Instead of seeking to position itself to the West or to the East, Ukraine should reform and use its huge natural resources and human potential to become a big international player on its own terms, speakers told a conference held in the European Parliament on Wednesday (26 September).
The conference “EU–Ukraine in 2020, looking beyond the current paradigm”, attempted to frame the discussion about Ukraine outside the usual context of the short-term bilateral agenda.
The conference was organised by Fondation EURACTIV and the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy People First, and hosted by Polish MEP Pawe? Zalewski (European People's Party).
Most speakers refrained from referring to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, or to the tug of war between Kyiv and Moscow on energy issues.
They did comment at length, however, on the parliamentary elections to be held on 28 October.
No illusions about October parliamentary election
Zalewski, often extremely blunt in his statements, said that he had no illusions that the elections would be fair. However, he said that the EU should “acknowledge” the results, if they demonstrate “political competition” in Ukraine.
He described politics in Ukraine as “a tool to create political influence” and wealth. It was not by chance that there are so many oligarchs in government, he said.
The Polish MEP also said that Ukraine “pretends” to be democratic and criticised the EU for pretending to accept it as such.
“How can we talk about democratic standards like those in Germany, applied to Ukraine? It’s impossible. It’s a completely different reality. And if we continue this game, pretending to accept something that doesn’t exist, it leads to nowhere.”
Zalewski argued that the EU needed to reach out to Ukrainian civil society to identify “those who are interested in change” and give them the tools to put pressure on government. “If we want to have Ukraine to start changing by 2020, we have to start right now,” he pleaded.
Ukraine's 'corrupt money' will erode Europe
Viktor Tkachuk, CEO of People First, an organisation promoting Ukrainian civil society, was more pessimistic regarding the prospect for holding fair elections.
He was equally critical of the EU, however, saying its elites have been unable to define a model of civilisation for the continent. “The only authority the EU has lies in the history of its past leaders, and the strength of its economic corporations. All the rest is just bureaucracy,” Tkachuk said.
“Without any doubt, what exists in the EU is European bureaucracy. But is there such a thing as common European interest? I don’t think so,” he stressed.
Tkachuk also predicted that the “enormous amounts of corrupt money” coming from Russia and Ukraine will soon penetrate and erode the European political system. He blamed the EU authorities for turning a blind eye in offshore territories such as EU member Cyprus.
He was no less critical of his own country: “The ideology of the ongoing reforms is the ideology of destruction of the middle class. 300,000 small enterprises have ceased to exist in just 18 months. For the same period, the richest ten oligarchs increased their fortune by 30%,” he said.
The “proletarisation” of society is happening through the commercialisation of the education system and the instigation of linguistic and religious conflicts, Tkachuk argued. “The aim is the destruction not only of the middle class, but of civil society and its capacity to protest and contest the abuse,” he said.
What relations with Russia?
Regarding Russia, Tkachuk said that “as cynical as it may sound”, the main interest of Ukraine resided in the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. “It doesn’t matter if Russia would be democratic, that it would return to monarchy or whatever. The important thing is that it stays entire," he argued adding: "The problem is that the USA has exactly the opposite interest."
“For them [the US] instigating the weakening of Russia, up to its disintegration, is the priority,” he said.
All this may sound pessimistic, but better discuss this now than in 2020, when it will be too late, he said.
‘New forces’ emerging in society
Mykola Malomuzh, an adviser to President Viktor Yanukovich and former chief of foreign intelligence under the previous President Viktor Yuschenko, said it was hardly realistic to say that Ukraine will become an EU member by 2020, but he expressed confidence that by then, the country will be “a powerful state, a powerful regional player between East and West”.
He said that on the basis of his experience and on extensive analysis, “new forces” of civil society were emerging in the country, which did not accept the corrupt post-Soviet way of running the country. He described them as “not necessarily representing the power or the opposition”, but rather coming from different sectors of society, and “gaining momentum” for its “progressive transformation”.
If and when these “new forces” take over, the country’s relations with the EU, but also with the US, Canada and Japan, will flourish, and Ukraine will become one of the world leaders in new technologies, taking full advantage of its huge potential in natural resources and human capital, Malomuzh argued.
What relations with NATO?
Asked why Ukraine doesn’t seek membership to NATO, Malomuzh, who is an army general, said his country had a “very high integration potential” and was participating in all peace-keeping missions, citing Iraq, Afghanistan, the pirate-infested coasts of Somalia and the Western Balkans.
Some NATO members have a smaller participation than Ukraine, he said. But he added that “both the Ukrainian society and NATO are not ready for the formalisation of the membership”.
The problem is not Russia, which is against. The problem is also Ukraine, which is not yet ready to fomalise its membership, and NATO which is not ready for enlargement, he said.
Visa issue to be solved first
MEP Ivailo Kalfin, (Socialists & Democrats, Bulgaria), a former foreign minister, insisted that the EU had a duty to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens well ahead of 2020. This was partly in response to Viktor Tkachuk, who in his paper, presenting his views on EU-Ukraine relations in 2020, did not foresee the lifting of the visa requirement.
Kalfin said that the situation had greatly changed since the early 1990s, when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe set a goal for themselves to become NATO and EU members. He added that this applied not only to Ukraine but to the countries of the Western Balkans.
“You don’t have the same perspective. You don’t have this in terms of timing, you don’t have it in terms of enthusiasm from both sides.”
Kalfin said that this had a lot to do with the ongoing crisis in Europe and the fact that the EU was now busy changing its institutional settings. Against this background, Russia was becoming more assertive, and wanted to re-create zones of influence, which would include Ukraine.
“In this situation, the best for Ukraine is to take its own road, ideally based on European values. Not because there is a clear offer from the EU, it’s Ukraine itself which has to become a factor of its own,” he said.