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At 25 is Ukraine any closer to Europe?

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

Ukraine as an independent state has turned 25. It is a difficult age in human years: full of contradictions and alternating states of elation and frustration, potency and powerlessness. The time when a young adult, one desperately tries to carve out one’s individual space, but finds it hard to cut the umbilical cord. It is an age when one has a clear idea about who his or her friends (or foes) are, but is still uncertain about what is really important in life. At 25, we often hide our inexperience behind conservatism and our self-doubt behind paraded pride.

November 8, 2016 - Joanna Fomina - Articles and Commentary

 Contemporary Ukrainian society has now reached this stage in life. Rushed into adulthood and independence by bereavement after the loss of an “older brother” and the horrors of the war, Ukrainian society claims to be proud of its independence and increased collective action, yet is extremely pessimistic about the transformations, ongoing reforms and “the power of the powerless”. A firm geopolitical orientation towards the West does not go together with shared values, be it the importance of democracy or the respect for diversity.

Difficult choices

The experiences relating to the Maidan and the war have brought unprecedented civic mobilisation that has helped consolidate Ukraine as a political nation. The most visible changes are taking place in the most vulnerable regions – the east and the south. Ukrainians, as never before, are convinced that they want to have an independent state (87 per cent, compared to 67 per cent in 2011). Notably, the east and south have become much more patriotic: only between 47 per cent and 49 per cent of people would have voted for independence in 2011, today it is between 72 per cent and 76 per cent respectively. What is more, 88 per cent declare themselves as Ukrainian and 10 per cent as Russian (in the 2001 census, 17 per cent declared themselves as Russian).

Despite the current hardships, national pride has become much more widespread. Today, many more pride themselves on being Ukrainian citizens, compared to the situation in in 2013. A dominant majority claims that all Ukrainians need to be ready to defend their country, and says it is their responsibility to help the Ukrainian soldiers.

Geopolitical choices never came easy to Ukraine. Both non-alignedstatus and the “multi-vector” geopolitical orientation were popular among the elite and ordinary people for a long time. For example, for the past 15 years close to half the population expressed will to join the European Union, but a similar proportion favoured Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. And, indeed, for a long time some did not see any contradiction in the country joining both. However, Ukraine inherited a fear of NATO, the arch-villain of the Cold War, until the day when the “brotherly nation” sent its troops and grabbed its territory.

Since the Revolution of Dignity and the ensuing bloody confrontation, Ukrainian society has undoubtedly become more pro-Western, pro-European, more critical of the Russia state and less divided, even if regional differences are still visible. The military conflict with Russia and the annexation of part of its territory has helped Ukrainians become clearer about where their country should be heading. Support for NATO in recent years has sky rocketed. In 2012 only 13 per cent believed that membership of NATO was the best way to guarantee Ukraine’s security. This figure more than tripled by 2015. In addition, three quarters of those willing to take part in a referendum would support NATO membership. Today, more than half of Ukrainians want to join the EU (around 40 per cent in 2013), but only 15 per cent would rather join the Customs Union with Russia. What is really interesting is that the greatest changes in public opinion happened within the most divided regions: the south, the east. Even in the Donbas area support for EU membership (12 per cent in 2013) has tripled over two years, while support for the Customs Union has decreased from 62 per cent in 2013 to 21 per cent in 2015. 

The EuroMaidan and the Russian aggression against Ukraine have also made Ukrainians feel more European. Today half of the Ukrainian population claim to feel European, even though regional differences are follow into predictable patterns. Being European is first of all associated with economic welfare and later with democracy and human rights, freedom of movement, and rule of law. A majority also believe that membership of  the EU is both in the EU’s and Ukraine’s interests, and would boost Ukraine’s economic development and international position. When asked, what separates their country from becoming a fully-fledged European state, Ukrainians mostly point to economic development, poverty of society and corruption. The majority of Ukrainians appear to be oblivious to problems with democracy and human rights as it was mentioned by on in five Ukrainians.

At the same time, the attitude towards Russia has diametrically changed. In 2011, the dominant majority had a favourable attitude towards their eastern neighbour, now 72 per cent have an unfavourable attitude, and, a similar share believe that Russia is a major threat to its neighbours.

More European?

Support for democratic values has been at the core of the Revolution of Dignity. This raises the question, has Ukrainian society become more pro-democratic? It is hard to give a straight-forward answer. On the one hand, the initial civic mobilisation during the Maidan has not been a “one-off”; it has translated into greater civic engagement and participation and has increased a sense of collective action. On the other hand, representative democracy remains a challenge. In spite of the fact that the general sense of togetherness has somewhat improved, democracy is still valued by slightly more than half of the population, while authoritarian preferences are still relatively widespread.

Since the start of the Maidan, civil society has come to play a very important role in Ukrainian life. It is very uplifting that Ukrainians, who in the past always waited for others to fix their problems, are transforming into a modern, civically-minded society. Indeed, the share of those who donated funds to charity in 2015 (47 per cent) more than doubled over two years and more people engage in voluntary work as well.

Voluntary work is more popular among the younger generation. Hopefully this will translate into more active civic engagement in the future. On a less optimistic note, however, there are still distinct differences between the regions. For example, in western Ukraine twice as many people claim they donated funds to charity, than in the south. Also, the population of western and central Ukraine (as well as Donbas) is much more engaged in voluntary work than that of the south and east. And, moreover, people do not engage in voluntary work for different reasons: in the west, people mainly complained about a lack of free time, while those from the south simply said they are not “charitable persons” by character. By and large, those who were already civically active have become even more active.

