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14 November, 2011

Ukraine at a Crossroads

The resolution on the situation in Ukraine recently adopted by the European Parliament signified the arrival of a new phase in relations between Ukraine and the EU

The resolution on the situation in Ukraine recently adopted by the European Parliament signified that both Ukraine and the EU are at a crossroads. In all likelihood, this also signified the arrival of a new phase in relations between Ukraine and the EU. First and foremost, a long and difficult debate commenced and will continue in the EP. Almost everyone easily agrees that the Tymoshenko case is an obvious example of a politically motivated trial, yet Tymoshenko seems to have polarized opinion as a political figure.

The European People’s Party group (Christian Democrats), the largest group in the EP, has tabled an amendment regarding their support for Yulia Tymoshenko, support which has caused a rift between the liberals and some other groups. Quite a few tend to speak in favor of a fair trial and against the misuse of the court for political purposes, yet they have been inclined to avoid expressing any direct support for Tymoshenko.

Yet all these are merely details. The story goes far beyond an internal EU parliamentary debate. In fact, what is in question and what is at stake here is the logic of the future course of Ukrainian foreign policies and its democratic politics. Until now, there have been high hopes concerning Ukraine’s special status in the EU Eastern Partnership Policy. One need not write a groundbreaking political analysis to realize that a nation of 45 million people and of such large size can become crucial in the politics of EU expansion. This is to say that Ukraine is critically important for the EU as a would-be federal state, provided this will be the case.

What Ukraine may benefit from the EU is quite obvious: a reliable and powerful strategic partnership coupled with the economic and politic prospects for the future of a liberal-democratic Ukraine. The EU’s soft power may offer much in the way of self-fulfillment, conferring to Ukraine the special role of a major facilitator in historic social and political change in Eastern Europe, and also that of an intermediary between Russia and the EU.

What the EU can obtain from Ukraine is also clear: a defining moment in expanding democracy eastward. In addition, Ukraine is a large, powerful, and ambitious nation in Eastern Europe capable of bridging the existing gaps among Western, Central, and Eastern European countries. Yet this is a rather technical point expressed in political jargon. What lies underneath decidedly requires a different language and a distinct perspective that have yet to be worked out in the EP and in the EU at large. Power and size matter in this world, there is no question about that. Yet what matters even more is a pattern of political development for Eastern Europe – first and foremost, for Russia.

I remember how the Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, an influential dissenting voice in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, once pointed out during a TV talk show that I hosted on Lithuanian TV, that Ukraine's accession to NATO and the EU would signify the arrival of a new era in Europe. He went as far as to call such a political move the end of the Byzantine era in Russian politics and culture.

“Russia would never ever remain the same if Ukraine joined the EU and NATO” – he insisted. I agreed that Ukraine is not merely a large and important nation. It is a Significant Other of Russia. The identity of Russia does not work without Ukraine as a decisive factor in Russia’s history and culture. However imprecise and imperfect, the examples of and associations with Lithuania vis-à-vis Poland or Scotland vis-à-vis England crossed my mind thinking about Ukraine and Russia.

Muscovite Russia without the political and cultural dimension of Kievan Rus would remain a relatively late, if not parochial, phenomenon in Eastern Europe’s history. No matter how rich, Russian literature would suffer a fatal blow without the immortal Ukrainian writers Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, and all of the literature from Odessa with its incredibly rich style and humor. Yet the most serious point here would be an identity crisis: although the fact of life is that Ukraine is plainly another and independent nation, Russia is still inclined to see Ukraine as a sisterly nation, though with undertones of imperial and colonial sentiment.

The political modernization of Ukraine with its ultimate and eventual inclusion in the EU and NATO would leave Russia no choice but to follow the same path. Ukraine as grey zone – that is, as the borderland – is exactly what nurtures Russia’s nostalgia for its imperial grandeur of the past. This sort of intellectual and political vacuum is extremely dangerous for Ukraine, as it also nurtures the jingoist sentiment of Russia’s policies ranging from its managed, desperate attempts to control Ukraine, or as Putinesque Newspeak would suggest, “Sovereign Democracy”.

As long as Ukraine allows room for ambivalence and uncertainty in its political identity and in its political value system and orientation, Russia will always do its utmost to pepper Ukraine with Russian cultural influences and propaganda in order to not lose its SO. The worst nightmare for Russia’s current political elite which is deeply hostile to European democracy, though at the same time extremely friendly to European banks, social prestige, and economic luxury, would be a profoundly European Ukraine with strong European political, linguistic, and cultural preferences.

Such a Ukraine would be an historic chance for itself and for Russia as well. Unable to hate and fight everybody after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia would be doomed to change.


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