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Sergiy Sydorenko  1 grudnia 2020

Cautious optimism – the state of the EU-Ukraine relationship

Sergiy Sydorenko  1 grudnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 10 min
Cautious optimism – the state of the EU-Ukraine relationship Wikimedia Commons

European aspirations play a huge role in Ukrainian political life. Because of stable public support for the EU accession, and the memory of Yanukovych’s fall, it is clear that it has to be among the priorities of every Ukrainian political leader – Zelenskyy is no exception. But the recent EU-Ukraine summit shows that the pace of pro-EU reforms has slowed down in Kyiv. Corruption practices and lack of substantial judiciary reform are still pressing issues. Still, it is not the end of Zelenskyy’s reformative pro-EU tendencies.

Tough beginnings

For years Ukraine used to be a country knocking at EU doors – with no recognized perspective to find them open. Despite two pro-European revolutions in 2004 and 2013-2014 and high public support for European integration in Ukraine, there’s hardly any indication of EU readiness even to talk about the chances of possible future EU enlargement to the East.

The key reasons behind the EU’s position are changing over time (first it was Ukraine’s unreadiness for reforms, then came the EU enlargement fatigue, from 2014 it was strengthened due to Russian aggression and so on). While the main consequence for Ukraine remained unchanged: it harmed the pro-EU mood and fed sceptics both among politicians and in the society.

Roughly 7 years ago, in the late autumn of 2013, this Euroscepticism was instrumentalised. Ukraine had been preparing for the EaP summit in Vilnius, where at that-time president Viktor Yanukovych was going to refuse to sign the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement under Russian pressure. But the public justification of this decision by Yanukovych and his team was largely based on the ‘low perspective’ of the EU course. It should be noted that after the Revolution of Dignity, which has ousted Yanukovych in 2014, some Ukrainian politicians were still referring to this excuse, although rarely. Something has changed.

EU as an obligatory choice

In mid-autumn 2020, 7 years after Yanukovych’s failed meeting in Vilnius, Ukrainian leadership was preparing for yet another summit – an EU-Ukraine one. A few days before that event two Ukrainian presidents – current leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his predecessor Petro Poroshenko –exchanged public accusations in their op-eds, published one by one in Ukrainian media. Zelenskyy and Poroshenko, who used to be tough and incapable foes, accused each other of a deadly sin – poor European integration efforts. And both of them tried to persuade readers that he, unlike his rival, is a true reformer, capable to ensure effective EU-Ukraine rapprochement.

And even without digging into the truth of this political rhetoric, this episode is a vivid illustration of the role of European aspirations in Ukrainian political life. You cannot pretend to be a leader if EU accession is not among your priorities – at least in speeches. It seems that the lesson of Yanukovych’s fall has been learned.

His decision to refuse the EU agreement and to choose the Russian vector instead triggered a series of protests that finally led to the change of the regime. No Ukrainian president wants to repeat his path, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not an exception. But does it mean that he is a pro-European reformer not only in op-eds but also in deeds?

The answer is not simple. It is even harder than usual as the current president, a former comedian, is an anti-systemic politician who has won with populist slogans, having no political party, no political experience and no state-building knowledge behind him.

The end of momentum?

It should be recognised that Zelenskyy and his colleagues have several achievements in the field of European integration and reforming Ukraine. Many of those are dating back to 2019, when a hastily created pro-Zelenskyy party ‘Sluga Narodu’ (Servant of the People) – named after a TV series produced by Zelenskyy between 2015-17 –achieved an impressive victory in the early parliamentary elections, gaining a majority of seats in the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada. For almost 30 years after Ukraine’s independence, no other party has managed to gain such a result. All of the previous election winners had to form a coalition with other parties that led to compromises, including reform agenda.

Therefore, Zelenskyy’s party result – given their and the president’s pro-EU electoral pledges – was perceived as a chance to move forward with reforms. Right after the election, these expectations seemed to finally stand a chance to be fulfilled. In the first months of the new Verkhovna Rada, Sluga Narodu adopted several laws that have been stuck in the parliament for years. Some of them are well-known, like long-awaited land reform, praised in the recent EU-Ukraine Summit declaration. But it does not make other (not so famous) regulations (like the law on semiconductor materials), adopted by the Rada in the so-called ‘turbo-regime’ (the term that means implementing reforms at an impressive speed during Zelenskyy’s regime) less important.

