The Bright Spot in the Ukraine Crisis Nobody's Noticed

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, EU

Steven Beller is the author of Democracy: All That Matters and A Concise History of Austria. Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books, 2013).

There is something about the current crisis in Ukraine that has brought out the historical analogist in virtually everyone. The most popular move has been to compare current situations with the Munich Conference of 1938. Some of this analogy works, some not (Russia now is much weaker, comparatively, than Germany was then). Or you can see the current crisis as a rematch of the Crimean War, which was also the first gambit in a redrawing of the map of Europe, only then it was not Russia trying it on as much as Louis Napoleon’s France. It worked for a few years (France got Nice) but then came crashing down when France was outplayed by Bismarck’s Prussia—if anything this is a warning to Putin that he and Russia are far more likely in the longer term to be the victim of unintended consequences than their beneficiary. But neither analogy works all that well.

We think a different sort of historical analogy is more appropriate and that, strange as it may seem, the main beneficiary of all this, in the long run, will be a current loser according to conventional wisdom: the European Union. As the reassertion of an old-new version of Europe and of international relations, the EU will leave the decisive, but atavistic, nationalist model being followed by “he-man” Putin in the historical dust.

The key question is why Ukrainians want to move toward Europe and away from Russia. What exactly does newly elected President Petro Poroshenko mean when he says that Ukraine needs to “bring in European values”? There are obvious reasons which do not need much analysis—given Putin’s rampant Russian nationalism, the dysfunction of the Russian economy, and the clear trend in Russia away from anything resembling democracy, plus Russia’s extremely shabby treatment of a supposedly sovereign Ukraine, anywhere but Russia must seem a good option to Ukrainians. But there are excellent, positive reasons for looking to Europe.

First is the prospect of prosperity, of trading more freely with the biggest free market on Earth. Second, related, is that the agreement with the EU makes Ukraine do what progressive Ukrainians wanted to do all along, which is strengthen the rule of law and attack corruption, hence also boosting investment and the economy. Adopting the Western, European model is seen as assuring Ukraine’s “democratic” identity, making it part of “the West.”

At the same time Ukraine does not have to sacrifice its pride in its national independence by contemplating closer ties, or even eventually accession into the EU, because, as a Czech politician has written, the Union operates on the principle that it must: “consider itself a mother equally to all, and as stepmother to none ... the government in [Europe] can be neither German nor Magyar, not Slavic or Romanian, rather in the highest and most general sense [European], that it should be equally just towards all of its members.” In other words, as one nation among many other equals, Ukrainians will escape from the subordinate role under which they have suffered for centuries.

Now, the language in that quote might appear rather archaic and particular, with its talk of mothers, Germans, Magyars and Slavs, and that is because it was not written in this century but the nineteenth, the Czech politician was František Palacký, “father of the Czech nation,” and it was not Europe that he referred to in the original quote, but Austria, the Habsburg Monarchy that was destroyed by the war that it started a century ago, in 1914. Yet the logic holds surprisingly well—a major reason why Ukrainians are attracted to the EU today is because it is a democratic, successful version, with all its faults, of what the Habsburg Monarchy should have been: a supranational, polyglot polity, in which each of its component national polities, and their individual citizens, can freely co-operate for mutual benefit and the common good.

It is no accident that part of what is now Western Ukraine was once part of the Habsburg Monarchy. Lviv was the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia, Cernivtsi the capital of the Bukovina. Back then the Ukrainian populace had often a negative experience of Habsburg rule of the Monarchy’s ethnically diverse domains. In comparison to Russian and Soviet rule, a certain nostalgia nonetheless grew up about the good old, Austrian days. What Ukrainians want to connect to now is not Habsburg nostalgia but rather the very effective European Union, which has taken the principle of diversity in unity underlying the “Austrian idea,” democratized it, and made it work remarkably well for its populace, all things considered, and despite the current “Euro-gloom”.

The central historical insight about the Ukrainian crisis today should be that, whatever you might have read or seen, the Ukrainian wish to join Europe attests to the fact that it is not the exclusive, “either-or” logic of the nation-state, but rather the inclusive “both-and” logic behind the past Habsburg Monarchy and now the plurinational EU that is the way of the future.

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