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15 December, 2013  ▪  Yuriy Makarov

The Mother-Empire Awaits. Why Ukraine could not help but find itself in Russia’s grip

There was a brief euphoria. The President’s incomprehensible and unexpected manoeuvre has baffled and disarmed both the opposition and the public, not to mention his loyal subordinates.

It was euphoria that initially hindered obvious parallels with yet another East European dictator: Alexander Lukashenko also actively flirted with the EU, and the latter took his escapade seriously, but the “father” merely intended to play Brussels and Moscow in turn. More than likely, Viktor Yanukovych himself, by opening his arms to the West so quickly, simply played a fool without having a specific result in the form of a signed Association Agreement in mind - although some experts, as well as The Ukrainian Week, warned that the European game was a bluff against Putin from the very start. Anyway, the logic of his actions – the logic of a person forced into a dead-end by his own appetites and phobias, was in no way conducive of a happy end.

Ukraine’s harsh reality is that, after 22 years of formal independence, it still has thousands of business, political and cultural ties with its former metropolis. Many top officials, authorized to make key decisions were born in Russia, and most importantly, have the Russian mentality. Many business owners with close ties in the government own property in Russia.  Some oligarchs who gained their wealth from speculations with hydrocarbons have the sources of their wealth in Russia. The market for technologically outdated products is in Russia. Some of it can be improved to comply with international standards.  The rest is useless anywhere other than the former USSR. Many media policy makers have their roots in Russia. And many from the artistic elite gravitate towards Russia – or its royalties that are way higher than in Ukraine. Russia uncompromisingly dominates the Ukrainian media space. Finally, and this is key, Russia continues the feudal type of relations that are traditional for an empire – and the basis for interaction of the ruling elites and power hierarchy in all countries that remain in the post-Soviet orbit.  These types of relations are about ignoring laws, personal loyalty, obedient and powerful law enforcement authorities, and control over any profitable activity. This leads to corruption, wilfulness, lack of protection for citizens and entrepreneurs. Breaking such a matrix is far more difficult than upgrading equipment and technical regulations to meet EU standards. So, Ukraine’s independence is still a fiction to a certain extent.

We do not have illusions: nowhere on the planet is there complete and total independence. We have long lived in a single world, where everyone is indirectly dependent on others: on oil prices, markets, terrorism and hot spots which provoke uncontrolled migrations, on technological challenges and global trends. Established countries take these dependencies into consideration and try to minimize them.

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To protect itself from external pressure, Ukraine should have first of all implemented a range of measures to make it self-sufficient in a number of spheres. One is consistent language policy to support identity and mark a cultural border that would be real, not symbolic. Another one is free press not surrendered to an ideological opponent. Others include strict obedience of law enforcers by the law, full legalization or ousting – into exile or prison - of mafia clans, and support to SMEs to provide consistent growth, not stay around GDP growth rates that are close to zero. Plus, protection of foreign investors in order to benefit from sustainable cash inflow to the economy and technological upgrade.  Real energy diversification. Independent judiciary that would deliver fair verdicts in conflicts, not keep every citizen, including top officials, on the leash of uncertainty.

In general, a sovereign state should gain all these complex yet technical aspects on its own. Ukraine didn’t. As a result, it has the insatiable post-Soviet elites, nascent civil society, unceasing negative influence of the “older brother”, and indifference of the international community. Ukraine has missed its chance twice: immediately after gaining legal independence and after the massive uprise in 2004 which only led to the rotation of figures and symbols. Neither the government, nor the opposition, nor society expected to include a decisive break with the past in their agenda. At the current stage, association with the EU could have been a fortuitous chance and served as a crutch to help Ukraine get back on its feet. Europe could not and should not have taken the place of Ukraine in tackling any current tasks. However, even the formal implementation of certain rules, which the rejected agreement would have required, could have: а) pushed the so-called elites to gradual systematic reforms; b) helped civil society to stand up for its rights within the limits of intelligible universal procedures.

Viktor Yanukovych can savour the illusion that he has outwitted Putin and Barroso as much as he wants. Ukraine is not Belarus, and he is not the “father” - the stakes are different here. Without European crutches, he will be unable to avoid being swallowed up by the mother-empire, where he is awaited hungrily. But this is the subject of the next discussion.

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