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The decline and fall of the European empire

“We are living in the days where what we call liberal non-democracy – in which we lived for the past 20 years – ends, and we can return to real democracy,” said Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, when congratulating Donald Trump on his victory in the United States presidential election.One hundred days have passed since the so-called “big bang”. While some are celebrating, the Left is mourning the defeat of liberalism and the countries that might be left without America’s support. However, it is the EU, not America, that faces the real crisis.

February 20, 2017 - Agne Dovydaityte - Articles and Commentary


Ukraine’s destiny as part of US relations with Russia was one of the major talking points of the US election last year. Ukraine, however, does not look as far as America. More than three years ago, protesters in Maidan Square in Kyiv were waving EU flags. Further integration into the Union still remains the government’s target, but many Ukrainians are disappointed and disillusioned by the European elites.

This March, the leaders of 27 EU countries will meet in Rome to decide on the further development and future vision of the EU. Although the unrest in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea continues, it might seem that Ukraine has long left the agenda of the EU. The country whose name translates to “borderland” or “country on the edge“ keeps being pushed further and further away. Is it really just Russia that is to blame?

Disillusioned Ukraine

“A strong Ukraine is wanted neither by the EU nor by Russia,”says Aleksei Tsimbalyuk. He is just one of the many who are disillusioned and disappointed by the post-revolutionary situation. A few years ago Alexei was still a deacon in the Orthodox Church. Today he is wearing camouflagefatigues. “When your country is in danger, everyone needs to defend what is given by God,” he says.

Although Ukraine is being praised for its reforms in the judicial area, Aleksei does not believe that the government is making progress. “Reforms, as such, there are none. Everything is superficial. Everyone is stealing. The IMF and the EU allow that to happen by giving money to corrupt politicians. The only way the EU could help my country is by refusing to provide any credit to our government until real reforms actually begin,” he continues.

Aleksei is from Odesa – a town famous for its trade port and corruption.In front of the camera, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko often talks about tackling corruption. “50 minutes later [he] discusses a new scheme for the Odesa Port Plant or Tsentrenergo [State energy generation company]. For him ambition means becoming Ukraine’s number one oligarch, not a reformer president,” writes Ukrainian journalist Sergii Leshchenko for OpenDemocracy.

Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, resigned as governor of Odesa last year, citing widespread corruption within Poroshenko’s government.

Aivaras Abromavicius, the Ukrainian economy minister, also stepped down. The economic reformer left saying that he did not want to act as a “smoke screen” for corruption. In an interview with New Eastern Europe he said: “The reason for the slow reforms is political elites. Maidan has failed to change political elites who remain backward and unable to deal with the challenges that Ukraine faces.”

He said that the EU supported Ukraine a lot throughout these two years of reforms, but “more support is needed”. And the support should be with “strict conditionality”, rather than just “blind investments” in a country with high levels of corruption. 

However, Alexander J. Motyl, a political scientist at Rutgers University, thinks that it is not the corruption itself but rather the “western corruption fetish” that stops the reforms from happening.“It’s a mistake to think that countries can advance only if corruption is completely eliminated, or that corruption can only be eliminated by arresting corrupt officials. The best way is by changing the structure of incentives. Unfortunately, it isn’t sensational and, thus, can be easily ignored by the press,” he says.

Motyl suggests that the fact that Ukraine rarely appears in the Western press gives freedom to populists in the country to flourish. “They can now make outlandish demands without having to pay the price of bad press in the West,” he says.

The situation was once different. Motyl says that many Ukrainians saw the war with Russia as a defence of Europe and their idea of being European. “In turn, Europe is dragging its feet, rejecting Ukraine, flirting with or appeasing Russia, and seemingly ignoring Ukraine’s good-faith efforts to ‘join’,” he continues.

Re-thinking the EU and the West

Just before the New Year, Ukrainians had a hope that the EU will finally reward them with visa-free travel. Although Ukraine met all the requirements more than a year ago, the final decision is still on hold. Mykola Tochytskyi, Ukrainian representative to the EU, says that a prompt decision on visas is crucial to restore faith in the Union, and stop growing Euroscepticism. “We have met all the benchmarks. Now it’s time for the EU to deliver on its own commitments, ” he says.

