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Rectifying the Internal and External Impediments to Democratic Ukraine: A Plausible Future Pathway?

There has been little evidence in the 25 years of Ukrainian independence to suggest that a fully functioning liberal democracy is within Ukraine’s immediate grasp. As illustrated in the first section of this chapter, Ukraine’s attempts to democratise have been flawed and ultimately unsuccessful, leaving few optimists amongst commentators or scholars. As examined in greater detail in section two, two ongoing key impediments, one internal and one external, severely undermines Ukraine’s ongoing democratisation efforts. Indeed, the oligarchisation of power in Ukraine (the internal impediment) is a far greater hurdle to its democracy prospects than the current geopolitical setting (the external impediment). However, as the internal and external settings are inextricably linked, it is argued that altering the external setting perhaps holds the key to fixing the internal, anti-democratic quagmire in Ukraine.

This chapter made the claim that the elites, acting on a logic of consequences, make rational decisions as to whether undertake democratic reform or not. In the context of Ukraine, this was seen as a major challenge because the oligarchisation of power had brought to the fore of Ukrainian politics a group of elites with strong anti-democratic interests. Thus, as it currently stands, for those in power in Ukraine, as was the case with the previous two regimes, the costs of implementing democratic reform clearly outweigh the benefits. As Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier (2004) argued, democratic reform represents a tricky matter for ruling elites because strict adherence to undertaking the prescribed reforms essentially requires leaders to reform themselves out of power.

Given the entrenchment of the oligarchs in Ukraine coupled with a lacking substantive critical mass for democracy, expecting rapid democratic change to be propelled solely from within is somewhat naive. Historically, functioning liberal democracies generally emerge from long-term evolution - that is, the gradual organic growth of democracy (which may be triggered by an initial revolution or shock) - rather than resulting from the instantaneous revolution-style adoption of a democratic system (Garrard 2001; Tilly 2000). Certainly, Ukraine has experienced impressive popular mobilisation in both the Orange Revolution and more recently during the Euromaidan movement which makes the prospect for long-term evolutionary democratisation plausible, as long as rising apathy does not curtail it. However, as the absence of key Euromaidan figures in any prominent positions in the new Poroshenko regime demonstrates, Ukrainian elites do not seem ready to pursue a democratising path driven by the desires of the general population (Kononczuk 2015).

While organic democratisation appears a long way off in Ukraine, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that positive democratic changes in Ukraine could be fomented through an external democracy promoter, such as the EU, incentivising elites to adopt democratic reforms. Indeed, something of a precedent exists for this, as the EU’s democracy promotion in Slovakia illustrates. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Slovakia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir MeCiar, experienced something of an authoritarian turn. The EU, concerned by this development, made Slovakia’s place as an accession candidate conditional on an immediate reversal of Slovakia’s authoritarian trends (Schimmelfennig 2005). While this failed to coerce Meciar, it did succeed in galvanising a pro-EU group of elites, led by Mikulas Dzurinda, who eventually triumphed over Meciar and allies in the 1998 elections. Thus, the EU, through dangling the golden carrot ofmembership in the Union, was able to appeal directly to key elites in Slovakia, and of course, in the other nine post-Communist countries that acceded to the EU in 2004 and 2007, in order to foster the desired democratic reform (Schimmelfennig 2005).

Could conditionality of this nature also work for Ukraine? The EU’s poor track record as an agent of democratisation since it stopped offering membership as the main incentive for a target state to undertake tabled reforms, a kind of post-enlargement era, suggests that it can only be effective when membership is offered. The EU’s anaemia in facilitating any sort of positive democratic trends in Ukraine through the ENP or EaP policies, both of which explicitly rule out any future Ukrainian membership in the EU, is testament to this. Indeed, when comparing the levels of Ukraine’s current economic and political development vis-a-vis the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, the benchmarks used by the EU to accept a new member state, Ukraine does appear light years away from being ready to accede into the Union (Petrovic and Smith 2013). However, as can be illustrated in the Western Balkans states, all of which were given formal membership perspectives by the EU, the acknowledgement of a potential membership scenario in the future can be a strong incentive for reform (Gawrich et al. 2010; Petrovic and Smith 2013).

Unsurprisingly, the lack of a clear membership perspective has long blighted the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in Ukraine. Indeed, the power of offering a membership perspective was not lost on then Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski (2009), who, in lobbying for a membership perspective to be added to the EaP, argued that ‘the alluring prospect of joining the European Union is one of the main sources of EU influence and “soft power”’. Additionally, an interviewed Ukrainian official stated in September 2013 that:

of course we would like to have a membership perspective in our relations, first of all due to its encouraging effects [but] also membership perspective means that EU will be more engaged on expert, financial and technical levels... so what can be done in 100 years can be done in 10 years.3

However, given the EU’s refusal to give any sort of membership perspective, partly due to diverging internal interests amongst member states, and only offer an Association Agreement in lieu, Ukraine’s reform progress languished noticeably comparatively to the CEE and Baltic countries involved in the enlargement process a decade earlier or the Western Balkan countries given explicit membership assurances in the mid-2000s.

Undoubtedly, offering Ukraine a clear membership perspective would aid the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in Ukraine. However, as illustrated by the events of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, Russia’s reactions to the perceived encroachments of the EU cannot be underestimated. Therefore, given that Russia views Ukraine as a vital national interest, one which has to be protected at all costs, any greater commitment by the EU will be met with strong reaction by the Kremlin. Additionally, there is a noticeable incoherence in the EU’s foreign policy towards both Ukraine and Russia, a product of the conflicting national interests of its member states. Evidence of this emerged in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, where a clear division emerged between member states that wanted to punish Russia for its perceived inflammatory actions - this cohort was led by Poland, Sweden and the Baltics - and a group of member states which all had strong strategic and commercial relations - this cohort included Greece, Cyprus and Hungary, but also, at times, Italy, Germany and France - who favoured a more lenient response (Smith 2016).

Ultimately, a change in the EU’s approach to promoting democracy in Ukraine is likely contingent on two key developments, both of which appear less than likely in the current climate: an improvement in its foreign policy coherency while making Ukraine a pivotal strategic interest. Until this happens, Russia seemingly has the upper hand in undermining the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in Ukraine because when ‘the chips are on the table’, as has been evident in the Ukraine crisis to date, Russia is prepared to incur more costs than the EU is in Ukraine. Therefore, while in theory, external democracy promotion by the EU could appeal to Ukrainian elites to undertake lasting democratic reform, in practice it has proven difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, Ukraine’s geopolitical positioning will remain a bulwark to external democratic diffusion meaning that any positive democratic gains will have to be driven from within Ukraine, which, given its entrenchment of oligarchs in key political positions, presents itself as a difficult, if not impossible task.

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