So this finally happened: the European Commission officially recommends that EU Council allow visa-free travel to Schengen area countries for Ukrainians. This comes after Ukraine had, after a lot of parliamentary ruckus and general clowning around, finally met all the benchmarks put forward in the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, which dates all the way to 2010. Starting from 2016, Ukrainians will no longer require a visa for trips to EU countries, although when exactly will the day come is subject to debate.
I cannot overstate just how important it is for me, not in the least because I grew up to see the very first Maidan and through the next five years of pro-European rhetorics, which seem to have imprinted on me somehow. I saw Yanukovych’s heavy-handed attempts at EU association and the Euromaidan, and how it grew into an ultimately-violent revolution – and how that revolution grew into a proxy war with Russia. Now, Western observers may find this difficult to believe, but Russia was pretty straightforward with its demands back then. Remember how ‘federalization’ was the hot topic in Spring 2014? Or how Russians kept saying that ‘Donbas should have a say in Ukraine’s foreign policy’ and how Ukraine should amend its Constitution to that end? All of this abruptly stopped after a while, as Russia saw it won’t be getting their way, but I still remember, because Russia does not want us in the EU. Whether it’s free trade agreements or visa liberalization or whatever (since EU integration is pretty far off even by the most optimistic estimate), the end result is the same. As was repeatedly demonstrated, Russia has trouble with this decadent Western concept of ‘national sovereignty’, while on the other hand preaching their traditional Russian concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ (one man – one vote, where Putin is The Man, and he has The Vote).
That Ukraine ultimately prevails, considering Russia’s combined military power, economic factors and Kremlin’s vast political lobby in Europe, is therefore of utmost importance. Not only we, as a country, still exist and did not descent into the usual brand of chaos and infighting (as Russia probably counts on, because they’re all out of options at this time), we also continue asserting and re-asserting our claim at Europe. Every time we become closer to it, we win, and Russia loses. And it just lost. Big time.
Of course, Ukrainians are already no strangers to Europe: even now the Ukrainian Internet teems with self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ fighting the Evil Poroshenko Regime (all capitals) all the way from Poland, by far the most welcoming EU country at the moment. But this is different. An enormous obstacle to visiting Europe, to having history literally at your fingertips and to seeing, above all, how other people live and thrive, has been done away with.
There is still work to be done to that end, but the most important hurdle is overcome. Despite the war, the economic crisis, the internal resistance to change and the political pundits seeking to cash in on obstructing reform. Despite our erstwhile ‘brother nation’ from the East who started these whole two years of war and revolution in the first place. They lost, and we won.
Of course, the Ukrainian politicos who sabotaged crucial reform legislation (including the infamous Labor Code amendment) and undermined the executive branch’s credibility lost, too. I don’t count on them back-tracking on their statements that there will be no visa liberalization, or that the government was at fault, or that the West ‘loses patience’ with Ukraine. Indeed, I can already imagine how they will be wriggling out of this uneasy situation no sooner than this evening, when talk shows air. You can pretty much bet there will be MPs, who did their best not to vote, getting all the credit, or countless ‘experts’ nobody’s heard about before preaching about how visa liberalization ‘means nothing’, and I’m pretty sure Right Sector or whoever’s in charge of ‘resisting Poroshenko’s evil regime’ at this time are going to denounce ‘corrupt Western values’ (where have I heard this before..?), before proclaiming that ‘The Struggle Continues!’ (all capitals). But talk is cheap, and talk is pretty much the only thing they can do now.
On January the first, the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement will finally and belatedly come into force. When it does, it will open up new markets and new opportunities for Ukrainians and Europeans both. And while there is still a long way to go for Ukraine, we won’t be turning away.
And while the title says ‘The Evil Poroshenko Visa-Free Regime’, this is not, and never was, solely Poroshenko’s victory. Rather, it is our victory – in a struggle that started not two, not seven, but eleven years ago, when Ukrainians first took to the streets to fight for their future.
Today, we won.
And today, they lost.