Thoughts on Ukraine


I don’t follow Ukrainian internal politics too closely, but I thought I would offer some thoughts on what is clearly a “revolutionary situation.” The basic narrative of the current crisis pits Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who abruptly reneged on signing an association agreement with the European Union, against mostly young and middle class Ukrainians who view the agreement as a step toward bringing the country in line with “Europe.” Analysts have given many reasons why Yanukovich backed out: Russian pressure, the EU’s call for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the EU’s flat rejection of Yanukovich’s demand for 160 billion euros to institute Union standards, and Yanukovich’s refusal to meet IMF/EU requirements for further economic liberalization. All of these are important realist factors. But what stands out to me is the imaginary Europe that has captured Ukrainians’ minds.

While the protests have been framed as whether Ukraine will go with Europe or go with Russia, it seems that economic concerns are the main drivers behind Yanukovych’s hesitance. Ukraine is in bad economic shape, and as Mark Adomanis noted in a sober column, “The association agreement will do precisely nothing to address Ukraine’s severe (and worsening) short-term economic difficulties.” The agreement is about the long term, and Ukraine has some very serious short term  problems.

All of this matters little on the streets of Kiev and other cities. And if the economic side of the EU agreement initially meant something in the streets, that time has passed. The protests have clearly intertwined a future European Ukraine to getting rid of Yanukovich. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, Yanukovich has represented “Russia” in the minds of many western-leaning Ukrainians, and if the strong presence of Ukrainian nationalists in the streets in any indication, a “European” Ukraine means just as much not “Russia” more than it means with “Europe.”

And that’s the thing. A strong fetishization of Europe drives the protests. Whatever the particular complaints people may have with Yanukovich, their solution, it seems, lies in Europe. You get this from Oleh Kotsyuba’s value-laden column in the NYT:

“The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.”

I got a whiff of similar paeans to Europe when I was in Kiev this past summer. The Ukrainian academics I met pointed to the EU association agreement as a pivotal moment that would really test where Yanukovych really stood: with Brussels or with Moscow. All of their present frustrations and future prospects lied in that 1,400 page document regardless of its contents. Ukraine’s future was in and only in “Europe.”

I found this sentiment encapsulated in one activist’s comment: “We’re not barbarians, we’re Europeans,” as he said as he joined a crowd storming government buildings. The meaning here is an old trope of the West/East divide. To be European is to join civilization, while remaining in the east, and here I’m sure Russia figures prominently in the mind of this activist, is to be barbaric. The question is whether this Europe still exists, if it ever existed at all.

It’s rather ironic that Ukrainians are ascribing the EU with such civilizing powers at the very moment many Europeans “have fallen out of love with Europe.” For many Europeans, “really existing Europe” is only economic crisis, despair, foreboding, and paralysis. Many Europeans, particularly citizens of Spain, Italy, and Greece, have given up on the European Union as an institution and an idea. Instead they are turning inward to their own countries, and even further atomizing themselves by focusing on their personal lives. The Union hardly resembles the future, and the values it represents aren’t necessarily ones of civilization or social welfare, but austerity and cut-throat-capitalism. As Moises Naim recently wrote in the Atlantic:

“The “the rest of the world” increasingly seems to be a mere blip on the radar of many Spaniards and Italians. And, sadly, “the rest” now even includes Europe. Growing indifference to a European project that promised much and has fallen short of high initial expectations has been noticeable for some time now. And the region’s economic crisis, with its uncertain future and legacy of massive unemployment, has deepened disappointment and disinterest in the European Union. Granted, there is support for some of the more tangible features of the EU, like free trade and more open borders that facilitate the movement of people. But there is little backing for a more united Europe, and I could not find anyone during my trip who felt that deeper integration could spur the economic growth that crisis-stricken countries desperately need. On this subject, the opinions of Italians and Spaniards are consistent with those of their fellow Europeans. According to the Eurobarometer, a survey of 27 EU member countries, half of all citizens are pessimistic about the future of the European Union as an institution, and 69 percent express no confidence in it at all. Two-thirds feel as if their voice is meaningless in the decisions taken by the EU.”

Europe is at a nadir. Yet Ukrainians are nevertheless clamoring to join it. Granted, I understand why so many Ukrainians place their hopes on “Europe” as a symbol for the future. In the cosmology of the West/East divide, Europe has wondrous powers over the imagination. My only fear is that by imbuing it with such symbolic meaning, Ukrainians will turn Europe into a false promise.

Image: NY Times.