After an informal conversation with an NGO representative in Kiev, our Editor, Christian Picard, did an interview with Maxim Eristavi, for Hromadske International. In both cases, the same idea emerged: the Ukrainian population is seeing Europe as the way to go for the future of Ukraine.
Here is an edited version, for length and clarity, of the interview with Mr. Eristavi.
Christian Picard: Joining NATO and the EU comes with a big institutional package because there are a lot of institutional changes that must be performed in order to meet some minimum standards. With the actual political actors in Ukraine, would there be a lot of resistance or would it be something they would embrace more willingly?
Maxim Eristavi: We have been through this process of EU laws harmonization for years, [especially] in the last two years, after the revolution. I can tell for sure that [some] of the most effective reforms were launched after the revolution. Parts of this process are not just harmonizing laws between Ukraine and the EU, as much as trade deals, visa-free regime or military cooperation with NATO. Unfortunately, Ukraine still remains a captured state by oligarchy elites. It is not only in Ukraine, it is happening across Eastern and Central Europe. Sometimes, this process of harmonization of laws is the only way to push actual changes on the ground. Elites clearly understand that integration provides more opportunities, but because of their personal economic and political interests, they are not able to push for reforms themselves. At the same time, [we have] this massive consensus inside society [to go toward the EU and NATO]. The elites learned from their [pre-revolution] mistakes and they go along of this process. Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding in European and Transatlantic institutions that there is more room for pressure and conditionality, [that they] should be much more vigorous. It is not there yet and the Ukrainian public is looking to the West because they know that [pressure from the West] is the only way [to have more changes].
CP: Someone I met in Kiev told me that the Maidan actually forced the population to really face what it really wanted from Europe for its future. Did it really happened because of Maidan or it was a feeling before? Was it felt outside of the capital?
ME: The Maidan revolution help crystallized this public consensus that the future of the country is in Europe. Ukraine has played a crucial and very important role in Europe for centuries. But because of the Soviet union, it was snatched out of Europe in a brutal way and stayed away from all [European] processes for decades. Now, the polls show a major consensus [that] it is clear [for] people in every regions that the only way is going through European integration. Of course, people are not naive enough to imagine we will join the EU any time soon. It is a long process, maybe 15 or 20 years. At the same time, there is this powerful narrative of Euro-optimism and people are very excited with the project of united Europe. The fact that Ukrainians died under the EU flag [during the Maidan], it kind of tells you the story that the country knows very well, and call tell, what a united Europe really means. Now we are in the middle of this process of regaining a European identity, [because], for many people, the EU is not only about free trade or standards of life, but about solidarity. Ukraine political elites are not there yet, but [the pressure from the population] only develops, [until] we finally feel ourselves as [Europeans].
CP: Something that might have an impact on this crystallization are the displaced populations. There are about two million, one in Ukraine and one in Russia. We can guess that will leave some scars in the political landscape. Do you think those scars will have an impact on the European integration?
ME: We underestimated the importance of history. In general, the Ukrainians are so resilient, we went through years with millions of people displaced and still, we don’t have hundred of thousands of people running to the European borders. Because this process didn’t happened, the EU and the European nations are kinda stiff on this issue, although I wouldn’t blame the lack of international interest on this issue as the major problem. The problem would be that local governments don’t care about displaced people [since] all their needs are covered mostly by volunteers and international humanitarian organizations. This is not a black or white situation, people who fled the Eastern Ukraine are mostly young, active people. They are the ones who actually see their opportunities elsewhere and they will fight for this. In most case, they became part of the local economy [of where they fled]. People most in needs, with no opportunities, stay there, as in jail. They know that no matter what, there is nowhere for them to go. [Regarding the people who fled, this can become] a problem. If they stay resilient for one, two, three years, at some point you cannot expect that they will go home just like that. If this situation is not managed well, you will have another influx of refugees.
CP: Thank you very much for your time!
Here is the complete audio of the interview: