Much has been written about the "Eastern European Mentality" and its problems. As I made clear here, it's not a phrase I like, and mentality problems exist elsewhere as well. It's a rather dated phrase now, since 2004 when the new Member States joined the EU.
Nevertheless I noticed that a new phrase is creeping into discussions in countries now designated as the European Neighbourhood, a phrase trying hard to compete with Russia's "the Near Abroad", though it extends rather further.
This lunchtime I had an interesting discussion with a colleague working in the Ministry of Finance in Georgia. Since in my project I have nothing to do with ministries (the first time in 15 years) I was interested to see how Georgia compares. Badly, they said, "all this talk about how measures which are absolutely standard in the EU will not work at all in the "Georgian reality"". And no progress in concrete work to join the EU. Just like Ukraine, I said, in 1994-7 and I found no better in 2007.
Just what is this "reality". First of all, it is not an objective analysis of the country, its problems and what needs to change. If it were, discussions on how to implement EU measures could continue. After all, EU Directives are implemented in 27 different ways, so at least one of them should be suitable for Ukraine and maybe another for Georgia. There are plenty to choose from, after all, and all the new Member States managed to find one suitable to their reality.
What it is, is a set of values and perceptions about "reality" in the country. These values and perceptions are deemed to be shared by everyone, (or at least those without any political power) and the belief exists that these values and perceptions keep everyone in a straightjacket, making change impossible and thus avoiding any personal responsibility for change.
Secondly, it assumes that foreigners must "adapt to the Ukrainian (or Georgian) reality". In practice, this means they should recognise that nothing in Ukraine or Georgia can change, or at the very least, the EU must change itself to recognise what little can be done. At this point (especially after working for 15 years on this sort of thing) one tends to ask "hello, who was it wanted to join the EU? This is what you have to do, this is what everyone else has done, now get on with it. You don't want to join the EU after all? It's your choice."
The EU does not always send this message clearly enough. I speak from experience in working on oil stocks in Ukraine, where the Ukrainian "reality" apparently required to set up an agency for oil stocks first, then worry about what it would do later (legislation, finance, ownership of the stocks even, don't they come in somewhere first? No, that's too difficult, let's just pretend it is in place and do it later, when people understand that).
So it was interesting to see the phrase appearing in an excellent article entitled "Where East Meets West: European Gas and Ukrainian Reality" by Edward Chow and Jonathan Elkind, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the The Washington Quarterly, hat tip to the EU Energy Policy Blog, a new blog for me.
In this article, you can find what seems to me, a fair description of the Ukrainian reality, without any quotation marks, and what needs to be done in the energy sector. It needed to be done 15 years ago, not much has changed. And EU entry has got more complex and more demanding in the meantime. There is no way it will get simplified to meet the Ukrainian or the Georgian "realities".
More discussion in the next post.
There must be countries where officials are so fed up with the current mess, that they could just say "we really want to join the EU, now tell us what to do and help us do it". But this approach always founders when it comes to confronting the quite difficult decisions about change management at the political level. Change management isn't something that ex-communist countries had any experience of, in the past. And change is painful and difficult at the time, witness the Thatcher years in the UK. Change can't start till it's agreed there are problems and they must be solved not hidden. That consensus doesn't seem to have evolved yet in some countries, more's the pity.