Thu, Jul 07, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Despite Brexit, enthusiasm for the EU perseveres in Ukraine

By Erik Berglof

The outcome of the UK’s Brexit referendum shocked populations across Europe. However, watching the response in Lviv, in western Ukraine — a hub of enthusiasm about the EU — was particularly jarring.

At a time when irresponsible opportunists and populists in the UK are taking a wrecking ball to their country’s own institutions, and those of Europe, Ukrainian reformers are trying to build something new. Whereas the UK’s “leave” campaign peddled trumped-up dangers from immigration to make its case, activists in Ukraine are facing very real threats as they work toward a civil-society framework that can stand up to internal pressure from the oligarchs and external influence from Russia.

Historically, Lviv, perhaps more than any city, reminds us of Europe’s capacity to self-destruct. Around its picturesque squares, every cobblestone and ornamental facade has borne silent witness to the bloodletting that accompanied empires’ rise and fall. Yet Lviv is also where one can find hope for the promise of Europe.

Lviv is a deeply anti-Russian and pro-European city; but for five days each summer it hosts the Alpha Jazz Festival, sponsored by a Russian bank. At a time when Russia and Ukraine are still very much at war, policymakers, local citizens, members of the Ukrainian diaspora and even some Russians pack the streets of Lviv to celebrate world-class jazz.

Beyond its vital cultural life and geographical location, Ukraine is strategically important to the West. It is a key front in the global confrontation between democracy and autocracy. For Europe, it represents a unique opportunity to promote the rule of law, transparency, free trade and good governance beyond its borders.

Ukraine is a large country, with ample human capital, natural resources, and growth potential in many sectors. More important, successful reforms in Ukraine make positive developments in Russia more likely. Still, Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by two-thirds (in dollar terms) since 2006, making it the poorest country in Europe.

DESPAIR AND DISBELIEF

After the 2014 ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the European dream suddenly seemed less remote for many Ukrainians, who had hoped for visa-free travel and employment opportunities in the EU sometime in the near future. With the Brexit vote, that hope is now diminished, as is a European model that has long inspired societies emerging from the post-Soviet fog.

There was a palpable sense of despair and disbelief among Ukrainians enjoying jazz in Lviv as they watched Europe self-destruct once again.

Brexit gives the forces of autocracy an undeserved boost. Europe’s ability to project soft power is weakened, as is its appetite to do so. The benefits of a post-Arab Spring and post-European world are not lost on its dictators, who can now rest easier.

Still, there is reason for hope. Meaningful reforms in Ukraine can still succeed, and more has been achieved in the past two years than was accomplished in the preceding 20. For starters, the economy has at least stabilized, and the fighting in the east has receded.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman is committed to pushing through additional reforms to combat corruption, including abolishing energy subsidies and shifting to a more transparent monetary policy — from exchange-rate targeting to inflation targeting.

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