KYIV, Ukraine — A majority of Ukrainians and the country’s political elite have for years favored joining the European Union and yet the country has stumbled on most major governance overhauls needed to do so.
Many Ukrainians, in making their case, point out that they are the only Europeans who have fought and died for the cause of aligning with the union, noting that Russia’s military interventions began in 2014 in response to street protests demanding a free-trade agreement with Europe.
But whatever the sympathy for Ukraine in Europe, nobody is waiving the rules for joining, which include cracking down on corruption. For the country, a pluralistic democracy with sharp-elbowed politics and, until the war at least, an oversized role for the business elites known as oligarchs, meeting the requirements will be a tough row to hoe. Interlinked and deeply ingrained problems of political and business influence on the courts are a central obstacle.
Politicians who are also businessmen pull strings to appoint judges, who in turn rule in their favor in commercial disputes. As recently as two years ago, the prime minister in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government at the time resigned in part to protest how a politically connected businessman was able to profit from the electrical utility serving Kyiv, the capital. Mr. Zelensky has denied granting the businessman, Ihor Kolomoisky, any special favors.
The European Commission has made Ukraine’s candidate status conditional on seven main overhauls in the country’s judicial system and government. Ukraine will have to guarantee an independent judiciary, weed out high-level corruption, adopt laws on the media, limit the influence of oligarchs and improve legislation on money laundering and protecting minorities, the commission said.
In some ways, the war appears to have eased these tasks. The status of the oligarchs has plummeted, as some fled and others lost assets and revenue in the fighting, while for the foreseeable future the economy will rely more on foreign aid than oligarchic-controlled commodity exports.
The security services, once in part controlled behind the scenes by business titans, solidified their positions defending the country as a whole, not business interests.
In other ways, the war created new obstacles for Ukraine’s European aspirations, beyond the obvious threat of the country being conquered by Russia.
Under martial law, opposition television stations were excluded from a national cable system. If the war and martial law persist for months or years, it is unlikely regularly scheduled elections will be held.
“The government deserves only applause” for winning Ukraine’s long-sought acceptance as a candidate for E.U. membership, Volodymyr Ariyev, a member of Parliament in the opposition European Solidarity party, said in an interview. “But we need to maintain our development in a democratic way, or we could lose our candidate status.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.