If four years ago, someone suggested that a relatively small student protest camp in Ukraine, violently dispersed overnight by police , would have a profound influence on European history, many would simply laugh at the thought. For many years, EU policymakers have been walking a tightrope between integrating neighboring countries into its institutional orbit and keeping said neighbors at arm’s length, making sure that these countries do not actually “become” Europe in the full sense of the word.
Early in the process, attempts to integrate transition economies gave rise to the narrative of “conditionality.” The narrative implied that a closer integration into the EU single market and other international institutional structures (such as NATO) would be conditional upon completing certain reforms, which, arguably, the governments of countries in question would have little incentive to implement on their own. Unfortunately, the commitment implied by this narrative soon clashed reality. The long-term political and national security benefits of greater European integration and the need to give countries a clear roadmap of the institutional progress they needed to achieve to join EU and Euro-Atlantic structures ran against the challenges integrating an ever-increasing number of culturally, politically, economically diverse countries. It could have been predicted early on that integrating “transitional Europe” in the full sense of the word (i.e. giving access to the labor market and a say in conducting EU affairs) would become very unpopular among the EU electorate.
The failure of the EU leadership to rally its own constituents behind the ambitious integration agenda had one major cause: people in the EU knew, and consequently cared, very little about those parts of Europe which vied for eventual membership. Not only did European stakeholders — such as the general public, businesses, academic and policy circles — have a very vague idea about political climate of these countries, they often had little understanding of even the basic differences between them, to say nothing of the major cultural and social shifts which occurred since the collapse of the USSR and the influences that were driving the social discourse in these societies.
“The lack of accredited journalists on the ground in Ukraine, as well as other countries of the region, perpetuated the perception that these countries were culturally and historically inextricably bound to Moscow.”
Notably, once revolutionary events started in November 2013 in Ukraine, major news outlets resorted to publishing reports from their Moscow correspondents rather than reporting directly from Kyiv. The lack of accredited journalists on the ground in Ukraine, as well as other countries of the region, perpetuated the perception that these countries were culturally and historically inextricably bound to Moscow. The perception was clearly inaccurate, as the subsequent events all too clearly showed that Ukraine was not necessarily more bound to Moscow than it had been to Poland, Finland, or the Baltics at different points of its history.
But the most glaring omission in the EU strategy towards Eastern partnership countries was a lack of sufficient soft power, which would allow countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova to shed the status of “others,” and allow them to become meaningful participants in European intellectual and policy discourse. As it was, the countries that aspired to become a more integral part of Europe were merely observers, and never partners in the EU’s social and political dialogue. When the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine started to unfold, it is not surprising that Europe could not understand why so many people, young and old, risked their health and their lives to protest the president who “merely” refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. Why would these protests prompt such a violent reaction from Moscow and shake Putin’s regime to its core? Why would people in Ukraine fight to strengthen ties with the bloc which was in the midst of profound identity crisis, losing the sense of its own purpose?
Of course, it could have been argued that people in Ukraine were merely “dreamers,” with an overly idealistic view Europe, and that their enthusiasm for the western vector of development was based on an illusion. Yet, the chatter of political talking heads weighing the costs and benefits of joining DCFTA vs. the Eurasian Customs Union became largely irrelevant, as the revolution in Ukraine pushed on, forcing the corrupt head of state out of power and withstanding the first blows of Russian aggression by mobilizing not the power of the state, but a myriad of civil volunteer networks. Such strength of purpose uniting ordinary people was probably not seen in Europe since the Second World War.
The most surprising things that came out of Ukrainian revolutionary movement was that these naïve “dreamers” of the EU were not in fact fighting for a place in a prestigious club — they were fighting very hard for a chance to reform their own society. They fought to maintain the momentum of institutional changes which would allow the country to escape the vector of development associated with authoritarian rule, graft, and corruption.
If Europeans were able to understand the strength and the tremendous potential of civil society in Ukraine, they would be much less preoccupied with fearing the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU someday, but instead would focus on harnessing the power of civil society to change the country from within, inviting Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries to join discussions about the value and the future of the European idea — on equal terms.
Hopefully now, after several years have passed since November 2013, Europe is realizing how important Eastern Partnership countries are for the long-term peace and stability of the EU itself. Integrating the EU neighborhood into the common fold, maintaining the conditionality narrative alive is only one step towards the goal of creating a more stable and secure Europe. A much bigger challenge is to make EP countries familiar to an average European — familiar enough to accept these countries’ aspirations without fear or prejudice.
Dr. Yaroslava Babych is an EDSN Fellow and the Head of the Macroeconomic Policy Research Center the International School for Economics at Tbilisi State University. She is a native of Ukraine. EDSN is an international project of the Center for Social Sciences, Tbilisi, and made possible with generous funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.