Four Myths about Ukraine

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The European Union and Ukraine have much to offer one another through closer ties, however four myths about the country need to be abandoned for the two to fully realise this, argues Volodymyr Vecherko.

Volodymyr Vecherko is a Ukrainian MP and first deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament's Committee for European Integration.

"As Ukraine and the European Union are about to finally relinquish their rather ambiguous 'dating' period and to make their relationship official in form of a political and economic association, it seems worthwhile to point out that Ukraine doesn't enter these 'holy bonds' empty-handed.

The association is as much in Ukraine's interest as it is in the EU's. Yet, to fully realise this, one has to bid farewell to the whole array of ill-conceived and unfortunate myths about Ukraine.

Myth #1 Ukraine is a desolate economy having nothing to offer to the West

Wrong. For the sake of reference, just before the Soviet Union drew its terminal breath, the United Nations included the Ukrainian SSR in the top-ten of the world's most developed industrial regions.

The republic built space rockets, ships, planes, modern weaponry. It supplied the Soviet Union with coal, steel, chemical fertilisers and many other commodities, essential to the day-to-day operation of that huge country.

Admittedly, the hardships of early independence, the chaotic 1990s, political turbulences of the 2000s and, finally the financial crunch of 2008-2010 took a heavy toll on Ukraine's economy. However, it would be profoundly unfair to make an assumption that Ukraine lost her potential or didn't use the two decades of her independence to boost it.

Sure enough, like in any market economy, some productions couldn't survive in the new environment, whereas others – on the contrary, blossomed. And some (as a matter of fact, the majority) still exist in limbo, waiting for international investments to stream in and thrive on Ukraine's fertile economic ground.

Most assets that made Ukraine the jewel in the 'crown' of the Soviet empire are still there – the natural deposits, industrial infrastructure, the perfect location on the east-west crossroads, the world's best agricultural soils, plentiful water supply, mild climate and most importantly – the educated, ambitious, entrepreneurial population eager to work hard in order to see their families, communities, cities finally achieve the success they deserve. 

A World Bank expert told me once that according to his estimates, Ukraine is a country that can easily achieve 9-10% GDP growth annually. Now it's 4-5%. The upcoming Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU and the process of the EU integration will hopefully help increase these numbers.

Myth #2: Ukraine is a part of separate historic tradition that's incompatible with the West and therefore doesn't belong with the EU

Wrong. How many times have I observed this picture? A visitor comes from the West filled with the old-time stereotypes about the cold, unfriendly, suspicious 'homo sovieticus' who are just waiting for the right moment to pull a fast one on their guests – and leaves afterwards amazed by the open, friendly, warm and sometimes even passionate welcome received in Ukraine.

Ukraineis better than her reputation. Ukraine is European, considers herself European and wants to be recognised as European. She looks European too. But that's something one has to see with one's own eyes.

So, come to Kyiv's hip restaurants, walk Lviv's romantic narrow streets, enjoy the freshly rebuilt seafront in Yalta, behold Europe's most top-notch soccer stadium in Donetsk – and you will see: there is nothing wrong with Ukraine's tradition, it fits perfectly well with the EU.

And as to Ukraine's history – sometimes it ran in sync with that of the Western Europe, sometimes collided with it and sometimes Ukraine plainly disappeared from Europe's chronicles. But the facts are self-evident: in the ninth-tenth centuries when Western Europe was taking its shape under the strong wings of Charlemagne and his offspring, Eastern Europe was dominated by Kievan Rus.

And the paths of these two traditions intertwined so often and in so many ways that it makes the forefathers of today's Ukraine the co-founders of Europe as we know it. After all, wasn't it the famous queen Anne of Kiev on whose Bible the French kings took oath till the eighteenth century?

Myth #3: Ukraine cannot make up her mind between the EU and Russia

Wrong. Admittedly, if you go around and ask Ukrainians what they need more – the EU or Russia, the most popular answer will be: we need both. Russia is the place that is dear and special to millions Ukrainians. Many of us speak the same language and come from the same cultural background. Russia is the place where our friends and relatives live.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that Russia is and will always be in the hearts of millions Ukrainians. But it's not in their aspirations – for the simple reason that we see in Russia many things we dislike in ourselves and want to get rid of.

In many aspects Russia is our reflection in the mirror – and on many instances we aren't quite happy about it. We want to get better. And the only way to do it is to embark on the way that proved so successful in the last two decades – the way of EU-oriented reforms.

Therefore despite all similarities between Ukraine and Russia, we are also different. In particular, most Ukrainians don't feel the nostalgia for the lost Soviet 'empire' – because for as much as we could see, that empire wasn't quite ours or quite comfortable.

Our ambition is not in rebuilding what we once had, but in building something new – in a form of modern and democratic European state, that's on good terms both with Russia and the West.

Myth # 4: The EU will choke on Ukraine's problems

Wrong – not because Ukraine doesn't have problems, but because she enters this new relationship with the EU with a due level of humility and reasonably sober expectations. We see how desperately the EU rattles under the pressures of the eurozone financial crisis and how difficult the first and second waves of enlargement get digested.

We see that the EU's finances don't abound, to say the least. And therefore fighting for EU subsidies won't be our priority once we get in – either as a DCFTA country or eventually as a candidate for membership.

We embarked on the way of European integration not because we were seeking charity, but because we were seeking recognition, dignity and the right structure of development. Ask Ukrainians why they are so eager to join in with Europe – and you'll most probably hear: because we want visa-free travel and western investments.

Having a Ukrainian commissioner at the big round table in Brussels or getting Ukrainian reforms financed on someone else's dime won't necessarily be the first or even the second thing that pops up in their minds. Neither should it bother too much Ukraine's diplomacy.

The membership comes when the time is right, no sooner no later. Therefore we do what we do: embrace the same reforms as the candidate countries without receiving the same (or, for the most part – any) financial support from Brussels. Entering DCFTA with the EU will streamline the reform process in Ukraine – without costing Brussels too much.

To be sure, these aren't the only Ukraine-related crooked pictures that need to need to be straightened. And most certainly they will, once the EU learns to know Ukraine as a close, reliable partner.

Both Ukraine and the EU are arriving at a juncture that can become a moment of truth to both of them. Ukraine will have to realise that although the EU is her goal, the way leading to it will be bumpier, curvier and costlier than that of the candidate countries before her. However, by all accounts this dream is worth pursuing.

The EU will have to realise that once you have lit the fire of hope for unity and prosperity in hearts of all Europeans, it cannot be momentarily put out, even for the weightiest political reasons.

We, Ukrainians know that it is not the best time to knock on EU's door and that the decision-makers in Brussels have a lot on their plate aside from addressing Ukraine's European ambitions. Therefore we won't be pushy. But we will be clear enough about the way we chose. And the association with the EU will be the first step on it. Hopefully – not the last. "

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