Ukrainian-European or the Soviet-Russian civilizational model will win out: with the former, Ukraine will quickly catch up with its Western neighbours. With the latter, it will likely cease to exist
The condition Ukraine is in today forces one to ponder why the country has not gone the way of Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Why has Ukraine remained on a path that clearly leads to a historical dead end? Why have the Baltic states, and not Ukraine, succeeded in casting off the yoke of Soviet mentality?
There are plenty of reasons why de-Sovietization has failed to take place in Ukraine. One of the most important aspects is that an unofficial and tacit compromise between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Soviet forces of various political colours has been in effect since 1991. The latter have endeavoured to preserve the imperial Soviet system in Ukraine, even in the absence of the Soviet Union. Clearly, this system would inevitably be transformed in modern times but would remain fundamentally the same.
The compromise was that anti-Ukrainian forces would formally and rhetorically recognize an independent Ukraine while at the same time preserving the status quo that had existed prior to 24 August 1991. Compromises can go a long way in influencing policies by limiting the room for free political manoeuvre. For example, the activities of Viktor Yushchenko as president were largely determined by the behind-the-scenes deal he cut with Leonid Kuchma back in 2004. There is no doubt that an agreement between them existed, but its content remains unknown.
As far as the compromise in the early days of Ukraine’s independence is concerned, those who favoured the previous Soviet government and ideology took a more or less calm approach to pro-Ukrainian and pro-European rhetoric and calls to Ukrainize and Europeanize the country, while at the same time mounting fierce resistance when real attempts at implementation were made. They benefited in the process by suffering virtually no major losses, securing their positions against failure and preserving their strength for a future onslaught of revenge.
In contrast, Ukraine as a whole was worse off because the compromise had been more of a capitulation. It blocked de-Sovietization, de-Russification and the transformation of the country’s social and administrative institutions on the European model. In fact, what needs to be done in Ukraine today is virtually the same thing General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did in Turkey in the 1920s and the 1930s. He freed his country from an imperial Asian heritage in the form of a feudal sultanate. Similarly, contemporary Ukraine needs to shed its totalitarian Soviet baggage. But the compromise-capitulation blocked its normal development, imposing defunct matrices of Eurasian sociopolitical and economic past on the country for many years to come. Without targeted efforts on the part of society these remnants will last for years as models, institutions and social mechanisms that are alien to European civilization.
Language policy under Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko is a good illustration of this kind of capitulation. The Ukrainian government made Ukrainian the state language on paper, while in reality, Russian dominated the linguistic landscape. Opponents of the Ukrainian language had to settle for creeping Russification without speaking out against Ukrainization. Formal in nature, this policy did not require public servants to have a command of Ukrainian and to use it as they fulfilled their administrative functions. This tacit agreement on languages lasted until Yanukovych entered the presidential office and the entire edifice was demolished in favour of total Russification.
The unwillingness of Ukraine’s political class and a large part of its intelligentsia and experts to truly defend national interests or solve even the most fundamental issues by striking agreements with those who do not want to see any real Ukraine in Ukraine has led the nation to a Soviet-Russian state of being. Ukraine looks suspiciously similar to its northern neighbour, coming across as a kind of clone, Russia II. The authorities that agreed to capitulate obtained an easy solution to their economic, financial and political problems as the country made a transition to privatization, but this very capitulation stripped Ukraine of a chance to rapidly modernize itself like many Central and Eastern European countries did. Some say today that events in Ukraine are moving “in the wrong direction”, but this regression is inevitable given the informal agreement that was struck in the country’s infancy. Its nature is such that it cannot be effectively severed in private or behind the scenes, or take the form of a mere declaration. Casting off Ukraine’s shackles will require a fierce struggle. These issues cannot be settled through “diplomatic” talks. In 1991, Ukraine gained independence virtually without a fight, owing to a fortunate combination of events, but this apparent ease made Ukraine’s progress towards efficient state-building extremely slow and difficult. Current events prove the necessity of more active efforts. Let’s face it: either the Ukrainian-European or the Soviet-Russian civilizational model will win out. This cannot be avoided by setting up borders within Ukraine. If the former model wins, Ukraine will quickly catch up with its Western neighbours. Otherwise, it will likely cease to exist as a state.
Has the compromise of the early 1990s brought anything good?
It led to two decades of utterly inefficient state-building, economic stagnation, oligarchization of business life and the decline and poverty of millions of Ukrainians. In fact, instead of eliminating earlier social and mental constructs, Ukraine has seen a revival of the Soviet way of life, which entered a peak phase in 2010. These past and current events are further proof that there should be no room for compromise on pivotal, fundamental issues—especially when national values are at stake.
What turned out to be very handy to post-Soviet party, administrative and business activists proved lethal to the nation and the state.
The Ukrainian Week talks with one-time speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, acting president, and secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, about shifts in the nature of the war and informational security, and the rise of conservative trends in modern politics