Ukraine is caught between Europe and Russia

tags: Russia, Ukraine

Dr. Serhy Yekelchyk (born 13 November 1966 in Kiev) is a Ukrainian Canadian historian of Ukrainian and Russian history.

... Regardless of their political positions, all Ukrainian leaders since 1991 have attempted to find a place for a Ukrainian national community between European and Russian influence. Indeed, although all the presidents of independent Ukraine before Victor Yanukovych promised closer cooperation with Russia, in the end they continued the nation-building project by supporting Ukrainian schooling and balancing between Russia and the West.

Significantly, however, Putin’s Russia openly sided with the defeated regime after the Orange Revolution, thus establishing for many Ukrainians a clear-cut connection between the imperial Russian/Soviet past and the miserable present against which they were rebelling.

This connection, subsequently reinforced by Russia’s uncooperative political stance towards the Orange governments, helps to explain the recent rise of the radical right in western Ukraine. This radical right—who the Russian state media style "fascists"—has in turn served as a pretext for even greater Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

The growing influence of right-wing nationalists in the western regions became especially pronounced after Yanukovych managed to win election in 2010. During the last parliamentary elections of 2012, the right-wing Freedom party not only made it into the parliament, but secured more seats than the once-powerful Communists.

Both, however, were relatively minor players in Ukrainian politics.

The implicit connection between Russia and the Soviet past, however, worked in the opposite way in the Donbas, Ukraine’s depressed industrial region, where nostalgia for Soviet paternalism and subsidies was kept alive first by the Communist Party during the 1990s and, after its electoral demise, by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

In the last decade, the political bosses of the region, with the help of Russian television, established “Europe” and “Ukrainian nationalism” as the twin bogeymen of Western modernity—a modernity that is presented as inferior to what Russia has to offer. In this way, a long-term campaign to win the hearts and minds of those in the Donbas region for Russia has been ongoing for several years.

Like ethnic Russians in Crimea with their nostalgia for both imperial military glory and wealthy vacationers from Moscow, Russian speakers in the Donbas miss the good old Soviet days. But they transpose their nostalgia into Putin’s Russia.

Russian culture, the Soviet welfare blanket, and imperial glory are the principal components of this ideological powder keg, which can only be neutralized by building a democratic and prosperous Ukraine.

The Ukrainian crisis revealed that the West let Ukraine down. Satisfied with winning the Cold War, Western powers did not invest in building a market economy and democracy in post-Soviet nations. There was no Marshall Plan for Ukraine (or other former Soviet countries) and the European Union never offered a clear accession path.

No wonder Russian-style authoritarianism supported by oil and gas revenues still looks attractive for many in eastern Ukraine, where national identities remain fluid. It is not that the Ukrainian identity is weak, but that the pro-Western and democratic choice associated with it does not receive the kind of financial and logistical support from the West that Russia offers to its proponents.

For Ukrainians a strong national identity and independent state has historically been connected with the European choice. This is in part true because the Russian choice is linked to an imperial project in which Ukraine plays the role of junior partner.

What this implies is that, in order to resolve the current Ukrainian crisis, Russia will have to change as well—a perhaps unlikely event.

Yet, such a change on Russia’s part is not without precedent. Polish-Ukrainian relations and the long history of Polish control of Ukrainian lands offer an example of how a former imperial master can be a beacon of democracy and economic reform instead of fomenting separatist violence in a neighboring country.

Read entire article at Origins (Ohio State University)

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