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A truly European Ukraine needs both victory and stronger rule of law

Virginia Mayo

Aleksander Kwaśniewski is the former president of Poland.

Ukraine’s future as a truly European country is being secured by a massive national effort.

However, while the free world stands in awe of Ukrainians’ sacrifice and success — both of its soldiers and civilians — the fight for a free and democratic Ukraine isn’t only being waged on the battlefield. It’s also being built by diplomats, business leaders, experts and NGOs, who are working together to create a successful democratic, free-market country that is ready for European Union membership.

When my own homeland of Poland joined the EU in 2004 — a process I was honored to oversee — such economic and legal adjustment was a vital step away from Soviet authoritarianism and repression. Ukraine will now be embarking on a similar journey, joining a European family, which will allow its people to peacefully fulfill their true potential.

Although the EU wouldn’t be what it is today without its in-built diversity, there are also consistent shared rules, processes and behaviors that we all must follow — and Ukraine will have to prepare for these changes as well.

This matters because Ukraine isn’t fighting for just a bit of freedom, a few rights, occasional democracy or limited rule of law — its struggle is for a future as a true equal to other EU member countries.

Preparing a country at war for a time when its citizens can peacefully study, live, shop, work and retire across Europe won’t be an easy task. Reshaping Ukraine’s economy and business culture to embrace the free movement of goods, services, capital and people won’t be just a technical, legal and bureaucratic process either — it will be a vital part of the country’s ongoing struggle for freedom.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is right when he tells the world that Russia’s war is not only with Ukraine — it’s with democracy and Western values. And when the country joins the EU, it needs to show it has already embraced those values. This will be essential to stepping out of Russia’s shadow, with its oligarchs and kleptocratic predators.

For example, though fighting a war can, in principle, justify a process of temporarily nationalizing private assets like factories or communications networks, this needs to be a method of last resort, when all other legal means prove ineffective. This is because such a step is the strongest intervention the state can make in a free market. So, if asset seizure is considered, it must always be subject to strict and transparent procedure, with clear reasoning and a credible strategy for returning said assets to their rightful owners once hostilities end.

Recent reports of companies coming under state control via non-transparent procedures may, therefore, raise some alarms among Ukraine’s international friends, investors and EU decision-makers. There are fears that such actions may encourage an abuse of power aimed at the redistribution of attractive and financially profitable private properties.

This isn’t an empty concern, as Ukraine has a negative track record when it comes to forced takeovers of private companies, which weren’t always to the benefit of the general public. As such, the new Ukraine, embracing its laws and principles, has a special responsibility to prevent any doubts about forced asset seizures.

The war has now reached a point where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of conquering Ukraine may soon end, with his forces finally driven out. But this war isn’t simply about territory. What matters to Russia is that Ukraine never becomes a successful democratic, free-market country.

Russia cannot allow Ukrainians to make their own choices because this would undermine Moscow’s hold on its own people and its satellites, most notably Belarus. It would also be a potentially fatal blow to the Kremlin’s “strongman” narrative that the only practical way forward is to overcome “weak-willed liberals” and supplant “messy democracy” with the “Moscow model.”

Robbed of his chance to crush Ukraine militarily, Putin’s next best option then may well be going back to his playbook of disinformation and disruption. He would welcome a return to the kind of economic corruption and political infighting he understands so well, and that his clandestine operatives are experts at creating.

This means that even though the negotiations regarding Ukraine’s EU accession may not be physical battles, they will still be critically important in this fight. The rule of law, the preservation of free markets and the rolling back of corruption will be essential for all Ukrainians to become free European citizens.

Military success has given Ukraine the chance to renew itself. And as the recent liberation of Kherson saw the European flag raised alongside the yellow and blue of a free Ukraine, it created a perfect symbol of where the country is today — at the threshold of a true partnership with the EU and on the precipice of being free from Russia, with all its violence, cynicism and corruption.

The democratic capitals of Europe are ready to count Kyiv among their number, and Ukraine should embrace this opportunity for economic reform and progress.