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Ukraine inches closer to EU dream after decade of war

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Ukraine filed its request to join the EU days after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It sees membership as validation of its fight to embrace European values.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sign a Ukrainian national flag. File picture: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, Handout via Reuters

By Dan Peleschuk

KYIV – A veteran of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution who is now fighting Russian forces, Yehor Sobolev knows the price of Kyiv’s decade-long drive to join the European Union as well as anyone.

Having backed tough reforms as a lawmaker after the pro-democracy uprising 10 years ago, he says he will look on proudly from the front as formal accession talks open on Tuesday.

“We Ukrainians know how to fulfil our dreams,” said the 47-year-old deputy commander of a special army unit.

The launch of talks, though largely ceremonial, is an important step for a nation that has spilled blood and pushed through the reforms required in its pursuit of EU membership.

“Ukraine is returning to Europe, where it has belonged for centuries, as a full-fledged member of the European community,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday.

Kyiv filed its request to join the EU days after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. It sees membership as validation of its fight to embrace European values.

It now faces a lengthy path to accession, and needs to overhaul a bureaucracy still riddled with vestiges of Soviet days.

The task will be complicated by the war with Russia that has no end in sight, with Ukrainian towns and cities under constant threat of Russian air strikes that have killed many civilians as well as soldiers, forced millions from their homes and damaged critical and energy infrastructure.

In many ways, Sobolev’s story is a picture of Ukraine’s trajectory over the past decade.

He was a prominent figure in the Maidan revolution that toppled a Russia-backed leader after protests triggered by him breaking a promise to develop closer ties with the EU.

Sobolev later worked on legislation that formed the foundation of Ukraine’s anti-corruption infrastructure, central to securing financial aid and backing for Kyiv’s integration with the EU.

He also co-authored a law aimed at erasing traces of Ukraine’s Soviet legacy and Russian influence by paving the way for the renaming of thousands of streets, towns and cities, and the removal of monuments.

In 2021, Sobolev donned a uniform and rose from a rank-and-file Ukrainian soldier to officer, as Russia broadened a war that Kyiv says began in 2014 after Moscow seized the Crimea peninsula and fuelled an insurgency in the east.

“The top corrupt officials that we dealt with on the Maidan are the same kinds of leaders of the ‘Russian world’ like (President Vladimir) Putin,” he said.

“So for me it’s one war.”

LONG ROAD AHEAD

The accession talks are expected to start at a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, days before Hungary, which has closer ties to Russia than other member states, takes over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.

Ukraine cleared initial hurdles to accession in December by showing progress in fighting corruption and rebuilding its judiciary, among other areas the EU considers fundamental.

Now it must map out a more detailed plan to achieve lasting results that will be measured by a range of benchmarks, said Leonid Litra of the New Europe Centre, a think tank in Kyiv.

It will later move on to fields ranging from agriculture and taxation to tackling climate change.

“If you want to have a merit-based and predictable process, you need to get a very clear to-do list,” he said.

Sobolev, a father of four, knows the road ahead will not be easy, citing old mentalities that are still firmly rooted in some parts of government.

But Ukrainians are likely become “much more serious students” of good governance as the prospect of joining the 27-nation bloc comes closer into focus, he said.

“In this sense, war forces a society to grow up,” he said.

– REUTERS

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