Ukraine’s future today

One of the Ukrainian Erasmus Exchange students in our program, Alina Cherkas, writes a blogpost on the referendum on Ukraine that takes place in the Netherlands, just today. She is puzzled why large parts of the Dutch population do not seem to be able to grant the same freedom of choice to the Ukrainian people that they cherish so highly for themselves.

Today, the 6th of April 2016, there will be an advisory referendum in the Netherlands about my home country Ukraine, more specifically about the question whether the Netherlands will – or will not – ratify the Association Agreement (AA) between Ukraine and EU. As a Ukrainian student who came to the Netherlands some months ago, I would like to tell you my opinion on this issue. It might be of some help to you.

When I came to the Netherlands, I was a surprised that the Dutch were so little knowledgeable on the Ukraine. Sometimes I was asked about ‘your’ problems with Russia, at other times people were curious about Crimea (whether it is Russian or Ukrainian now) and the question I heard most was: “Do you all speak Russian?” This combination of lack of knowledge and prejudice is not a very pleasant mix.

On the other hand I like the openness of the Dutch people to new information about Ukraine. They asked many questions and most of them seemed highly interested in my answers.

If we now turn to the topic of the referendum and the Association Agreement, I would like to briefly emphasise some key points.

Firstly, what is this referendum about and what not? The Association Agreement is about deepening trade and economic connections between Ukraine and the EU, it is about reforming my country by following the EU-legislation, finally fighting corruption and making Ukraine a stable partner of the EU. On the other hand: the agreement is not about joining the EU as a member, it’s not about permanent financial aid of the EU to Ukraine. In sum: it is far more about partnership than membership.

Secondly, why is this agreement so important for Ukrainian people?
Many people showed unbelief on whether the Ukrainian people really wanted this agreement and suggested that it was imposed on ‘us’ by ‘your’ politicians. The best answer to these innuendo lies in the millions of Ukrainians standing at the Kyiv’s main square or in the other cities and towns all over Ukraine during the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity in 2014. They were there to show their wish to sign this agreement. There were students among them as well as businessmen, teachers, truck-drivers and many other ordinary Ukrainians; they all wanted Ukraine to be changed and reformed after the European example.

What they got was the opposite. The present military invasion of Russia into Ukraine as well as the occupation of the Crimea both are the backfired result of this strongly felt wish of the Ukrainian people to become more ‘European’.

After having lived in the Netherlands for some time now, I have come to notice how important freedom is for Dutch people. The Dutch cherish their freedom in everyday life as well as in law, politics and education. To some extent this referendum on the Association Agreement is also about the freedom of the Dutch to express their opinions on Ukraine. It is good that the Dutch people have this right. But we should not forget that this same freedom also extends to the Ukrainians. As they have proved time and time again, the Ukrainians crave for a change of their country, they want to make it come closer to EU standards and to Western democratic values. The Association Agreement that caused Euromaidan (Revolution of Dignity) in 2014 is instrumental to this. A Dutch “ja” on 6 April 2016 would show the respect of the Dutch for the conscious, deliberate choice of the Ukrainian people.

From my perspective as a student, I also want to emphasise the opportunities implied by this agreement for the younger generations and with it for the future of Ukraine. I can present myself here as an example. I was only one out of four (per year) lucky students from my home university who could come over to the Netherlands and to study here this semester. It proves to be an unforgettable and very useful experience to us. We really enjoy the Dutch education that is one of the best in Europe. But still, I would like to see that my fellow students from Ukraine also would get this opportunity. And not only four, five or maybe seven of them. The Association Agreement will help to increase the numbers of exchange students. And with it this will in time change the Ukrainian educational system. Studying abroad in the Netherlands will most likely prove to be very important for the renewal of my country.

The Dutch internal referendum is of historical importance for the way my country will be perceived by those European countries that started the creation of the EU. Well, this is my point of view and these are my considerations: I do want a transformation of Ukraine into a stable, liberal democracy and into an economically attractive country, and I hope for the deepening of the Dutch-Ukrainian and EU-Ukrainian cooperation in the future. I want that future and I want it to start today.

By Alina Cherkas, Erasmus Exchange Student at the Frisian Department