Kataryna Wolczuk
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The Maidan protests gave the EU an unprecedented political mandate to spur change in Ukraine. It has been too cautious in using this status.
An anti-government protester raises a European flag at the Maidan in Kyiv on 9 December 2013. Photo by Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images.An anti-government protester raises a European flag at the Maidan in Kyiv on 9 December 2013. Photo: Getty Images.

The mass protests of 2014 put the EU in the centre of reform efforts in Ukraine. The Association Agreement, support of which was the locus of the initial demonstrations, has become the blueprint for the country’s reformers, who believe that pursuing integration with the EU offers Ukraine the best (and only) pathway for modernization and economic growth.

But there is a mismatch between the very political impact of the reforms required by the Association Agreement and the technocratic approach the EU takes to such issues. This disconnect is putting Ukraine’s chances for a more European future in jeopardy.

A big job

There is some recognition on the part of the EU about the daunting task the implementation of the agreement presents. The EU is the biggest donor in Ukraine, committed to providing up to €11 billion over the course of 2014–20, while the EU delegation in Ukraine is the second largest, after Turkey. An innovative Support Group for Ukraine has been set up with the aim to be a ‘catalyst, facilitator and supporter of reforms’, and it has made a pivotal difference in devising a more agile and tailored strategy for promoting reforms. The support group has also been involved in tackling the most important and politically-charged issues, such as corruption and judicial reforms.

The previous head of the EU delegation, Jan Tombinski, was particularly adept at making direct interventions, despite criticism from some Ukrainian officials. For example, Tombinski’s timely intervention broke the deadlock over electronic declarations on assets held by state officials, which paved the way for Ukraine’s compliance with the requirements for EU visa liberalization.

But many EU officials in Brussels and in Kyiv are much more reluctant to engage at a political level. They are also apprehensive about pushing too hard, believing that working with the current, pro-European administration is more desirable than triggering a change of government. EU officials typically put a premium on stability and predictability.

In Ukraine, however, stability means the persistence of patronage and rents. The reforms trigger powerful domestic resistance – by default, their implementation disrupt opportunities for rent extraction (for example, anti-monopoly laws or food safety inspections).

It is symptomatic that the most successful reforms so far have been those which created new institutions and systems – like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the electronic public procurement system (ProZorro) and the new road police. Despite a flurry of activities, there are yet few tangible results in reforming ‘old’ institutions, like the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It is clear that approaching the reforms as a technical and legal process of legal approximation is not sufficient.

Past lessons

Reformist forces within Ukraine are heavily dependent on political support from the EU. Yet, they are increasingly concerned that, despite being the largest donor to Ukraine, the EU is going ‘soft’ on the Ukrainian authorities by being too gentle and diplomatic.  

For example, in 2015 the EU offered Ukraine macro-economic assistance, to be dispersed in three tranches, subject to fulfilling a number of conditions. The first tranche was provided in 2015 but the second was delayed because the Ukrainian government did not implement all the conditions. Yet the EU agreed to release the second tranche in 2017 despite a lack of progress, explaining that the funds would otherwise have to be spent elsewhere. The Ukrainian commentators fear that the EU’s leverage vis-à-vis the Ukrainian authorities is weakened, as a result.

The indulgence towards ruling elites in Ukraine risks repeating the flawed strategy towards Moldova, where the EU supported a nominally pro-European government, fearing a return to power of the Communist Party. Suitably emboldened, the Moldovan governing elites used pro-European declarations as a rhetorical fig leaf to mimic reforms while engaging in extensive rent-seeking. This resulted in disillusionment and the perception among the populace that the EU was colluding with the country’s self-serving elites. This paved the way for the election of a pro-Russian president in 2016. As Ukrainian society becomes more frustrated with the slow progress of reforms, the reluctance on the part of the EU officials to critique the government creates the impression of indifference.

Ultimately reforms in Ukraine depend on the close political engagement of the EU institutions and officials. There is a strong demand from reformers for the EU to play a stronger role. They hope that the EU could become a powerful ‘watchdog’ because domestic political will remains in short supply and many state institutions the lack capacity and resources to function properly. But to do so, EU institutions and officials will need to step outside their comfort zone and engage more politically to induce change in Ukraine.

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