Aarón Guerra: Is the European Union a Solution for Ukrainian Instability

Aarón Guerra: Is the European Union a Solution for Ukrainian Instability
Author: Aarón Guerra


After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, all post-soviet countries have experienced different processes of political transition. Some of them have been way more successful on their path to liberal democracy than others, due to their different preconditions and singularities. With this, we have on the one hand the paradigms of the Baltic states and Poland, which experienced a relatively rapid democratic transition and economic transformation from their centrally planned economies to solid market economies. Others, such as Ukraine, are paradigmatic cases of a failure of their transitional period, with structural imbalances either in politics or economy that have been brought from 1991 to the present.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated how a country could be questioned in absolute terms by itself. The complex geographic location of Ukraine has put the country in a difficult position. With a vague national identity, the country has been culturally and ethnically betrayed by its past. Russian influence is still ongoing in the Ukrainian territory, being the former Russian territory and one of the main pillars of the Russian foreign policy, which could be considered as polycentric. This theoretical approach understands that “international relations are going through a transitional period, the nature of which is the formation of a polycentric international system”. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 2013) 

Ukraine must deal with more than one defiance on its path to a sound democracy. The deficiencies in the applicability of the Rule of the State and the high level of corruption in almost all institutions can be considered as structural. Therefore, the development of democratic institutions and the refoundation of the Ukrainian political elites seem to be the necessary steps that would allow for the viability of a democratic project in Ukraine. The integration of Ukraine in the EU definitely could be one of the main aims of Ukrainian foreign policy, but its membership is not even on the agenda whereas its institutional development of democracy and the economic performance is far from the EU requirements. 

Looking at the past: from 1991 to Euromaidan 

In 1991, the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union was mostly determined by the Ukrainian Soviet elites, in order to extend their absolute control over the politics and economy of Ukraine. Especially at the point when the central power of Moscow was falling under the control of serious economic and democratic reformers (D’Anieri, 2007). With this, it remains clear that the preconditions needed to initiate a national revolution didn’t exist in 1991. The will of being an independent nation was fundamentally based on the Soviet elite’s lust for power rather than on national sentiments. Therefore, with a weak Ukrainian national identity and a silent political transition, the only “political transition” that took place was a succession of the State into a new one with more or less the same political structures. This could be seen perfectly in the words of Vyacheslav Chronovil, who acknowledged in 1991 when he was being asked about the differences between his program and Kravchuk ́s one – both concurring to the presidential elections and referendum of independence of December 1991 – that nothing was different “except that my program is thirty years old, and Kravchuk’s is three weeks old” (Morrison, 2006).

The structures of the State were shaped and prepared to perpetuate the Soviet elite in power, but with a different appearance (Roeder, 1994). Certainly, the creation of the new State after the Referendum was totally improvised, without a proper constitutional process to give birth to a Constitution. The presidency and the offices of the prime minister were created with executive powers, without any constitutional provision (D’Anieri, 2007). Also, although the constitution was enacted in 1996, it did not properly solve this structural issue with the constitutional powers. So much so, that the two first presidents of Ukraine both fought the Verkhovna Rada for the power to control the State’s structures as it was unclear, whether Ukraine was a parliamentary or a presidential republic (Minakov & Rojansky, 2018). 

Likewise, the multiparty law enacted in 1990 set the entrance barriers really high – in order for the alternative parties to be eligible, 3000 members had to be registered first. This produced a chaotic fragmentation in the elections in terms of political actors, with candidates relying on their moral authority gained during their activity in the past (Birch, 2000). This has its importance due to the spreading of clientelist networks that fostered irregularities in the elections such as vote marketing and strengthen the power of the Soviet elites even more. 

In summary, the country was immersed in what has been called a feckless pluralism (Carothers, 2007). As the political agenda was purely driven by personal interest, an unified vision of the future was forced out of the window. EU wasn’t pushing for democratization in the country either, requesting real actions from Kyiv before any negotiations could begin, although a possible membership of the EU would have been a strong motivator. Furthermore, the behaviour of Leonid Kuchma, the second president of Ukraine, could be defined as a declaration without actions across all his rule, being more regressive in his policies than working on the transformation of a country devastated by corruption. There was no interest in cooperation from either side.

The economy of Ukraine was not doing much better and suffered huge imbalances. The post-soviet economy was totally unproductive, accompanied by high levels of inflation. Meanwhile, the output was sharply declining (The Economist, 2014). Thus the economy was contributing more to the stagnation of the transitional period than aiding its development.

The world saw two new attempts of democratization in Ukraine with the Orange revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan protests in 2014. In both, people went out to the streets to protest and provoked a collapse of the ruling power. The first one was the so-called Orange Revolution. The fraudulent vote counting in the presidential elections of 2004 led thousands of people to the streets in order to protest peacefully in support of the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The protests lasted weeks and forced President Leonid Kuchma to accept a second vote. Finally, Viktor Yushchenko came into power that year. 

