with Russia and massive illegal immigration to the EU. Nota bene all the problems in Ukrainian-Russian relations during Yushchenko’s presidency are ascribed only to Kyiv initiatives of symbolic politics (which are often, but not always, heavy-handed and inaccurate) and the line of concessions applied by President Yanukowych (and perceived by the sizeable part of the Ukrainian society as the "betrayal of national interests") is usually interpreted as the "restoration of good (even if deeply unequal) relations" with the Kremlin.

The eagerness and even the habit of many European politicians to look at Ukraine through the Kremlin prism usually leads to deeply misleading estimations of the Ukrainian situation. One of the examples is the widespread perception of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians as being a homogeneous group with pro-Russian orientation or even as being Russians. The social reality is much more complicated and language preferences (one should remember situational bilingualism, the language asymmetries between the cities and the villages, and the lasting higher social prestige of Russian) cannot be directly ascribed to the political or even geopolitical preferences of the informants.

The disorientation of the West is quite often strengthened by the lack of Ukrainian state initiatives in promoting itself both in the West and in the East. That is why it is difficult to overrate the importance of Ralf Fücks and Walter Kaufmann’s statement that "There shall no more be a return to ‘limited sovereignty’ in a part of Europe or the partitioning of the continent into privileged zones of influence" and that "Russia should not be granted any veto right regarding the deeper integration of the East European countries into the European and transatlantic partnership." That sounds especially urgent in the context of the tendencies in European politics over the last months, and the emergence even in the Polish public discourse of the descriptions of Ukraine as a "buffer zone" between Russian and the EU.

Regarding the lack of communication, the resistance of many European politicians’ to recognize Ukraine’s clear "European perspective" is rather understandable. The same could be said about completely irrational and deeply irritating visa restrictions for Ukrainians. It goes without saying that those restrictions and humiliations help Ukrainians (especially the educated stratum) to feel like "second class" Europeans unwelcomed in "real" Europe. It seems also that the EU prefers not to think seriously about the growing asymmetries in education levels, standards of living, or human rights protection between Ukraine and its western neighbors. Dealing with those asymmetries by inventing new restrictions seems to be not just unrealistic, but very dangerous.

At the same time, the idea of Europe and European integration remains rather popular in Ukrainian society. That is why Viktor Yanukowych – who so easily rejected Ukraine`s possible NATO membership – constantly speaks about "the European choice" and "the European integration." But unfortunately, just like his predecessors, he has done nothing to improve communication with the EU to initiate serious programs for informing Ukrainian society about the European Union. It should be stressed that, until now, Ukrainian media usually write or talk about international events sourced from Russian language services and quote foreign press reports from the website I have also never heard of the president’s initiative to join the European programs that do not require full membership; for instance, the programs of student exchange, in which Ukraine is almost absent.

Ukrainian political elites and Ukrainian society need to agree on the necessity of the implementation of numerous reforms in almost all spheres (from the institutions of public authority to the protection of the environment and animals). The reforms are crucial not only for EU integration but, first and foremost, for the modernization of Ukraine and improvement in the quality of life in the country. My deep belief is that reforms in the education system are of special importance. Post-soviet Ukraine has never experienced the institutional reforms of the universities and the Academy of Sciences. The real modernization of an economy and political system directly depends on the modernization of the education system. There can be no excuse for the lack of any serious reforms after the Orange Revolution, when society was much more prepared to accept the difficulties than it is today. Though, we have to remember that every government in Ukraine has had to deal with a deeply divided country (and that division is not just geographical). And those external divisions are, at the same time, the source of uncertainty and the source of pluralism – a kind of air bag to protect from authoritarian intentions of the political leaders on all sides.

It seems that the European Union needs to formulate a common strategy toward its Eastern European neighbors. To do that, it is crucial to estimate adequately the current political, cultural, and economic situation in the region, to realize the motives and tactics of Russian political attitudes toward its "closest abroad," and – as pointed out by Ralf Fücks and Walter Kaufmann – to recognize democracy and human rights as a central element of European politics. Meanwhile, Ukraine must dare to implement the necessary and painful reforms. That will help it to convince the EU that it is an integral part of Europe and also help in overcoming the perceived arrogance and lack of interest from Europe.

Andriy Portnov is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Ukraina Moderna, Kiev