Ukrainians feel more empowered today than at the onset of their country’s independence: in 1991 every second Ukrainian said that little depends on the people, in 2016 only one in three agree with this statement. While the perception of society’s collective agency has increased over time, the sense of own personal agency is still rather limited. Half of the population are confident that Ukrainian society is ready to defend the rights and freedom of citizens, to unite in civic organisations, to take part in the political process and slightly less than half – to control the government. Yet, a considerably smaller proportion of respondents feel the same about themselves personally (33 percent, 18 per cent, 12 per cent and 16 per cent respectively). While the perceived empowerment of Ukrainian society is a very positive phenomenon, these results also illustrate a shift from the expectation of state paternalism to civil society paternalism. If the government cannot fix problems, society is expected do it. In other words, the non-governmental sector has come to play the role of a prosthetic limb, standing in for the dysfunctional government; they are often forced to do the job of the public sector, instead of motivating, controlling and occasionally giving a hand to it.

At this moment, volunteers enjoy the highest level of trust in society, followed by the church, the army and non-governmental organisations. While there are some good news regarding the civil society, representative democracy is in deep crisis. Only slightly more than half of the Ukrainian society believe that democracy is the most desirable form of state governance for Ukraine, while one in five is more inclined to favour some kind of authoritarian regime; and, rather worryingly, one in three Ukrainians is still ready to call Stalin “a great leader”. Ukrainians remain deeply sceptical about participation in the political process and suspicious of political parties. Only 3.5 per cent of Ukrainians are members of political parties and about 80 per cent do not trust political parties. More than half of the population also believe that political parties mostly serve the interests of financial and business groups, while only 11 per cent believe they serve the interests of voters. Ukrainian society deeply distrusts the political elite and state institutions. The dominant majority believe the government does not care about citizens’ concerns.

Uncertain future

Ukrainians are also very pessimistic about other developments in their country. By the end of 2015, 60 per cent believed that Ukraine was moving in the wrong direction (a somewhat larger share than in 2013: 52 per cent). The main reasons given for this view were the continued war in the east, growing price inflation and high levels of corruption. A majority is also deeply pessimistic about the outcomes of ongoing reforms in various spheres of public life: only between 20 per cent and 30 per cent believe in the success of the transformations. The representatives of civil society who entered politics with the genuine intent of changing the quality of Ukrainian democracy, have been too few to achieve critical mass, and the old political elite still prevails, putting the fate of reforms at risk. The war, increased poverty, and pro-Russian propaganda, in various guises, have all translated into a widely-shared mood of doom and gloom.

The crisis has intensified the vulnerability of society at large, which renders it even more insensitive to the discrimination of selected social groups. Eighty-one per cent claim that “there are groups of people whose rights are much wider than mine, and this is wrong”. In other words, the majority of the population feels that the discriminated minority, and thus are more immune to the difficult situation of traditionally vulnerable social groups. Gender equality is considered to be one of the EU founding values. While EU member states still struggle to achieve full equality for women (and considerable progress is sometimes interrupted with backlashes), Ukrainian society, ridden with widespread sexism and homophobia, is a long way behind – perhaps due to an unchallenged enduring legacy from the Soviet times. The war situation has contributed to increased social conservatism and has diverted public attention away from these problems. Half of Ukrainians believe that women should return to their traditional role in society: 58 per cent in the west of Ukraine, 41 per cent in the south and 42 per cent in the east expressed such sentiments. Attitudes towards gays and lesbians have deteriorated to levels of the early 1990s. In 1991, 35 per cent disagreed with the statement that “homosexuals should be treated just as other people”; this share dropped to 29 per cent in 2006, but again rose to 36 per cent in 2016.

There are many contradictions that have emerged here. Almost half are convinced that the state should do everything possible to improve the situation of minorities. Yet, 65 per cent claim that a school should be able to fire a teacher if he or she is found to be homosexual. Again there are regional differences here: with the central, and usually most liberal, part of the country along with the south appear to be the most homophobic (77% agree with this claim). Only 11 per cent believe it is time to legalise same-sex marriage in Ukraine.

Overall almost 90 per cent believe that, irrespective of nationality, the rights of all citizens should be equal. Yet, the western part of the country is probably the most frustrated and conflicted with itself: 42 per cent believe that Russians in Ukraine should have fewer rights than Ukrainians, compared to only eight per cent in the south and 24 per cent overall Ukraine. The ideal self-image of respondents in  the western region is to be forgiving, open, tolerant and helpful, but frustration and grievances towards their fellow-countrymen, from the east and south, for the war and loss of life also need venting.

There is no doubt that the Maidan has helped Ukrainians to firmly adopt a pro-European orientation; though it does not mean they have automatically taken on board what is often referred to as “European values”, nor have they fully  shed their communist legacy. The main attraction of Europe, for the majority, is the prospect of a higher standard of living. Important legal changes aimed at fighting corruption, respecting the rule of law and the protection of human rights (including the rights of minorities), has been adopted as part of a package of reforms to meet the benchmark for liberalisation of the visa regime. However profound societal change not only takes time, but it also needs a hands-on approach, focused on educating, informing and mobilising  society – a task now realised by various  civil society organisations, but it is still too patchy and incoherent to produce mass effect.

The success of ongoing reforms, as well as effective information policy about their effects, are key here as well. It is only by seeing that the reforms are working that Ukrainians may take heart to abstract notions like democracy, rule of law and human rights. Otherwise, a step-back is all too likely.

Data for this essay is largely drawn from recent studies carried about by such organisations as the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the Razumkov Centre, the Sociologist Research Bureau and the Institute of Public Affairs.

Joanna Fomina is an assistant professor at the institute of philosophy and sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her academic interests include EU migration and migrant integration policy, euroscepticism, EU Eastern Partnership policy and democratisation and transformation in Eastern Europe.

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