The rapprochement with the EU is, without doubt, full of tiresome and purely technical regulations that are not ‘sexy’ enough for the election campaign and do not always attract politicians’ attention – but, nevertheless, they have paramount importance. For instance, last autumn Ukraine finally managed to implement all required EU regulations on industrial production conformity which allowed to start examining the readiness of Ukraine for the ACAA (Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products), which, if once agreed, will make it easier and significantly cheaper for Ukrainian industrial producers to enter the European market.

To make this substantial legislative jump, including the introduction of complex technical laws in the first days and months of the new Rada, Ukrainian MPs have used a shortcut. They never tried to draft it from scratch. Instead, they have registered draft laws that were prepared by their predecessors or even by non-governmental pro-EU experts. Many of these laws were adopted with no substantial discussion and no amendments at incredible speed.

However, this approach also meant that pro-EU efforts will drastically slow down once parliament runs out of stockpiled drafts from the previous terms. It happened quickly and has escalated to a degree that Ukraine had to recognise the problem. The Joint Statement of the October EU-Ukraine Summit says that both Kyiv and Brussels ‘agreed on the importance of accelerating and reinforcing reform efforts’ which was repeated three times in the document.

To compare, in January 2020 – when autumn ‘turbo-regime’ achievements were fresh in the EU’s memory – the EU-Ukraine Association Council did not even once mention the need for acceleration. Meanwhile, the slowdown of the reform pace seems to be far from the most important problem hampering the European accession process of Ukraine.

The end of much-needed reforms?

While Association Agreement (AA), the key document in Ukraine-EU relations, is setting a legal framework for the cooperation and a roadmap for introducing changes – the most sensitive reforms go beyond the AA provisions. Ukraine has already met key challenges (mainly in the judiciary and fighting anti-corruption) even before Zelenskyy and it continues under his presidency.

In early 2019, the presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, built his electoral campaign on promises to tackle long-standing problems of Ukrainian politics. Wide-spread corruption was on the top of the list. Meanwhile, in 2020 – 1.5 years after his election – not much has changed. Furthermore, the EU returned to the same (and sometimes even stronger) language and the same rhetoric in its messages on the anti-corruption struggle in Ukraine. Indeed, Western partners of Ukraine have legitimate grounds for concern – mainly because of the attempts to limit the power of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) by pro-president MPs.

The have been met with harsh criticism of Western partners including the EU, IMF and other financial donors of Ukraine. Even if any of these processes have passed the point of no return – and there is no sufficient ground for an argument that Zelenskyy has already backslid on them – the IMF, based on suspicions, refuses to send its mission to Ukraine while no convincing proof on anticorruption struggle is provided. The EU refuses to make its first tranche of Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) reserved for Ukraine until cooperation with IMF is secured.

The Ukrainian government does not hide their disappointment with the development. Prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, currently dealing with a huge budget gap, was very vocal in expectations to get the MFA tranche in early September. However, it seems that the EU anti-corruption concerns remain strong and block that from happening while they don’t get solid guarantees that it won’t repeat.

Another ‘traditional’ topic of concern is the reform of the judiciary – probably the weakest area of the Ukrainian state. It was the key reason for low investments flow to Ukraine before Zelenskyy’s term and remains so till now.

NABU has publicly presented evidence of corrupt practices in judicial structures, most importantly in the Supreme Council of Justice, which is crucial in the system because of a final say in the appointment and dismissal of judges. This body is widely recognized by the expert community as one of (but not the only) the centres of corruption in the judiciary. Of course, it’s not Zelenskyy who is responsible for the existence of the problem but his efforts to tackle it do not look sufficient.

Furthermore, concerns about the further motivation for reforming the country are amplified by the staff decisions of the Ukrainian leadership. Western partners have the impression that vivid reformists are replaced by 100% loyal people whose professionalism is often put in doubt.

