“EU should link visa-free regime with anti-corruption reforms”

Recent polls show that about 60% of Ukrainian citizens are supportive of Ukraine’s integration into the EU. At the same time, there is some opposition to the pro-European reforms, especially as these reforms start to penetrate into system. This division was clear during the adoption of legislation on visa liberalisation. We discussed this collision and the differing perspectives on European integration with Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation.


Who has the best chances of “winning” – the pro-European segment of society or the part that opposes pro-European reforms?

So far, it is a draw. A foreign expert once described Ukraine’s European integration policy as one step forward, two steps back, jumping on the spot, and then jumping to the side… With the breakup of the oligarchic system, some are opposed to deep reforms.

Yanukovych also supported European integration, but with the motto, “accept us as we are,” meaning with corruption and without rule of law. Even when Tymoshenko was imprisoned in November 2013, the EU agreed to sign Association Agreement. But the situation is different now; Ukraine cannot turn to other way, as Yanukovych did. The EU has the ability to impose stringent conditions on Ukraine, the most important of which are those concerning the fight against corruption. The EU and the West in general can push Ukrainian authorities towards reforms. The threat of cutting financing is the most powerful instrument for that purpose. Most serious is linkage between funding and Ukraine’s adoption and implementation of anti-corruption laws.

Opinion polls say that many supposedly pro-European Ukrainian citizens tolerate corruption. Is that true?

Actually, Ukrainian society is strongly opposed to high-level corruption, but it does tolerate corruption at the lower levels. According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 37% of citizens refuse to pay bribes to get what they want. But 50%, however, accept that bribes are a way of solving their problems. 20% of that part believes that give bribes is normal. The reality is that we are living in a corrupt society in which people often cannot solve their problems without paying bribes. If the system changes, people’s mentality and behaviour will change too.

To what extent is the visa-free regime important for Ukrainian society and its pro-European aspirations?

The recent poll says that the visa-free regime is very important to Ukrainians. However, citizens who have never visited the EU say their main constraint to travel is not the visa requirements, but a lack of money. The visa-free regime is important from both a practical and symbolic point of view. On the other hand, people do not seem to understand that the way to a visa-free regime means the reforms what they need. It is very important that Europeans link visa liberalisation for Ukraine with on-going reforms, especially anti-corruption efforts. For example, the law for electronic declaration of earnings and outlay originally wanted to launche in 2017, not this year, but when they could not did that, amended the law in the way when everything was neglected. Jan Tombinski, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine, said that this “distorted” law did not meet the EU’s expectations.

The mass protests against the non-signing of the Association Agreement in autumn 2013 became a movement in support of European values, even though the economic situation was more or less stable. Is it possible that the current high level of support for European integration is impacted by economic concerns and the associated decline in living standards?

Support for European integration has always been primarily based on economic motives. Granted, those who demonstrated on the Maidan in 2013 were driven more by European values. However, they were an active minority; for the majority of people, the prospect of prosperity and higher living standards is the main motivating factor. People know that living standards in EU countries are better than in Ukraine.

According to some surveys, when choosing between prosperity and democracy more Ukrainians choose economic prosperity. Is that normal in pro-European society?

In my mind, the choice between food and freedom is a somewhat unfair question in the opinion polls. The right question to ask would be softer. For example, “Would you suffer some financial difficulties to achieve democracy?” In cases where the question is phrased that way, people predominantly favour freedom.

Interestingly, Belarusian President Lukashenko is the most popular foreign leader among Ukrainians. This is despite problems related to freedom and democracy in Belarus.

Our people desire order and, in their understanding, Belarus enjoys rule of law and order: something Ukraine lacks.

Germany has both law and order, but this did not make Chancellor Angela Merkel the most popular foreign leader for Ukrainians.

Actually their approval ratings are quite similar. According to “Rating’s” January survey, 57% of Ukrainians view Merkel positively, while 24% view her negatively. Lukashenko ranks 63% positive and 21% negative. The difference between Lukashenko and Merkel is mainly explainable by geographical factors. The Belarusian president is viewed positively in the west (51%) and south (76%) of Ukraine. Merkel is viewed very well in the west (73%), but in the eastern part of the country, only 30% of Ukrainians support her. In any case, these figures are incomparable with ratings of Putin, who is viewed negatively by 80% of Ukrainians, and positively by only 10%.

According to the “Rating” survey, 21% of Ukrainians in the unoccupied territories of Donbass support integration into the EU, while 33% of these people support integration with Russia. How can this be amid the current Russian aggression?

Do not dramatise the situation. In the past, 70% of the population of these territories supported a Customs Union. Now most of those people have moved into the “undecided” category. In fact, the region is undergoing rapid change. For example, in 2012 only 0.3% of survey respondents in Donbass supported joining NATO. Now, about 15% are in favour. Yes, it’s still a minority, but there has been significant progress.

Is there a risk that European integration could be again “forgotten”, as it was after the Orange Revolution, due to a lack of social activism?

There is a big difference between the current situation and the situation during the Orange Revolution. Ukraine is facing a war and it will not survive alone. We really need the help of the EU, and the Western world in general, loans for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. European integration, and the reforms provided by the Association Agreement, are not only needed, but inevitable. I once spoke with a Polish counterpart about Poland’s experience with pro-European reforms. He said, “To be honest, Poland succeeded because we were simply dragged into Europe. We were told, if we wanted to join the EU, we had to do certain things. Sometimes, we did not want to do some things, but had no choice.” We have a very similar situation in Ukraine now, but the country is in the advanced stages of political and social “disease”, and that is why everything is moving so slowly.

In addition, after the Orange Revolution there was a lot of support for the party leaders, especially Viktor Yushchenko. After his victory, civil society activism relaxed, demobilised, and waited for the politicians to fulfil the promises they made on the Maidan. Now people have less faith in leaders. Euromaidan appeared as active position of the society, and politicians joined them later. After the victory of the revolution Ukraine faced a war, which rather than allowing us to relax, further spurred social activism. So there has been no chance to ‘forget’ European integration; the idea actually gave birth to Euromaidan. The cause of European integration cost the lives of some of Ukraine’s best citizens. And our European partners know from experience not to trust idle talk. The EU says, “Adopt the necessary laws. Fight corruption. Otherwise, we will not provide funding.” This is the right approach. No reform – no support.

The interview was published on gazeta.ua