Arnoldas Pranckevicius, a Lithuanian-born former adviser to the president of the European Parliament and head of the Representation of the European Commission in Vilnius, agrees that the EU is desperate for change, and needs to be reminded of its promises. “I wouldn’t call this the period of reforms or challenges for the EU, but rather the period of definitions. The EU project needs to restore the trust in its institutions and define its goals,” he stated.

A couple of years ago Ukraine was the main area of disagreement between Russia and the EU. Although the West maintains its economic sanctions towards the Kremlin, the EU is holding back from Ukrainian domestic politics. “We need to change our strategies in transitional countries. Strong institutions that can’t be corrupted by single individuals, rather than individual politicians that disappointed us a number of times, will be our new target,” says Pranckevicius.

This stands out as a very important statement and change in the political mood that came after the recent resignations. Before the waveof departures, foreign politicians in Ukraine were openly welcomed by EU officials.

Among those foreigners were quite a few Georgians and Lithuanians, as their countries experienced a similar transitional period in the early 2000s and late 90s, respectively. “50 years of Sovietisation cannot be undone overnight and few here realise what a challenge meeting the EU acquis will be. Least progress has been made in the battle against organised and economic crime and corruption. This is a crucial area, without which many other reforms will mean little.” This might sound like something commentators today would say when referring to Ukraine. However, it is what Tom Macan, the British Ambassador to Lithuania, wrote in his Annual Review for 1997, acquired by a Freedom of Information request.

Today Trump’s presidency poses a new kind of threat to stability in Ukraine and the EU. Or at least that was the idea promoted by the left-wing press. Robert Brinkley, a former British Ambassador to Ukraine (2002-2006), says that Donald Trump “should be judged on his actions in office, rather than speculation about what he may or may not do.” He also doesn’t reject the positive scenario of Trump’s presidency. According to Brinkley, Vladimir Putin might be more likely to negotiate issues regarding Ukraine with Trump than he would otherwise do with Obama.

Nostalgic Europe

Finally, there is a broader picture. The same disappointment that some Ukrainians feel is coming out in the form of radicalism and apathy in other countries of the “European Empire”.

Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist and an expert on Russian propaganda, blames the wave of nationalism and disappointment in Eastern and Central Europe not on populism but on the feeling of nostalgia. “They are nostalgic of the time when they knew what was happening. When they had goals: to become independent, to join the EU, to join NATO. Now they are in. What’s their goal now?” he says.

“Timid, deluded and divided, Europe’s different entities are facing disaster. Yet the European ruling elites have missed countless chances to avert it. And they are so convinced of their own rightness, and of their right to rule, that they show no sign of changing course – or of listening to the rumble of the approaching tumbrils,” writes Edward Lucas, journalist and author of The New Cold War.

This loss of hope and stamina described by Pomerantsev and Lucas is what Aleksei Tsimbalyuk was talking about. Poroshenko might stick to his plans to apply for EU membership in 2020, but halfway through his first term as president he lost the trust of his nation. Very symbolic, as the EU itself seems to be losing its most loyal members.

Is this the end?

However, as the Eastern European proverb goes: “Smoke in your own country is purer than fire in a foreign land.” Maybe that is why the EU’s eyes are on the top players of the Union in times of unrest. The EU leaders will discuss the future of its member states this month, but countries such as Ukraine might remain in the past. Ukraine is patiently waiting between the borders of two powers that are rapidly becoming more vulnerable than ever before. Tsimbalyuk draws the conclusion: “The idea of the European Union that is united is dead. And it’s not nationalists or separatists that killed it, but the European leaders who were never leading by example.” Maybe just another crisis can unite the Union.

Agne Dovydaityte is a freelance journalist and a third year Journalism student at City, University of London. She specialises in Eastern European issues.

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