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Before Embracing Europe, Ukrainians Must Embrace Each Other

In 2013, the Institute of World Policy traveled to 20 cities predominantly in Ukraine’s east to talk to ordinary Ukrainians about European integration.

The emotional distance between Kyiv and some of its fellow Ukrainian cities seemed greater than between Kyiv and faraway European capitals. In Kryvyi Rih, an industrial hub in southeastern Ukraine, people said the then-president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted less than a year later, would last forever and Ukrainians should accept their fate. Regional elites in the east, meanwhile, believed Yanukovych was using the prospect of stronger ties with the EU merely as a way to blackmail Russia into granting Ukraine better trade terms.

Many Ukrainians appeared despondent, wondering why Ukraine needed access to the EU common market when it had nothing to sell. Others were fearful that the Union would only use the country for raw materials and cheap labor.

In the year since, however, Ukraine has witnessed tectonic political changes. The “Revolution of Dignity” showed that people could rise up to defend their future. The war with Russia took away any alternative to European integration. And in September, Ukraine and the EU Parliament ratified the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement, which will facilitate trade between the two economies. The agreement has yet to be implemented, but leaders on both sides hailed it as an historic institutionalization of ties between the EU and Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the regional elites and local media we met last year have stayed the same. The geopolitical environment might have changed, but the anxieties of these groups about Ukraine’s place in Europe are as acute as a year ago, especially given Russia’s covert invasion in the east. 

In response to this, the Institute of World Policy, with the support of the Open Society Foundations, has launched two projects. The first is the Strategic Discussion Club, supported by the Government of Norway, which convenes meetings with regional stakeholders, opinion makers, and policy experts from leading think tanks in Kyiv and EU member states. Their goal is to share European integration experiences from the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that underwent similar processes in the recent past.

The second project, conducted with the support of Internews and the Swedish Embassy in Ukraine, facilitates discussions and training for local journalists who want to write about Ukraine’s transformation. Our goal is to inspire them to cover topics related to implementing the EU association agreement, which has been ratified by the EU Parliament but requires a lot of domestic political will and dogged monitoring from civil society to be fully implemented. The project also aims to promote dialogue between media from different parts of the country.

Though the conversation has gone well so far, people are only beginning to grasp the need for reconciliation within Ukraine. These meetings also offer a glimpse into local sentiments that many think tanks sitting in Kyiv fail to grasp.

While the public support for integration with Russia is negligible after the conflict in the east, Lukashenko’s Belarus has become an attractive model to those still nostalgic about the Soviet past. To engage with that group we need to figure out how to address its paternalist feelings and reliance on the state.

On the other end of the spectrum are those yearning for an “iron fist.” Certain that the conflict with Russia will be protracted, they are looking for a Ukrainian de Gaulle to engineer a military victory. Finally, the disappointment with the EU over its approach to Russia forced many to recognize the Union’s limitations in influencing politics of non–member states.

In this situation, the Institute of World Policy is making a unique contribution by reaching out to local audiences about practical aspects of European integration. The past record shows that high-level conversations in the capital rarely involved local stakeholders. Whenever they did, the conversation was often top-down, which only fueled polarization. Our outreach is difficult given continued security tensions in the east and an onslaught of Russian propaganda, which dominates the media market in those areas.

However, the demand for internal reforms and the willingness to endure temporary deprivations in return for real change are high. Our interlocutors in the regions have become more persistent in questioning how the government uses EU assistance.

Our goal is to build on these positive developments by providing policy-relevant research on the integration process and ways to deliver this information to wider audiences. While not a panacea, we believe this bottom-up approach can make the reforms truly participatory and bring different parts of the country closer to each other through the common vision of a European future.

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