Ukraine has the chance to sign a landmark association agreement with the European Union next week. The agreement – which calls for closer trade and political ties – is supported by most people, and it could end the country’s geopolitical uncertainty.
However, will it help Ukrainians become Europeans?
Despite a very positive attitude to Europe, our society does not feel itself as part of it. According to sociological surveys, only one-third of Ukrainians consider themselves to be Europeans, whereas 53 percent say that major cultural differences exist between Ukraine and EU countries.
“Of course Ukraine is situated in Europe,” Yaroslav from Kyiv says. “But I cannot say we are very much like Europeans. Perhaps with Poles or Czechs – yes, but what do we have in common with Frenchmen or Spaniards?”
Yaroslav does not know yet if he is going to support Ukraine’s association with the EU. He says that it would be better if the country cooperates with everybody.
To counterbalance this stance, philology student Anastasia is certain: Ukrainians are certainly part of European civilization.
“Our culture is much more integrated into the world culture than we used to think,” she states. “However, we should not confine ourselves to focus on only Europe, but the geographic position is of great importance, and Europe clearly plays a big role in our culture now.”
Anastasia supports Ukraine’s integration into Europe. She hopes it will enhance her opportunity for foreign trips and raise demand for specialists in her field.
Lviv-based pensioner Andrii readily shares his own deliberations:“Ukrainians are really sub-Europeans. To be European, just being born in Europe is not enough. It also means a certain living standard and outlook. For example, Donetsk people are similar to Russians because they have the same living conditions,” the pensioner says.
The differences between Ukrainian and European culture and mentality worry almost a quarter of Ukrainians when asked about a closer relationship with the EU. A number of surveys show that support of a pro-European policy for Ukraine is primarily based on expectations of social and economic benefits rather than on a desire of implementing European values.
Most Ukrainians believe that the changes induced by European integration will affect the country as a whole rather than them personally, and therefore they expect actions from authorities rather than from themselves in order for Ukraine to become European.
However, to make pro-European reforms work – as envisaged by the EU-Ukraine association agreement –society must support them. Otherwise, the changes will be a reality on paper only.
This is the opinion of economist Oleksandr Paskhaver. “You will not get a result by simply passing new laws... If the population does not have corresponding values, they will not work. It is necessary to create a demand for such in the society prior to their implementation,” he says.
In Paskhaver’s opinion, to achieve real changes, Ukrainians need a moral movement that would provoke changes in their consciousness.” The association with Europe is able to provide a stimulus for that but it is not a cure-all for the existing problems, he stresses.
Perceiving the EU as a force that guarantees a “better life already tomorrow” makes the reforms even more problematic. If the population sees no improvement in the short term, many people are likely to look elsewhere for a (promised) quick fix, Paskhaver warns.
In this case, support for Ukrainian accession to the Eurasian Customs Union will most likely grow.
According to Vitalii Kulyk, director of the Centre for Research of Civil Society Problems, the public’s lack of balanced – even critical information about the EU – can develop into a problem when implementing the reforms needed for Ukraine to establish a closer relationship with the EU.
“Over a decade, mass media, politicians and government officials have created a glossy image of the European Union,” Kulyk says. “They paint Europe as an absolute alternative to everything post-Soviet. Something absolutely positive, almost with no defects. People have been told too little about the risks or sacrifices they will have to make as Ukraine moves closer to the EU. They just expect prosperity the day after the signing of the association agreement.”
One of the ways to address the problem is to borrow the experience of information campaigns from those Eastern European countries that have already integrated successfully with the EU. Lithuanian parliament member Linas Balsis stresses the need to involve intellectual elites in the shaping of an opinion about Europe.
“In Lithuania, information campaigns were held from the very start of our European integration. We explained the purpose of every step and what it would give people. In Ukraine, it is high time to do this. It is important to involve the country’s opinion leaders in the process for them to explain the situation and process to the population,” the politician believes.
However, Balsis also draws attention to differences between today’s Ukraine and Lithuania in the 1990s.
“We considered ourselves to be part of Western Europe since the time when Lithuania was independent, in 1918-1940. In some ways, we have even kept our European identity and self-consciousness since the days of the Great Lithuanian Principality when Lithuania was a large federation of Central Europe. Therefore, we did not ask the question ‘who are we?’ during our accession to the European Union. We knew that we wanted to come back to the family of European nations and Western culture. People supported the idea of accession to the EU quite strongly – and interestingly, not for economic reasons but for these moral and cultural considerations,” he says.
“Ukrainians are Europeans, too,” states historian Yaroslav Hrytsak.
He emphasizes that the EU is not something concrete and fixed. It should rather be viewed as an ever-transforming project. The Lviv professor demonstrates this, taking Germany’s history as an example. “Until the end of the World War II, Germans did not consider themselves as European believing that they were too great for it. But the entire policy of post-war Germany was aimed at returning it to Europe. And now, Germany is the motor and heart of the European Union,” Hrytsak says.
At present, Ukraine belongs to Eastern Europe. And Hrytsak is sure that Ukraine’s full accession to the European space will greatly depend on Ukrainians themselves. “Each country changes itself and the rules of the game. Therefore, the best answer to the question ‘Are Ukrainians Europeans?’ is action. It is about whether Ukrainians are able to stop being a periphery. Eastern Europe should be done away with; it must stop being ‘Eastern’ and become ‘normal.’ European integration provides chances for that,” Hrytsak says.