KYIV, Ukraine – A majority of Ukrainians and the country’s political elite have long championed accession to the European Union, yet the country has encountered most of the major governance reforms it would require.
Many Ukrainians, when making their plea, point out that they are the only Europeans who have fought and died to join the union. Europe.
But whatever the sympathy for Ukraine in Europe, no one is waiving the rules of accession, including the crackdown on corruption. For the country, a pluralistic democracy with sharp-elbowed politics and, until the war at least, too big a role for the corporate elites known as oligarchs, meeting the requirements will be an uphill battle to hoe. Interconnected and entrenched problems of political and business influence in the courts are a central obstacle.
Politicians who are also businessmen pull the strings to appoint judges, who in turn decide in their favor in commercial disputes. Just two years ago, the then prime minister of the then government of President Volodymyr Zelensky resigned in part to protest how a politically connected businessman could take advantage of the electric utility that serves the capital Kiev. Mr. Zelensky has refused to grant the businessman, Ihor Kolomoisky, any special favors.
The European Commission has made Ukraine’s candidate country conditional on seven major reforms to the country’s legal system and government. Ukraine will need to guarantee an independent judiciary, eradicate high-level corruption, pass laws on the media, limit the influence of oligarchs and improve legislation on money laundering and the protection of minorities, the commission said.
In some ways the war seems to have eased these tasks. The status of the oligarchs has plummeted as some have fled and others have lost assets and income in the fighting, while the economy will depend more on foreign aid than on oligarch-controlled goods exports for the foreseeable future.
The security forces, once partially controlled behind the scenes by corporate titans, solidified their positions and defended the country as a whole, not business interests.
In other ways, the war created new obstacles to Ukraine’s European aspirations, beyond the obvious threat of the country being conquered by Russia.
Under martial law, opposition television stations were barred from a national cable system. If the war and martial law continue for months or years, it is unlikely that regularly scheduled elections will be held.
“The government only deserves applause” for winning Ukraine’s long-sought acceptance as a candidate for EU membership, Volodymyr Ariyev, a member of parliament in the opposition European Solidarity party, said in an interview. “But we must maintain our development in a democratic way, otherwise we could lose our candidate status.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed from Kiev.