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Will Corruption Sink EU Convergence?

The economic divergence between Central and Eastern European countries that joined the European Union and those that did not is one of the more underappreciated geopolitical developments of the past 30 years. But those that did join are now backsliding on essential democratic criteria, with worrying implications for the bloc.

WASHINGTON, DC – The great French historian Fernand Braudel taught us to look for the underappreciated long waves (longue durée) in history. In the context of the past 30 years, one such wave is the widening economic gap between the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the European Union and those that have not. The former are gradually catching up with the other EU member states, with growth rates nearly twice as high as their eastern neighbors; the latter are stuck in a no-man’s land between the EU and Russia.

The divergence between Poland and Ukraine illustrates the trend. According to Soviet statistics, Ukraine was slightly wealthier in per capita terms than both Russia and Poland in 1989, just before the revolutions that toppled communism across Central and Eastern Europe. Back then, both countries had similar cultures and industrial structures. Yet today, per capita GDP (in current US dollars) is almost five times higher in Poland than in Ukraine. (Even in 2013, the year before Russia launched its war against Ukraine, Poland’s GDP per capita was 3.4 times higher.)

And Ukraine is not alone. The Belarusian and Russian economies have been stagnant since 2012 and 2014, respectively. And blaming Russia’s plight on falling oil prices doesn’t explain why Ukraine and Belarus have followed a similar pattern. Russia, of course, has also been squeezed by Western sanctions following its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. By the same token, Ukraine lost 17% of its GDP as a result of Russia’s military aggression, though it did manage to register modest annual growth of 3% between 2016 and 2019.

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