Is Ukraine European at Last?

10 MINS READJun 14, 2015 | 12:59 GMT
A European Union flag flies above Kiev’s Maidan Square illuminated by green lights (VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images)
A European Union flag flies above Kiev’s Maidan Square illuminated by green lights.

By Eugene Chausovsky

For the first two decades after its post-Soviet independence, Ukraine's government constantly swung back and forth between supporting Russia and supporting the West. These swings were driven by cultural and political divisions in the country that were used and manipulated by foreign powers. However, the 2014 Euromaidan uprising was unprecedented in its intensity and its polarizing effect on the country; the movement caused a political and psychological transformation within Ukraine. In effect, the Ukraine crisis ended the country's initial post-Soviet phase of stable oscillation between Moscow and the West, casting it on an entirely new path, domestically and internationally.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a watershed moment in history. Not only did it formally end the Cold War, but it also reshaped the 15 former Soviet republics into independent states. The collapse was difficult for Russia, which had to deal with the loss of its empire on the international stage while domestically grappling with a chaotic (and ultimately unfulfilled) transition to democracy and market capitalism. The change was also extremely challenging for the other former Soviet republics, which had not experienced sustained independent rule for decades or, in some cases, centuries. The process was particularly difficult for Ukraine, which for most of its modern history had been disputed and geographically divided between Russia and the West. The borders that Ukraine gained at independence encompassed areas such as Lviv and western Ukraine, which were historically ruled by European powers including Poland and Austria. Other areas in southern and eastern Ukraine had much closer links with Russia.

These divisions are reflected not only in the cultural and linguistic differences within the country — Ukrainian is spoken in western and central Ukraine, while Russian is predominantly spoken in the south and east — but in its political divisions as well. In fact, in every presidential election since Ukraine's independence, each victor has had a clear bent toward either the West or the East. The country's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, hailed from the western province of Rivne and steered Ukraine on a nationalist course. His successor, Leonid Kuchma, was from the eastern province of Dnipropetrovsk and tried to direct the country closer to Russia. Viktor Yushchenko came next, coming to power during the 2004 Orange Revolution and hailing from the central Ukrainian-speaking Sumy province. He adopted a pro-Western foreign policy. Yushchenko's successor, Viktor Yanukovich, came from Donetsk, the eastern industrial heartland of the country, and shifted the country back toward Russia. Each leader had his own idiosyncratic way of ruling, but the geographic origins of each clearly shaped Ukraine's domestic and foreign policy agendas. 

Why Things Are Different This Time

The transition to current President Petro Poroshenko (who grew up in the western province of Vinnytsia) from Yanukovich in 2014, one year ahead of scheduled president elections, was also a first in Ukraine's post-Soviet history. Unlike the Orange Revolution, in which large and peaceful demonstrations brought about new elections and a political transition considered legitimate by all major parties, the Euromaidan demonstrations descended into violent confrontations between protesters and police, resulting in Yanukovich's ouster and the formation of a pro-Western government that Russia viewed as illegal and illegitimate. The change in government spurred a series of events, including Russia's annexation of Crimea, the emergence of a pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and the armed conflict between Ukrainian security forces and Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk that has dragged on for the past year.

This rapid succession of events seems to have permanently upset Ukraine's balance between the West and Russia, altering its domestic and foreign policies. Ukraine has swung back toward the West, and integration with the European Union and NATO has once again become the government's top foreign policy priority, as it was under President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko after the Orange Revolution. But the fact that Ukraine is now in an active war with Russia and that it has lost effective control of territory in Crimea and eastern Ukraine distinguishes the country's current circumstances from those under the Orangist government. The conflict has solidified Kiev's political, economic and security integration with the West and has created more willingness (albeit not without limits) on the part of the United States and the European Union to support Ukraine and pull the country into the Western orbit.

Given Ukraine's history of regular vacillation between Russia and the West, it is tempting and perhaps logical to label this latest shift as another temporary one that will likely be overturned in the next election, or perhaps even earlier. This argument seems particularly plausible given that the conflict has badly damaged Ukraine's economy and undermined the livelihood of ordinary Ukrainians: the country's currency has devalued from 8 to 22 hryvnia to the dollar over the past year, and the government has enacted a number of painful austerity measures in order to secure a large-scale bailout from the International Monetary Fund. These factors, combined with Russia's continued influence in the country through its political, cultural and security links, would seem to suggest that it is only a matter of time before Moscow is able to regain a strong position in the country, or at least neutralize the government's Western integration efforts through a combination of economic and security measures and political incentives. 