Demand for loyalty instead of professionalism?

In September – before the second peak of the Covid-19 pandemic – the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, visited Ukraine. After that visit, Borrell wrote that the EU is concerned not only with the fact that ‘the pace of reforms has slowed down recently.’

HR/VP also stated in the piece: ‘The government reshuffle in early March and the dismissals of reformist figures sent worrying signals over the readiness to resist vested interests.’ What he meant is a dismissal of almost all of the pro-EU reformers from the initial composition of Zelenskyy’s team which is a huge issue of concern for all western partners, not only for the EU.

One of those fired is a well-respected lawyer and anti-corruption expert, Ruslan Riaboshapka. He was in the Zelenskyy team during the electoral campaign, and later he was appointed as Prosecutor General by the new Rada. However, he was fired after only 6 months. Zelenskyy said that the reason is a ‘lack of results’ but did not expand on this claim. Meanwhile, it is widely believed and confirmed by several MPs that Riaboshapka’s dismissal was connected to his refusal to authorize the judicial prosecution of Petro Poroshenko on an allegedly doubtful ground and as he considered it heavily politically motivated. Riaboshapka was replaced by another ally of Zelensky, Iryna Venedictova, who signed the above-mentioned suspicion on Poroshenko. Now a dozen other accusations towards him are being investigated.

This particular case, while raising plenty of questions, is illustrating the problem raised by the EU. The dismissal of reformers who were lacking loyalty to the president and his expectations seems to be systemic.

Former PM, Honcharuk, was fired after a leaked record of his off-the-record meetings where he allowed himself to cast doubt in Zelenskyy’s knowledge in economics. Only a few ministers have kept their position after the reshuffle; most of the sectoral reformers, previously publicly praised by the EU, have left the government. Do Zelenskyy and his team still want to push for reforms? Recent developments cast doubt on the positive answer to this question.

Of course, staff decisions remain a fully national competence and the EU has no right to blame Ukraine only on those grounds. But in many instances, there is a doubt whether newly appointed politicians are pro-EU and pro-reform persons, such as in the case of Iryna Venediktova, just one of quite a few examples. In some cases, Ukrainian NGOs are very vocal against the new appointees. This criticism is well heard by the West and it affects the current attitude towards all of Zelenskyy’s team.

Not perfect but still in the right direction

While the EU and other international partners – given the above – have a reason for concern, they still stress the importance of optimism and openness to each other’s views.

Yes, the pace of reforms has slowed down, and it is officially recognized. Yes, the turbo-regime has fallen into oblivion with no indication that it can be revived sooner or later. But there is no indicator of Ukrainian large-scale reverse on pro-EU reforms. There may be some problems on the way, but they are limited and it is still far from a point of no return. The opposite is true: crucial EU-backed laws are still being adopted despite facing political resistance.

A fresh example is the reform of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). This body with enormous power originates from a local branch of Soviet KGB and still plays an important political role which is truly unacceptable in a democratic society. Multiple attempts to reform it brought no success – SSU still works based on the law dating back to 1992! Every single Ukrainian head of state opposed the idea to reform the SSU, for one single reason: this body is effectively controlled by the president. But under Zelenskyy, Kyiv seems ready to break the vicious circle. A brand-new law on SSU, elaborated in close coordination with the EU Advisory Mission and NATO experts, has been provisionally agreed upon in Rada and will be presented for a vote soon.

Various obstacles, staff problems and some dubious decisions are limiting the room for enthusiasm but do not diminish it. And this optimism is further cemented by public pressure toward closer ties with the EU, which is backed by a stable majority according to all public surveys held in Ukraine. Surely, the ultimate conclusion on its compliance with the EU recommendations is to be made based on a final version of the law after all parliamentary amendments – but for now, there is ground for cautious optimism. And the fact that the current president – unlike all his predecessors – has agreed to limit his security service, can’t be ignored.

And it is probably the best proof that Ukraine not only tries to become closer to the EU but also has a real political will to change itself.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.