29th Feb 2024


Ukraine: An 'arsenal of democracy' in Europe

  • Ukraine's membership in the EU would reinvigorate Europe's tired institutions (Photo: European Parliament)
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The second item on the European Council's agenda for its June 23-24 summit in Brussels is listed simply as "Ukraine."

The Council will discuss granting Ukraine European Union candidate status, in what the chair of the European Parliament's committee on foreign affairs David McAllister has called "a clear political sign of solidarity with the people of Ukraine."

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Several EU members have disagreed with the parliament's decision, calling for a prolonged membership procedure or a half-way house solution.

Opponents of Ukraine's accelerated membership generally argue in terms of the intricate requirements set out in the acquis communautaire, the cumulative body of EU laws and regulations that candidate countries must fulfil.

Opponents have a point, but they overlook the glaring fact that the EU always bases its decisions on politics as well. Neither Romania nor Bulgaria was that much more in compliance with the acquis than Ukraine when they were admitted into the EU.

And a variety of countries, including Germany and France, shamelessly stretched the limits of monetary and fiscal policy in order to qualify for the Eurozone.

In sum, if the EU wants to, it can easily follow McAllister's advice.

In taking this step, however, the EU would do more than grant a favour to Ukraine. It would also significantly enhance its own democratic content.

Though hardly flawless, Ukraine is remarkably democratic, possibly more so than some regular EU members, and could contribute to a democratic revitalisation within the EU.

A European, Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1835 published his classic Democracy in America.

He was impressed by American post-Revolutionary society's iconoclasm, idealism, spirit of egalitarianism, and activism of civil society. Today's Ukraine amply demonstrates many of the American virtues that Tocqueville admired.

Going back to Ukraine's Revolution on Granite, in which students set up a protest tent city in Kyiv in 1990, the Orange Revolution of 2004/05, the Revolution of Dignity of 2014, and now resistance to the Russian invasion, increasingly wide circles of Ukrainian society have committed themselves to national independence, mutual aid, and the standard European package of political institutions and human rights.

Ukrainian society has manifested a surprisingly strong national unity. This requires some historical perspective for explanation.

After the Kyivan principality of Rus' (Ruthenia, not Russia) was sacked by the Mongols in 1240, Ukrainian lands were divided and fought over by Poland and Russia, while also being subjected to slave raids from the Ottoman empire.

In the 17th century a free Cossack State of farmers-craftsmen-warriors centred in the Dnipro region achieved a measure of statehood and a considerably urbanised and literate society.

Two things are of note here. First, the Cossack State was multi-ethnic and inclusive, obviously by the standards of the time, accepting into its ranks peasants fleeing Polish landlords, serfs fleeing Muscovite autocracy, and diverse others from all parts of Europe and the Black Sea region.

Second, this was a frontier society, in which people acquired the instinct for freedom and self-reliance, which was never completely eliminated even during the darkest decades of Soviet rule. The Cossack State is the direct ancestor of now-independent Ukraine.

A third notable factor is that Ukrainian independence movements were always resource-poor, in comparison to established neighbouring states; consequently, the movements were generally conditioned to search for social allies through inclusive politics.

This outreach to potential social allies prevailed all through the dissident era of the 1950s through 1980s and bore fruit in the referendum of 1991, when 91 percent of the population from all social backgrounds voted for national independence.

Whenever Ukrainian governments had sufficient strength to take responsibility for their territories, inter-ethnic relations improved, as is the case at present.

The public's political secularism was recently displayed in the landslide election of the ethnically Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky as president in 2019.

Ukraine is a highly pluralistic society, with no single social or regional category that could enforce its will on the others.

The felicitous aspect of this is that democracy is actually working as it should, because the country's society is now highly united around the values of democracy and human rights.

There is a taboo among political aspirants about mentioning the ethnicity or religious affiliation of rival candidates, for it is assumed that all are loyal citizens unless proved otherwise.

In its time, the Revolution of Dignity constituted the largest pro-European Union demonstration in history. Ukrainian civil society continues to demonstrate the civic ideals that Tocqueville admired.

Most remarkably, citizens at the individual level have psychologically transcended the apathy and cynicism produced by Soviet custom; and at the national level citizens have been able to achieve inter-group trust and collective action, whereby each civic group, and now each region invaded by Russia, contributes to the collective defence, with no free riders on board.

Ukraine's membership in the EU would reinvigorate Europe's tired institutions, address the Union's democratic deficit, and provide young Europeans with a model of democracy in action.

In the spirit of Tocqueville, America has been termed "an arsenal of democracy" in the New World. The European Union can now help Ukraine—and itself—to become an arsenal of democracy within the Old World.

Author bio

Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark. Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of public policy living in Almaty.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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