When I was last in Ukraine, I had the opportunity to deliver a public speech and also to answer several questions. One of them was poignant: "Why did the European Union not accept Ukraine’s immediate accession when our leaders wanted to escape Russia's influence and let us cope with European standards in the future?"
The question was asked by an elderly lady, a doctor of science. "Simply put, you missed the only opportunity," she said. I tried to explain that there must be a period of harmonizing legislation and that a lot of hard homework had to be accomplished. My argument did not convince her: "You simply missed the opportunity," she repeated.
In 2004, during the decisive battle for the presidency between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, I was an election observer in Donetsk. A curious incident occurred at one particular polling station — a man approached me and politely asked me to answer a question. He said he was a writer and a representative of the Yushchenko camp. "Look", he said, "if Yushchenko wins this evening, how long will it take Ukraine to join the European Union?"
I used the simplest explanation. "Estonia started its efforts in 1992 and we were accepted in 2004," I said. "We can conclude that it may take at least 12 years if all the consecutive governments are committed and you work hard with your legislation and state-building to be in accordance with the main criteria of democracy, rule of law and a market economy." The man was deeply disappointed — he wanted to join the EU much quicker. And I felt bad too, because I did not want to dampen his positive enthusiasm.
After seven years, we see the same expectations but nearly no visible progress. Even the opposite has occurred — given a realistic chance to sign and ratify an association agreement with the EU, the current political elite in Ukraine has decided to revenge their political opponents like in a banana republic.
It would probably be fair to say that Europe has itself missed several opportunities to conduct a more effective neighborhood policy, and be more successful in dealing with the Russian Federation. But the EU cannot accept a country without the latter meeting EU criteria. The consequences of short-sighted policies can be even more bitter, something we can see in the example of Greece's behavior in the euro-zone.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymochenko, too, missed many of her opportunities to leverage momentum and initiate market-economy reforms, instead of getting mired in the endless process of re-privatization. But I am still convinced that Ukraine belongs to Europe, despite all its present difficulties.
One lesson to be learned is about quick and slow changes in politics. There are no miracles, but there is still a certain logic behind political processes. Quick changes are revolutionary, and come about in the face of the need to destroy and overcome ineffective and highly corrupted systems. Yes, we remember the singing revolutions in the Baltic states and also the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.
Another example: no-one expected the Berlin Wall would be demolished so quickly. It was an amazing mood of freedom! But at the same time we did not expect that more than two decades later, certain "nostalgia" would still linger in the eastern Bundeslands. Unfortunately, some positive changes take too long even when we exert our utmost efforts. It is much easier to destroy than to build.
One typical misconception in probably all the transition countries is the following: we expect big, macro-systemic changes without wanting to change anything at the micro-level. And this is not only a problem for Ukraine or other countries in the Eastern Partnership. It is a question for the EU and the euro-zone in particular: how can we stick to conservative budget-policies, implement austerity measures and ensure social stability all at the same time? And how can we build sustainable solutions for the future?
There are magic formulas in fairy-tales for granting our wishes: abracadabra and hocus-pocus. But these do not function in real life. And don't believe the politicians who promise miracles! That kind of an illusory world is created with the help of authoritarian rule and the concentration of power. Stalin and Hitler were big illusionists with a terrible amount of power.
If we have learned from history, let us trust democracy and rationality. And last but not least: we can choose to deal with men or with horses but let us remember that centaurs are mythological creatures. If you have a long, historical background like France or the United Kingdom you can trust a majority system of elections. But we also know that in post-communist countries undergoing political transition, proportional systems have given much better results. Especially when coupled with personal voting.