The victory of the Orange Revolution was an opportune time when the European Union should have extended an invitation of full membership to Ukrainians in a show of solidarity in support of liberal-democratic freedoms.
The prospects of the invitation of European Union membership would have offered encouragement to democratic leaders in Ukraine, such as former President Viktor Yushchenko from 2005 to 2010, because these leaders would have had something tangible to offer the Ukrainian people that would have justified further liberal reforms and democratization.
However, this opportunity was missed, largely because of indecision on the part of Brussels. This failure of EU members to act cohesively, essentially surrendered the initiative to an increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian Russia, which has resulted in negative consequences for further democratic consolidation in the region, as Ukraine has seen a virtual decline in democratization since the victory of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010.
While it is true that one factor inhibiting decisive action on the part of Brussels was that many of the EU nations suffered from “enlargement fatigue,” the EU’s rationale for denying an official membership invitation to Ukraine is lacking. Certainly, Ukrainian political and economic reforms in 2004 lagged behind the rapid and comprehensive reforms of some of the newest members to the EU, such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Baltic States. However, this was not sufficient justification for withholding an invitation of full membership to Ukraine. This is because Ukrainian efforts at democratization and economic reform up until 2004, were largely relatively on par with the EU’s newest members in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria, both of whom, despite continually lagging in performance in meeting the EU membership accession requirements on political and economic reform, were nonetheless offered open membership invitations by Brussels.
By shutting the door on an open invitation of EU membership for Ukraine, this resulted in several negative consequences. First, it served to demoralize Ukrainian forces favoring increased democratization and economic reform. Effectively, it acted as a slap in the face to the many sacrifices that Ukrainians had already made in their progress in transitioning to democracy since 1991, after years of Russian domination and oppression under Soviet Communism.
Second, the continued reluctance to not offer EU membership only increased the prospect that anti-democratic forces in Ukraine, who were opposed to further democratic consolidation and Western integration would be emboldened to role back the already tenuous efforts at democratization. The danger here rested in the fact that those political elites who opposed EU integration and continually thwarted the reform programs attempted by President Yushchenko, have also tended to be made up of many former Communist elites whose liberal-democratic credentials were dubious or completely lacking, and who had strong ties to Russia, such as Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. Indeed, since coming to power in 2010, Mr. Yanukovych has worked steadily, following the playbooks of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to increasingly rollback the already tenuous steps at democratization and liberal economic reforms that had been made in Ukraine prior to 2010. Such declines are illustrated in repeated annual rankings from Freedom House and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.
Third, by not granting an invitation of full membership to Ukraine, the EU essentially forfeited the game to Russia, and did a disservice to the spread of democratization in the region. While some of the newest EU members, such as Poland and the Baltic States favored the possibility of offering EU membership to Ukraine, all too often these states concerns fell on deaf ears. Instead, many of the older EU nations, particularly France and Germany, were overly concerned with paying deference to not hurting Russia’s pride, in the naïve belief that this would help maintain stability in the region, and lessen the appeal of anti-democratic forces. These attempts, in fact, increasingly appear to be a complete failure, and have come at the expense of promoting long-term democratic consolidation in Ukraine. Indeed, with Moscow’s continued efforts to re-exert control over the former Soviet republics, this failure on the part of Brussels to provide Ukraine with an invitation for EU membership can be argued to be one of the key external factors contributing to the decline of Ukraine’s tenuous democracy.
If history is any lesson, not offering an invitation of full EU membership to Ukraine has had the long-term dire consequences for the future prospects of democratization in Ukraine. Now is the time for the nations of the EU to seek a return to renewed democratization and liberalization in Ukraine. While there may no longer be another opportune chance to help bolster democratic forces in Ukraine as that was found in the years immediately following the Orange Revolution, there is still time for the nations of the EU and NATO to speak loudly and send a message to all Ukrainians who yearn for democracy, human rights, and individual freedoms, that the Western Democracies stand in solidarity with them.
David J. Meadows holds a PhD in Political Science (Dalhousie), specializing in the politics of Eastern Europe, and is also a research fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University.