How Ukraine-NATO can jointly change reality

by Sergiy Sydorenko and Olena Halushka, originally published at Kyiv Post

A month ago, civil society organizations and the “European Pravda” editorial board jointly proposed a bold idea on how to break the vicious cycle in which Ukraine-NATO political relations are stuck. Currently, both partners have incompatible expectations that fuel misunderstanding and offense.

We call this idea the NATO Compatibility Plan and propose the alliance to compile a list of the most complicated, ambitious, and fundamental reforms. Implementation of this plan will prove Ukraine’s sincere commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration and will prepare Ukraine to join NATO when the Alliance will be ready to take this step. In order to equip domestic reform actors with effective tools to advocate for these changes and overcome the resistance of reform opponents, we ask the Alliance to back this Compatibility Plan politically.

One may decide it is reinventing the wheel by replicating the Annual National Programmes, an instrument that Ukraine already has. The Brussels Summit Communiqué already stated that “Ukraine will become a member of the alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process… The Annual National Programmes under the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) remains the mechanism by which Ukraine takes forward the reforms pertaining to its aspiration for NATO membership.”

But this proposal is different.

While designing the NATO Compatibility Plan we were inspired by the example of the European Union Visa Liberalization Action Plan. Our idea of the NATO Compatibility Plan does not contradict the Annual National Programmes, instead, it will strengthen and supplement them with a few important components which the Annual National Programmes currently miss and which made the Visa Liberalization Action Plan so successful.

The first key difference between the Annual National Programme and Compatibility Plan is their size and priorities.

The National Annual Programme is an enormously large document. Compared to 2020, in 2021 it was shortened more than twice but nevertheless is almost 70 pages. Each page contains a long list of priority tasks, all of which have equal political weight. All priorities mean no priorities.

In the NATO Compatibility Plan we offer to focus on five, maximum ten priority reforms or blocks of reforms which face the biggest resistance among corrupt officials and politicians. These could be reforms related to fighting against corruption, security service, judiciary, and defense procurements etc. All these priorities should be incorporated and highlighted in the Annual National Programmes, thus strengthening them.

The second difference will constitute public monitoring of the Compatibility Plan implementation.

How did Ukraine implement its 2020 Annual National Programme? What are key problematic areas? How is NATO assessing Ukraine’s progress? These are the right questions, but one cannot find the answers. Programme monitoring report is done by NATO, but it is non-public. To a large extent this makes sense as the Programme contains information about military reforms with possibly sensitive details. Moreover, in some countries like Georgia even the Annual National Programme itself is a secret document.

However, when it comes to reforms actively resisted by politicians, such an approach does not work. The EU Visa Liberalization Action Plan was so effective in pushing for the anticorruption, human rights, documentation reforms forward precisely because the EU regularly issued conclusions about the quality of reforms legislation and its conformity with Ukraine’s commitments.

The third difference will be a feasible goal.

The EU Visa Liberalization Action Plan had a clear goal that mobilized Ukrainian politicians to support the reforms, often against their desire. However, a few would recall that legally there was no commitment by the EU to waive visas even in case Ukraine fully implements the Action Plan.

The only commitment was to consider proposing visa waiver but even such a proposal was not guaranteed. Furthermore, the political decision was left with the member states with no guarantees of approval. The document sounded as:

“Fulfilment of all benchmarks will allow the [European] Commission… to make a proposal to the European Parliament and to the Council for the lifting of the short-stay visa obligation for Ukrainian citizens… In view of such a proposal, the Commission services will also take into account possible impacts of visa liberalisation on the basis of trends in inter alia the visa refusal rate, the number of Ukrainian citizens refused entry at the EU’s external border or apprehended illegally residing in the EU, the number of return decisions etc.”

When the EU kicked off visa-free dialogue with Ukraine in 2007-2008, certain member states were categorically opposed to the prospect of visa-free travel for Ukrainians. The very idea of it sounded like fiction. The migration situation was also lamentable – some consulates denied as much as 30% visa requests of Ukrainians. That all led to the vague wording for the visa-waiver perspectives in the Action Plan granted in 2010.

But even this fuzzy perspective has later become a magic wand for the advocacy of reforms in our country!

Ukraine’s prospects in NATO look similar now. Despite the promising wording of the 2021 Summit Communiqué, some countries are not ready even to start discussing possible scenarios of Ukraine’s integration in the Alliance.

That is why for the NATO Compatibility Plan we offer a similar incentive the Visa Liberalization Action Plan initially had: the alliance’s commitment to “consider the transfer of Ukraine to the next stage of integration” in case of Ukraine’s full implementation of the plan.

What could be this “next stage of integration”?

As of today it is the Membership Action Plan. However, the alliance may change the procedure. Flexibility plays in Ukraine’s hands as it could help to avoid using the notions which irritate the alliance members.

We also realize that wording “consideration” instead of binding “adoption” should make the commitment feasible even for the most skeptical states.

The last difference is the procedure.

Although consultations with NATO are held, the Annual National Programmes are prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and approved by the President of Ukraine annually. The Compatibility Plan should be approved once with possible subsequent specification, but not rewriting.

Such an approach of Ukrainian side defining themselves priority tasks is not working for the complicated reforms that usually meet a lot of resistance. Let us take the example of the reform of the Security Service of Ukraine. The Annual National Programmes 2020 or 2021 say not a single word about depriving the SBU of investigative powers or the authorities in fighting against corruption and economic crimes. There is no mention of demilitarization or downsizing of the agency. Neither democratic oversight is in the Programme etc. Meanwhile, all these areas are considered priorities for the SBU draft law, which is now in Parliament. This is the stance voiced numerous times by the International Advisory Group, which includes the NATO Representation to Ukraine.

A similar story regards judicial reform, where “building the institutional capacity of the High Council of Justice” is named among priority tasks. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s international partners are not getting tired of repeating that the High Council of Justice should be drastically reformed without further delay. Institutional building will not help.

Other examples could be named too.

Therefore, to make the Compatibility Plan an effective tool, we propose that it is initiated and compiled by NATO, upon the proposals of Ukrainian civil society, who work on reforms. In that case it will serve its purpose fully.

Even though the 2021 Summit Communiqué includes the language regarding Ukraine it lacked since 2008 – which is already a truly positive move – we understand that NATO, unfortunately, is not yet ready to commit to accept Ukraine within a clear time frame. However, we want to move this ambitious idea forward to build on the record high support among Ukrainian society for the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We are convinced that though there might be different thoughts of NATO allies on Ukraine’s integration, there is a wide consensus among them on the need to fully implement ambitious and complicated reforms. We, Ukrainians realize full ownership over all reforms we have to do in order to strengthen Ukraine’s capacities to defend from external aggression and contribute to transatlantic security. But we ask NATO to help us catch this momentum and make the most of it.

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