Although there are many doubts about the categorization of the civil protests as a revolution (Kuzio, 2007), they had their implications in Ukrainian politics. Given the context of political instability after the “Kuchmagate” and the murder of the independent journalist Georgiy Gongadze, the stabilization of the Ukrainian economy in 2001 brought out an active fight to defend decent life standards (Konieczna, 2005), which intensified after the Georgian Rose revolution in 2003. Right after Kuchma and Yanukovych accepted a second vote, the Verkhovna Rada introduced the parliamentary-presidential model to limit Yushchenko’s future power. Also, the new government was eager to maintain the dialogue with the opposition, which allowed for a smooth reconsolidation of the Ukrainian political elites after the Orange Revolution (Minakov & Rojansky, 2018). The possibility of a real transition into democracy seemed to be more possible than ever. 

During the second government of Yulia Tymoshenko, the political agenda for European integration was proclaimed as a priority for the first time. Yet, as before, the leadership was largely passive in the implementing the necessary reforms (Melnykovska & Weg, 2008). The European promise was not so attractive for the Ukrainian population, consequently neither for the political elites. But the high expectations of political stabilization brought by the supposed new wave of democratization were broken down with the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential elections of 2010. The victory of the Party of the Regions implied a turn away from Europe and NATO, to further Eurasian integration.

The second attempt of democratization in the recent history of Ukraine has been the Euromaidan protests in 2014. The protests were initiated by the EU supporters after the withdrawal from the negotiations due to the political pressure from Russia. The protestors advocated mostly for the resignment of president Yanukovych and for new presidential elections (Tuuli, 2017). The initially peaceful protest, with thousands of people waving European flags, ended with the destabilization of the entire country due to massive violence and the crisis in Crimea and Donbas. 

Looking at the present: Ukrainian position towards the EU vs EU position towards Ukraine

The situation of Ukraine, in both the political and the economic sphere, was not adequate for joining the EU. However, the acquisition of the membership is a long journey, it is not something to do in one morning. The countries wishing to apply must be located within the geographical limits of Europe, accomplish and be compromised with the principles of the article two of the Treaty of European Union, and accomplish the so-called Copenhagen criteria. After this, they could formally apply to be considered as a candidate and if the application is accepted, negotiations begin. 

Ukraine has tried to conduct an integration process into the EU structures several times, framed inside a general process of incorporation of the post-socialist republics such as Poland, Slovakia or the Baltics. In the case of Ukraine, whereas it could not manage to transform itself into “a fully European country, measured by stability and prosperity” (Tedstrom, 2001), a new layout for its foreign policy towards EU is necessary. On the other hand, the EU was also interested in establishing new links with the post-socialist countries. Thus, with the 2004 enlargement, the European Neighbor Policy was launched. This moved from the promise of membership for everyone who accepts the rules of the game to the sole promotion of stable relations, more economic than political. With this movement, the EU, far from lowering the entry barriers to the club, tried to ensure its influence over those countries. However, this new policy layout decreased the incentives for those countries to strengthen the efforts regarding the continuation of the reforms to adapt to the EU conditionality. Therefore if the goal is to create a stronger EU, ENP does not seem too promising.

In this regard, and based on a constructivist approach, Europeanization must be considered as a process in which both identities, national and supranational, are influenced and constructed based on each other (Featherstone, 2001). Consequently, its success will depend on how much ideational space there is for Europe in the given collective identity constructions (Risse, 2001). 

From deserve to need. The cases of Bulgaria and Romania

Located in this context, maybe the only question left to answer is: does Ukraine deserve to be part of the EU? Well, looking at the past it is hard to state that they deserve to, especially if we compare Ukraine’s recent history with the demands of the EU in terms of democratization and a stabilized market economy. But are these criteria applied in all the cases? 

The fifth enlargement of the EU included Bulgaria and Romania. At the time, both countries were not in the best condition to become members of the EU, so much so that they did not enter the union with all the rights. The freedom of movement was postponed for the first time after the accession of a new member state to the union and Bulgarians and Romanians were still required by some EU states to acquire a permit to work (European Union, 2007). Therefore, this new enlargement took place in a context of scepticism by some member states (Tuuli, 2017). The EU had to decide between continuing with the enlargement in an attempt to expand its influence or undermining the internal process of integration between member states. 

We can consider this milestone in European history as the first and foremost precedent that has subsequently led to a cooling of EU-Ukraine relations in terms of political integration. This process showed to the members that an intensive enlargement could not be possible while maintaining the political stability within the union. With this, the key question has turned out to be: does Ukraine really need to be part of the EU in order to solve its structural instability in the political and economic institutions, more than if it deserves so. 


Although there is no doubt that the EU played a role in the development of Eastern Europe, it is difficult to say if Ukraine has been treated in a similar manner as other Eastern European countries. After this detailed analysis of the case, it is difficult for me to consider the EU as a true ally in the transformation process of Ukrainian politics. Rather, it has been a destabilizing factor in the recent past, using Ukraine to construct an unitarian foreign policy in the EU. 

Although it has not been the topic of this paper, probably the most important stabilizing factor that Ukraine lack is a strong national identity. Given this, it remains clear that the transformation of Ukrainian politics has to be primarily internal. I feel that constitutional processes are necessary for a proper transition to democracy. More than a process of Europeanization, which could be possible in the future but not in the medium or short term. 



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