- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
After the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, which overthrew a deeply corrupt, Russian-backed regime, Ukraine declared its ambition to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community of free-market democracies. In 2019, Ukraine amended its constitution to state that its strategic objectives included membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. Ukraine made little progress in realizing those ambitions before Russia’s massive invasion in February 2022. Since then, however, its path to the European Union has become clearer; in December, the EU agreed to start accession negotiations with Ukraine.
The process will likely prove long and arduous, and the outcome is uncertain, no matter what today’s rhetoric implies. The EU has never conducted negotiations with a country that is engaged in a war of national survival against an enemy like Russia, which looms so large in European security. Kyiv will need considerable time to bring its legislation in line with the acquis communautaire, the hundreds of rules and regulations that constitute EU law on a broad range of socioeconomic and political matters. As negotiations drag on, there is always the danger that some EU members will reconsider their support for Ukraine as they seek to form a durable security system that includes Russia.
Particularly challenging for Ukraine will be meeting the criterion that calls for “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.” Despite its current self-image as a brave defender of the West’s freedom against Russia’s imperialist aggression, Ukraine has in fact made little progress in consolidating democratic rule since it gained independence in 1991: Freedom House has consistently rated it as only “partly free.”
The ongoing war will only deepen the challenge. As a rule, even well-established democracies restrict civil and political liberties during major wars, especially when national survival is at stake. National security takes precedence. During the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt herded Japanese Americans into internment camps, and in 1940 the United Kingdom skipped parliamentary elections. It should then hardly be surprising that Ukraine, which is in the early stages of nation-building and has weak democratic fundamentals, has taken steps to enhance its security at the expense of democratic freedoms as the war against Russia rages. Two matters are critical markers of its democratic progress: elections and minority rights.
Even before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine had passed legislation [in Ukrainian] that prohibited conducting elections in regions under martial law. Since then, the entire country has been subjected to martial law. Consequently, the parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2023 were canceled. Barring the unlikely end of martial law in coming months, the presidential elections, which should take place in March 2024, will suffer a similar fate, despite pressure from some Western supporters to hold them. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ruled them out, arguing that they would be not only illegal but divisive, when the country needs to be united and focused on repelling Russian aggression. Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians agree. And no one denies the difficulties in holding elections when millions of Ukrainians are displaced, hundreds of thousands of soldiers are at the front, and Russia occupies one-fifth of the country.
The absence of elections may not raise questions about the parliament’s and president’s legitimacy in the short term: Constitutional provisions stipulate that both continue to sit until their successors have been duly elected. Nevertheless, the longer the country goes without elections—which could be quite some time given that the war is currently at an impasse—the more questions about Ukraine’s commitment to democracy will mount, in both Ukraine and the West. Ukraine lacks a long-established set of democratic traditions that would instill greater confidence that at war’s end it will return to a democratic path. Rather, the risk is that the suspension of elections becomes self-perpetuating, with Zelenskyy or future leaders pointing to a continuing massive Russian threat to justify their actions.
The situation with minority rights is more complex, and fraught with even greater consequences for Ukraine’s EU membership. The largest, and most problematic, ethnic minority is the Russians, who accounted for about a sixth of Ukraine’s pre-war population and live mostly in regions now under Russian occupation. Even before Russia’s invasion, Kyiv was promoting Ukrainian language and culture as part of its nation-building process, while also restricting the avenues that Russia could exploit to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.
In February 2021, for example, Kyiv shut down the Russian-language TV stations of a Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, which espoused views that aligned with the Kremlin’s. In December 2018, with strong state support, the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was created as a national church, with the aim of eroding the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The UOC enjoyed by far the greatest support of all religious communities among the Ukrainian population, but it was seen by the government as an insidious avenue for Russian influence inside Ukraine because of its close ties with the ROC and the Kremlin.
Since the invasion, pressure has only increased on Russian-language media and the UOC. Kyiv banned several political parties because of their allegedly pro-Russian sympathies. One of those parties, the Opposition Party for Life, enjoyed widespread support among ethnic Russians, especially in the country’s southern and eastern provinces, which elected forty-four of its members to the national parliament. Kyiv believed it had credible evidence that Moscow was using these institutions as cover for Russian agents, who assisted the Kremlin’s war effort with intelligence, propaganda, or other kinds of support. Pro-Russian entities were also a ready source of collaborators in occupied territories.
Because of the size of the ethnic Russian community, actions to constrain the influence of political and cultural entities embedded in it have far-reaching consequences for the overall state of political and civic freedoms in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, Kyiv’s policies have raised concerns among Western observers about media, political, and religious freedoms in Ukraine.
To be sure, Ukraine’s European ambitions and the EU accession process will create pressure and incentives for Kyiv to pull back from its most egregious infringements on civil and political rights—but only as long as Kyiv believes that it is making progress toward membership and the EU is not making unreasonable demands. This will require a delicate balancing act on the EU’s part. It must maintain its standards, while allowing Ukraine to taste some of the benefits of membership as negotiations progress, even if Ukraine will only get the full benefits after it formally joins.
Kyiv might otherwise lose interest and see little reason to check authoritarian impulses as it seeks to maintain national unity and squeeze out Russian influence as part of its nation-building project. Should EU negotiations drag on, it is not difficult to imagine Ukrainians asking why, while they are making such enormous sacrifices to defend their sovereignty against Russia, they should now delegate some of it to a distant Brussels, as EU membership requires, especially if doing so brings few tangible benefits and erodes barriers against Russian meddling. That would be a bad outcome for both the EU and Ukraine. Avoiding it will require flexibility and creativity in Brussels, and a genuine commitment to democracy as the foundation of nationhood in Kyiv. The effort is more than worthwhile. In the end, a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine anchored in the West would mark the final defeat of Russia’s aggression.