As I am sitting in my temporary office in one of the major EU capitals, where I flew in visa-free, on a gloomy November day, seeking inspiration in the Euromaidan-devoted song by a popular Crimean tatar singer, I am trying to figure out a concise response to a question on where Ukraine and Europe stand after five years now from this same day. This is not an easy task. Incidentally, the institution I represent is called “New Europe”. Let me take it as a first reference point in my assessment of the changes which happened since this day exactly five years from now – when Ukrainians took to the streets because their European future was at stake. For what we are facing is New Europe – in a multitude of meanings.
Let’s take Ukraine first. In this part of Europe the phrase about “more changes happening since 2014 than during the previous 23 years of Ukraine’s independence” has become almost a truism. The energy reform, in which aftermath Ukraine ceased gas imports from Russia completely, reforms in public procurement, decentralization, police, promising starts of reforms in education, healthcare and anticorruption, ratification of the Association Agreement and introduction of visa-free regime with the EU, Ukraine’s army ranking among top-10 in Europe and Ukraine’s Doing Business ranking climbing up slowly but steadily from 112th place in 2014 to 71st in 2018 – all this multiplied by an increased civic awareness and a proven ability of civil society of raising against the state and giving it a helping hand, depending on the circumstances. All this is impressive for a country, caught by an armed aggression from one of the mightiest military powers in the world amid an economic crisis back in 2014 and 7,2% of its territory occupied.
That said, Ukraine’s demons have not been banished completely. The Ukrainian state failed to reload its elites, with the old faces of the Ukrainian politics, populist Yulia Tymoshenko and pro-Russian ex-Party of the Regions Yuriy Boyko charting some of the top positions in the pre-presidential elections opinion surveys. Russia is still enjoying – and is definitely set to employ – its stealth soft power in Ukraine, with some 48% of the Ukrainians claiming very positive or mostly positive attitude towards Russia as of September 2018, after four full year of the ongoing conflict in the East. Ukraine’s support towards the EU is not growing – in fact, it is decreasing in some regions, e.g. in Odesa oblast, while the previous “pro-Russian” camp within the population turned into “neutralists”. Opinions differ whether they are genuinely neutral or rather prefer not to disclose their pro-Russian sentiments. What is probably most disturbing is the wave of attacks on civic activists. Civil society reports that some 55 cases of attacks happened since 2017, with four of them resulting in death. Failure of Ukraine’s authorities to bring the responsible to justice further undermines public trust towards the political elite.
What about the rest of Europe? It is also undergoing profound change, in comparison to which the “deep concern” of the Euromaidan times sounds like a solid expression of solidarity. For at least then Ukraine was on the EU capitals’ radars. Now Ukraine’s ambassadors in the EU fight hard to keep Ukraine’s case relevant for the EU policy-makers and to tell Ukraine’s success stories without getting an accusation of bias. The EU policy-makers themselves have changed – in some countries the anti-EU forces who only enjoyed marginal popularity in 2013 have now formed the government and are dreaming about tearing the EU down from within. Needless to say, Ukraine is rather a nuisance for them. Astonishingly, sanctions against Russia have been preserved throughout these four years, however, each round of prolongation cannot be taken for granted. Even Ukraine’s relations with its immediate neighbours, whose support to Ukraine was unquestionable some 10 years ago, are fraught with problems, with Hungary blocking Ukraine-NATO dialogue and Poland’s support being rather inertial than ardent. Above all, the EU is seeing a tide of populist supply and, most importantly, populist demand changing its face and soul. The coming European Parliament elections will demonstrate whether the old European parties – those which governed Europe for the major period after the Second World War – can offer their voters an attractive antidote to the sweet populist pill.
If I was to summarize the key change which happened to Ukraine over these five years, triggered by both inside and outside developments, it would be self-reliance – the increased maturity and awareness that support is not granted, much as there is no “irreversible” change. Ukraine still has to fight its internal hydras as well as win its people, territory and sovereignty back. The EU has to reinvent itself – and Ukraine is in urgent need of creative and productive ideas of how help the EU in it and thus, help itself. So, if one asked me whether I think Euromaidan won or failed – I’d say the fight is still on.