However, this assumption ignores the social dynamic in the country. I have traveled to Ukraine several times over the past five years, and on my latest visit to the country I encountered what I perceive to be a major psychological shift in popular sentiment. People in Kiev who I have known for a long time to be politically apathetic or neutral have transformed into full-fledged Ukrainian patriots, who see Russia (and Putin specifically) as enemy No. 1 and who now vote for pro-Western or even radical nationalist parties. These people are experiencing the economic difficulties that have come with the conflict and the reduction of trade with Russia, yet they say they are willing to bear the burden if it results in the formation of a government that is able to offer a decent future for their children — and many believe a political administration allied with Europe will be better able to provide that future. Their patience with the current government in Kiev and with the powerful role of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics is not unlimited, and they are well aware that Ukraine's actual inclusion in the European Union or NATO is a distant prospect. But those I spoke with categorically dismissed the idea that Ukraine could realign itself with Russia anytime soon.

Of course, this view is not representative of those held across the entire country. Though people I encountered in Kiev and western Ukraine support the West, people I encountered in Kharkiv and Odessa have a different view. In these cities and their respective provinces, which are normally bastions of support for pro-Russia parties and politicians, I talked to people who viewed the government in Kiev more skeptically and who were less supportive of Ukraine's security operations against pro-Russia separatists in Donbas. This was not because they supported the rebels (separatist movements in Odessa and Kharkiv have failed), but rather because of a desire to rebuild economic ties with Russia and to maintain ties with friends and family across the border. In these areas, people's view of the conflict is more nuanced and complicated than the nationalist fervor that prevails in Kiev or, particularly, in Lviv. Nevertheless, these provinces have decided to remain a part of a country with a decidedly pro-Western government. Even here, despite the wish to rebuild economic relations with Russia, the idea of a major political realignment with Moscow is no longer seen as viable or even possible. 

Persevering Through Hard Times

When analyzing Ukraine's challenges and its political future, it is important to consider that Ukrainians have an extensive capacity to endure economic hardship. For one thing, the major contractions in gross domestic product and increases in unemployment shown in official statistics belie the fact that much, if not most, of Ukraine's economy is informal. Many people perform odd jobs for cash or do not fully report their incomes for tax purposes, a practice many employers encourage. Furthermore, most people have access to a plot of land or a small farm, or know someone who does, and can secure food staples during particularly hard times. The country is known for its rich black soil — in traveling through rural Ukraine from one major urban area to another, it has often seemed to me as if the entire country is one large farm dotted by a few major settlements. These factors add to people's self-sufficiency and also mitigate the extent to which Russia can use economic pressures to force political change on the country.

There are other factors framing Ukraine's new political and foreign policy trajectory. One is generational: The fall of the Soviet Union is now nearly a quarter century in the past, and a new post-Soviet generation is coming of age. Another is Russia's own geopolitical decline: Moscow is less capable of projecting power abroad than it has been for a decade, as shown by its inability to foresee or prevent the Euromaidan uprising. Russia is certainly still a relatively strong power in the former Soviet space, but its ability to shape and influence the entire region is deteriorating, just as the West is proving more capable and willing to challenge Moscow in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. 

Ukraine has entered an unprecedented period in its post-Soviet history. The Ukrainian military is engaged in an active war with Russia, something most of its residents could not have foreseen even just two years ago. Now, the only point of consensus that I came across while visiting the country was that everyone thinks the war in the east will be a long one. Ukrainian flags are draped throughout the streets of its major cities, billboards advertise the country's war effort and the need for all citizens to pitch in, and anti-Putin T-shirts have replaced the Soviet memorabilia in tourist stands.

Though Ukraine remains diverse and divided, its political spectrum has changed. Overtly pro-Russia parties have become marginalized, while radical organizations such as the Right Sector have been officially integrated into the country's security apparatus. The appointment of former Georgian President and fervent pro-Western advocate Mikhail Saakashvili as governor of Odessa reveals just how polarized the country's atmosphere has become. The appointment underscores that the political reintegration of separatist regions Donetsk and Luhansk is now a distant possibility — and the chances are even more remote for Crimea.

Ukraine's fundamental shift away from the East should also be considered in the context of the broader standoff between Russia and the West, which was precipitated by the Ukrainian conflict and which has brought relations between the two sides to their lowest point since the Cold War. Though there have been continuous negotiations to address the Ukrainian crisis from the start — several cease-fire agreements have been negotiated but never fully enforced — these talks have so far failed to produce a permanent resolution. In fact, EU and U.S. sanctions, Russian countersanctions and constant NATO and Russian military drills and buildups have only divided the two sides further. This is not to say that some meaningful progress or broader understanding cannot be achieved eventually, but the days when Ukraine tried to balance between Russia and the West are effectively over — after nearly 20 years. After all, there is nothing like a war to harden attitudes and chart a new course in history.

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