Monday, 04 July 2016 18:18


Nathan Hodge, The Wall Street Journal, 03.07.2016   




Britain’s vote to exit the European Union has dashed the hopes of many here of greater integration in the European bloc.


Ukrainians went to the barricades in late 2013 to oust former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after he refused, under pressure from Russia, to sign an association agreement that would bring closer ties with the EU.


Dr. Kostyantyn Vasylkevych was one of them. He operated on gunshot victims at a makeshift hospital in Kiev during street protests, and later treated pro-government forces wounded on the front lines fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.


“We wanted to be a part of Europe, of course,” he said from his home in Lviv, western Ukraine’s main city. “And Brexit is a serious signal that the European Union can split up.”


Many here worry that Brexit has pushed Ukraine to the bottom of the EU’s priority list and complicated the country’s chances of obtaining visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens. They also fear it could jeopardize their security: a weakened and divided Europe has little political will to confront Russia, which annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and backs separatists in eastern Ukraine.


“The European Union certainly is going to be weaker,” said Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv. “No one in their worst nightmare could have imagined that Great Britain would be the first to leave the European Union.”


Lviv, once an administrative center in the Austro-Hungarian empire, has long been a cradle of pro-European sentiment in Ukraine. While state-controlled Russian media depict western Ukrainians as rabid nationalists, and streets here are named after partisan leaders reviled in Russia, many young Ukrainians here say their aspirations for the country are rooted in an idealistic vision of Europe.


“When we went to Maidan, most of us went for European values,” said Melaniya Podolyak, a student of British history and literature, referring to the square in Kiev that was the site of demonstrations that ultimately ousted Mr. Yanukovych. “Europe is not just about money. You don’t sign up and money falls on your head. It’s acceptance, it’s tolerance, it’s human rights, it’s respect for the law.”


Ukraine won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but it has been plagued by corruption and kleptocratic rule. Yuliya Khomchyn,a member of the Lviv city council, said Brexit has sown doubt about making Ukraine a functioning European country, deepening the pain she and her friends felt over the war in the country’s east, which claimed thousands of lives, and the deaths of more than 100 activists in 2014.


“We’re oriented toward the EU, and the EU is telling us, ‘Maybe not,’ ” she said. “A lot of people died for that. It’s my friends, it’s young, talented people who gave their lives.”


Ukraine’s European aspirations had already undergone a serious test in April, when Dutch voters rejected Ukraine’s EU association agreement, which had already been ratified by Ukraine, 27 of the 28 EU member states and the European Parliament. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned last week he would sign the broad trade and political agreement with Ukraine only if he received legally binding solutions that address Dutch voters’ concerns.


Now, hopes of visa-free travel in Europe are also being complicated. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said visa liberalization was still on the agenda for Ukraine but that the EU was working on a mechanism that would allow countries to suspend visa-free travelfrom a particular country. European officials say nervousness about a loss of control over migration has led to delays in implementation.


Concern in the U.K. over rising migration was one of the factors that tilted votes in favor of Brexit. Some young residents of Lviv say that the vote damped their idealism about Europe. “It turns out that the European Union is not about the universal values we thought,” saidVolodymyr Beglov, who runs an internet radio station, Radio Skovoroda. “It was economic, it was migration or pensions. It was not about the common European project. That was a bit frustrating.”


Europe and the U.S. have maintained sanctions on Moscow over the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine for over two years. The European Council, a body representing the heads of the 28 EU countries, announced Friday that the EU would extend its economic sanctions on Russia by six months until the end of January 2017. Russia and Ukraine have yet to complete major parts of a cease-fire agreement, and fighting in the eastern part of the country continues to simmer.


On Friday, hundreds of mourners gathered inside and outside Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv for a memorial service for Wassyl Slipak, a Ukrainian opera singer who left behind a music career in Europe to volunteer with a nationalist unit after fighting broke out in the country’s east.


Pravy Sektor, a hard-core nationalist group, said that Mr. Slipak had been killed by sniper fire last week. Some men in camouflage and carrying the red-and-black banner of Pravy Sektor were in Friday’s crowd. Russian media describe the group as fascist, a claim the group denies.


Andriy Kran, who said he served in the same battalion as Mr. Slipak, said the singer had become a kind of recruitment ad for Ukraine.


“He was an extraordinary asset,” he said. “Everyone knew him.”


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