When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the European Union in March to put Ukraine on a fast track for membership, he received polite words — but no immediate welcome. Zelensky conceded this week that there was “no open door” to NATO, either.
He isn’t the first Ukrainian leader to feel frustrated — in 2011, another Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, expressed frustration that E.U. officials had postponed yet another high-level meeting. Complaining that he was “irritated by how [he] was being treated in Brussels … Europe will not help us”, Yanukovych a few hours later signed an economic agreement that aimed to bring Ukraine closer to Russia. Yanukovych’s government continued to seek “cooperation [with Russia] that will not contradict Ukraine’s strategic course of integration with the European Union” — but the juggling act collapsed in December 2013 with the Euromaidan protests.
So why have Ukraine and other countries in the region found it so difficult to straddle their relations with Russia alongside their aspirations to belong to the European Union and other Western clubs? And why have they so often been disappointed?
Back then, all paths led to the European Union
It’s not just Ukraine that has a complicated relationship with the West. So too do many other post-communist countries in southeastern and Eastern Europe. Many countries checked off the most important boxes by following the Western playbook on economic policymaking and market openness. They did this to attract Western investment and to liberalize their previously state-led economies — and hoped these steps would facilitate full membership in Western institutions. While NATO membership is the big issue for Ukraine today, many countries simultaneously focused their aspirations on joining the European Union.
And there was good reason to think that E.U. membership was achievable. After the end of the Cold War, the prevailing view in the West and East alike was that the post-communist world was destined for Europeanization. Back then, people drew a straight line between open markets and open society. Rational policymakers believed that economic restructuring would generate prosperity, not only in the countries that ended up joining the E.U. and NATO, but also in Russia, Eastern Europe and in Central Asia.
And governments expected that market-driven economies would lead to stable democracy. Widespread and dominant thinking asserted that the gravitational pull toward the West would lead former communist countries to converge, too, on democratic institutions. These changes would help make them eligible for E.U. membership, even if they had democratized late, like Slovakia in 1999 or Croatia in 2000, both of which are full E.U. members today. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was not so distant from those transformations.
Now, not so much
Today, the common wisdom is very different. The process of economic reform does not necessarily lead to stable democratic institutions. Instead, when free-market economics hit societies that didn’t already have the rule of law, a free media and civil liberties as well as elections, countries tended to see rising corruption and the “capture” of the state by powerful interests. Countries like Hungary and Poland made it into the E.U. before these institutions really took hold. Now, they are backsliding, and coasting economically on the E.U.’s “seal of approval”.
But other countries, including Ukraine, remained outside the E.U. as they struggled to enact lasting political and economic changes. This group includes countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus — like Georgia, which also has conflict with Russia — none of which have formally started the process of E.U. accession. Meanwhile, countries like Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey have all formally begun accession negotiations with the E.U. but hold little hope of making it in any time soon.
Ukraine has still benefited from the E.U.
To be sure, Europe has extended substantial economic benefits to Ukraine even if it has denied a path to E.U. membership. The E.U. has given Ukraine billions in bilateral aid and included Ukraine in various agreements that are designed to extend economic relations with countries left out of E.U. membership. Ukraine signed on to nearly every E.U. program short of membership — the Eastern Partnership, the European Neighborhood Policy, an E.U. Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area that gives access to the E.U.’s single market; indeed, the E.U. countries are Ukraine’s largest trading partner.
But none of this adds up to a clear path to membership nor a plausible middle ground for Ukraine. Furthermore, my research has shown (The Company States Keep: International Economic Organizations and Investor Perceptions) that these agreements did little to reduce investor risk in Ukraine. Investors are often swayed by “the company countries keep” — and look for countries that have met the criteria to join the E.U. and other prestigious clubs.
Association agreements don’t benefit countries’ reputations in the same way and did little to change investors’ minds about Ukraine’s creditworthiness. Without full membership, Ukraine is likely to be viewed by investors as more closely tied to Russia and the uncertainties of the post-Soviet world, even if it succeeds in defending its independence.
Zelensky’s challenge today is the one Ukraine has had to deal with for decades. Under different leaders, Ukraine has wavered between trying (and possibly failing) to join the West and forming stronger ties with Russia. More often than not, Ukraine’s leaders tried to play by the rules of Western integration, but these efforts fell short, leaving Ukraine with nowhere to go.
This is what prompted the months-long Euromaidan clashes in Ukraine after Yanukovych in 2014 opted for closer ties with the Eurasian Union instead of signing the E.U. association agreements. And it’s possible that even if Ukraine prevails in the current war with Russia, the European Union will consign it to the long process of negotiations that may well end up leading nowhere.
E.U. members are now showing solidarity in imposing sanctions on Russia — but this does not mean a fast track to E.U. membership is in the cards for Ukraine. And without a plausible middle road between the West and the East, even if and when the shelling stops, not only Ukraine but all the post-communist countries left outside of the E.U. will remain vulnerable.
Julia Gray is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book “The Company States Keep” (Cambridge University Press), which won the 2013 Lepgold Prize, examines the reputational effects of international organizations.