Opinion

EU running on empty in Ukraine

16.11.09 @ 09:19

  1. By Elena Gnedina

Ukrainian politics is like Mexican telenovelas. The characters are the same for years and years: charming but cunning Tymoshenko, dull but pragmatic Yanukovych, idealistic but weak Yushchenko, plus the whole plethora of old faces from Litvin to Tihipko. Yatsenyuk is the only new face, campaigning with smart khaki billboards, but with surprisingly old-fashioned views.

  • Kiev cathedral: terms such as "euro-romantic" and "euro-idiot" have become normal among Ukraine officials (Photo: EUobserver.com)

However, the 2010 election campaign is different from the past elections in Ukraine. The change is not in personalities, but in subtleties of their rhetoric.

These are the first elections in a decade when none of the main contenders comes forth with a strong pro-EU message. Until now all political parties that mattered made European integration part of their party programmes. Failing to do that meant less popularity among the Ukrainian population, buying into everything European, from evroremont (expensive and well-done apartment renovation) to evrogroby (lacquered wooden coffins).

The start of the 2010 campaign suggests that the idea is slowly losing its appeal. The EU, absorbed by its institutional and now economic crises, has too little on offer for Ukraine. The popular support for European integration has decreased from 65 percent in 2002 to 43 percent in 2008. As a result, many Ukrainian politicians appear sceptical, if not outright critical, of the EU. The idea of the "third way," highlighting Ukraine's exceptionalism, is instead making its headway.

Who stands for the EU in Ukraine?

Just a year ago, Arseniy Yatsenyuk - a presidential candidate and leader of the newly created Front for Change - was the embodiment of hopes for a new generation of politicians: young, modern and European. And he became indeed the first to prove that the winds were changing in Ukraine. But in rather surprising ways.

With the help of his PR-technologists, Yatsenyuk has revealed his quixotic plan. Ukraine, according to Yatsenyuk, should reject both European integration and integration with Russia as "pseudo-policies." Instead of being pushed and pulled by others into unrealistic projects, Kyiv, according to Yatsenyuk, should become the capital of an "Eastern European Space," comprising everything in-between Uzhgorod on Ukraine's border with the EU to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Russia's Far East. Geography suggested that the Eastern European Space was simply another edition of Slavic brotherhood with a Ukrainian spin. The pro-European electorate, who deserted Yatsenuk, seems to have run out of options.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych are the most probable candidates for the second round. Both are moderately pro-European in their rhetoric, but much less so in their deeds. Yanukovych is openly backed by the Russian "United Russia" party. His electoral manifesto does not contain a single word on European integration, and some of his influential aids threw their support behind the Single Economic Space with Russia. Tymoshenko pushed away the pro-European electorate with her controversial slip of the tongue that the Ukrainians "are craving a dictatorship." Yushchenko is the most pro-European, but his record in office hardly strengthens the popularity of the idea.

Reforms not rhetoric

Their real failure is not in rhetoric, but in insufficient reforms, however. For example, the grand project of the EU and Ukraine – that of modernisation of Ukraine's gas transit system - has stumbled over the corrupt interests of power elites. Now the EU is threatening to halt the disbursement of money it promised in July 2009, as Ukraine does not seem committed enough to pursuing energy sector reform.

The politicians of smaller calibre have surprisingly similar insights on Ukrainian foreign policy. Both Vladimir Lytvin and Serhiy Tihipko argued in favour of a self-sufficient Ukraine. Anatoly Gritsenko, known as a pro-European politician, argued that "In five years we would be knocking on the doors of neither the EU, nor NATO, nor the Tashkent agreement nor the Single Economic Space. Internal efficiency is our priority. And a strong army."

The same trend can be observed among the Ukrainian bureaucrats. An Ukrainian official, dealing with European integration in Ukraine, aptly described his growing disillusion: "There are two types of people, who work on the European integration in Ukraine: enthusiasts and idiots. If before, there were more enthusiasts, than idiots; now there are more idiots than enthusiasts." In fact, new dismissive if not derogatory terms like euro-romanticism and euro-idiotism are entering routine discourse.

What is left? There are few candidates who can credibly promote the idea of European integration in Ukraine. And even fewer are successful in this. However, European integration remains the main and perhaps only idea that can unite Ukraine's divided society, and set Ukrainian politicians on a path to modernisation. This adds urgency to the EU task.

It is time for the EU to understand that promoting EU values abroad is not about some magic magnetism, it is hard work. Perhaps with the Lisbon Treaty ratified, the EU will be able to mobilise itself for more ambitious policies in the neighbourhood. Unless the EU presents a success story, be it in Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine, it may find even fewer believers in European ideas a few years down the road in the post-Soviet space.

Elena Gnedina is a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels