Monday, December 02, 2013

Ukraine's place in Europe is a subtle issue

Thousands of people rallying in the Ukrainian capital demand the resignation of the pro-Moscow president Yanukovitch after he refused to sign a pro-EU trade deal, apparently favoring a closer economic integration with Russia (Putin uses the carrot-and-stick approach to make sure that such an attitude may be rational).

The protests turned violent and some of the opposition groups claim that the violence was added to the mix by Yanukovitch's provocateurs. I am aware of no protocol to find out who is right.

One of 15 results of the quiz "name the countries of Europe" given to the Americans by Ukraine is the territory labeled as "Kamchatka" elsewhere or "Mongolia" above (don't confuse it with the much more Eastern region labeled as "another Mongolia"; that's Kazakhstan and it's mostly in Asia). Click the map for other attempts.

Like during the "Orange Revolution" in 2004, many people in the West think that these events are very important. Well, I don't think so. People in the West love to think that all the nations of the Soviet bloc – and perhaps even all the nations of the Soviet Union – are free-minded Western-like nations who are being constantly suppressed by foul techniques of the Russians.

It ain't so. Especially in the U.S., many of the misconceptions boil down to a poor knowledge of geography. In fact, most of the republics in the USSR are intrinsically, culturally, and historically "more Eastern" than Russia itself. Ukraine is a marginal case.

Let me start in 2004: the elections were very close – not too different from the contested 2000 Gore-Bush elections in the U.S. The pro-Moscow candidate Yanukovitch was accused of cheating by his foes and so on. But it's just a fact that he enjoys the genuine support of something like 1/2 of the Ukrainian population – and in the recent 2010 elections, he managed to win.

I would probably vote against him if I were a Ukrainian citizen but that doesn't make me unable to see that the support is genuine. Quite generally, no leader or dictator may maintain his control if he doesn't have at least "dozens of percent" of supporters among the citizens – an elementary point about politics that many people believing in "dictators raping everyone else" clearly fail to grasp.

There's no reason to think that all of Ukraine should be vitriolically against Russia – although some people certainly are. I've known several folks from Ukraine. Condensed matter physicist Yaroslav Tserkovnyak, my fellow Harvard Fellow, taught me some things about their history, present, and culture. I like to repeat his observation that Ukraine is more Russian than Russia – it's the true cradle of the Russian Empire.

I hope that Nadiya Tkachuk won't protest against being posted her. It's been quite some time since TASI Boulder 1999.

Some people in North America apparently think that we in Czechia are extremely close to the events in Ukraine, involved in it, and so on. One very educated and close member of the TRF community made this suggestion, too. Well, I must say it's not really the case.

Approximately 1300 years ago, we had to arise from similar Slavic tribes – those that determined the language and some of the culture (genetically, there has been so much mixing that nations in Central Europe are "in between" nations on both sides regardless of the fact that they only belong to one family of languages). But we were politically separated for more than a millennium and we evolved very differently.

I apologize for this Czech insertion but these contrasts may be useful for foreigners to understand Ukraine, too. To understand it in the context. I will omit the prehistory that has nothing to do with the people who live at the territories these days and with their political considerations.

Volodymyr I of Kiev (on the Ukranian 1-hryvnia banknote) baptized the Kievan Rus; the victory of the Orthodox Christianity was a result of a contest with the Roman Catholics.

When the Czech kingdom was being gradually formed in the 9th century, Kievan Rus covered the territory of present Ukraine. Orthodox Christianity was brought to most Slavic people at the beginning but Czechia would quickly become Catholic, under the German or (resuscitated) "Roman" influence. It was very different in Ukraine which stayed purely Orthodox for many centuries; Catholicism was spreading under the Polish influence sometimes in the 16th century, 500+ years after it became powerful in the Czech lands.

This Catholic-vs-Orthodox separation (as read from the years 1100-1500, for example) is an important factor defining the border between the "West" and "East" of Europe. Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Croats etc. belong to the West; Serbs, Russians, Ukrainians etc. belong to the East according to this particular benchmark. And yes, I do think that this seemingly "remote" historic benchmark is more relevant for many questions than the modern capitalism-vs-socialism categorization.

Another difference in the history was that Ukraine's borders were always very flexible. From a regional political perspective, Ukraine was mostly "just some territory" ready to be modified and fragmented. So during the centuries, various parts came under the influence of Poland-plus-Lithuania, the Cossacks, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. This is very different from the Czech kingdom whose borders have been constant pretty much for 1,000 years – protected by mountains and well-defined, powerful enough kings (who operated as bosses of an autonomous kingdom within the "Holy Roman Empire"; in some eras, the kings were Czech, in others, they were foreigners, but the territorial integrity was a constant). Hitler's 1938-1945 intermezzo with its completely contrived new borders was just a tiny intermezzo in the stable 1000-year-long history of the Czech empire. ;-) The Czech lands would be absorbed to "larger blocs" as a whole.

On the other hand, the instability of the borders and identity of Ukraine made it less well-defined. I would say that the USSR has been helpful to shape the identity of Ukraine. Stalin and others did terrible things to Ukraine – and others in the USSR – but the folks had some time to realize who they really are. I think that the answer is that while they're geographically closer to the West and Ukraine belongs to the European continent according to all widespread geographic conventions, they're probably spiritually closer to Russia than any other Slavic nation (except for Belarus).

In 1918, when Czechoslovakia was created, it also contained the very poor region called "Subcarpathian Rus" or "Ruthenia" where the Rusyn language is being spoken (the reasons weren't terribly deep – the borders were just drawn in this way: the Eastern European borders [East from Slovakia] were never too canonical). It's de facto a dialect of Ukraianian although some people love to present it as an independent language (such interpretations have political or ideological implications, of course). Incidentally, for many years, a governor of this poor little region of Czechoslovakia was an American. After 1945, they would decide to join the USSR and Ukraine (under a new name, "Transcarpathian Ukraine": the new prefix means, of course, that one should look at the region from the Ukrainian side and not the objective=Czechoslovak viewpoint) in a referendum, a step that many of them were really sorry about 1992 when I met a group of Ruthenian activists at the Prague's Wenceslaus Square demanding their incorporation into Czechoslovakia (that was already disintegrating, but they didn't care).

The only other major political relationships between Czechia and Ukraine are a "moderate" number of Ukrainian workers we have here – they're usually fine (people with Ukrainian college degrees often work as construction workers etc.) although we still remember the constant murders by/inside the Russian-speaking mafia operating even in Czechia and Slovakia of the 1990s that would incorporate Ukrainians just like Russians; and the asylum that Czechia often loves to give to relatives of Yulia Tymoshenko and former Ukrainian porn stars. I think that this "Czech option" for those Ukrainians who are significantly more "Western" and "liberal" than the general atmosphere in Ukraine is a good thing for them (and maybe for us, too). Just for the Czech readers: check this wonderful sketch about Papa Frost who is applying for the political asylum in Czechia. Ukraine is also the home of important pipelines coming from Russia but we're no longer exclusively dependent on them.

But even during the Cold War, the Czechoslovak-Soviet (now Slovak-Ukrainian) border was pretty impenetrable. I have never been to Ukraine myself. Railways had different track gauge in Czechoslovakia (1435 mm, currently the main "norm") and the USSR (1520 mm) so it was nontrivial for trains to continue from Slovakia to Ukraine. In many similar respects, you could see that countries like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Slovenia were closer e.g. to West Germany than to Ukraine even during communism. The territory of the USSR was very different; some Americans don't really distinguish the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. The countries outside the USSR were "almost" as independent from the USSR as the Western Europe was independent of the U.S.

I believe that the pro-EU leaders helped Ukraine to have a spectacular growth rate a decade ago. But it may have been partly a coincidence, too. Moreover, the apparent corruption that may have devoured some of these pro-EU politicians, along with their mutual (internal) hatred, has soured many of the ideals. And Russia isn't the ultimate Hell anymore, either. Despite Ukraine's significant resources and convenient location, its GDP per capita (above $7,000) is just 1/2 of the Russian one (above $14,000). None of them may be compared to the most prosperous post-socialist countries like Slovenia and Czechia (above $28,000 and $26,000, respectively: those numbers are really close e.g. to Spain at $29,000). So unfortunately for the Ukrainians, it is nonsense to imagine that it's the Russian influence that keeps Ukraine from getting richer and happier.

Many Americans may be eager to help others in the world. Sometimes, they should think whether they know enough geography and reality to be sure that their help is really helpful. Just to be sure, we the Europeans – at least Brits – were not much better in our knowledge of the U.S. states.

Their membership in the Eastern Slavic group of nations is an important aspect that attracts Ukraine to Russia. But one shouldn't forget that while the geographic location of Ukraine in Europe (in the geographic sense) is indisputable, its future membership in the EU is also complicated by the problems with the EU itself. Even nations like the Czechs who surely think of themselves as being a part of the European civilization have lots of doubts about the benefits of the EU and our membership – the support may be below 50 percent right now (and the logic of our refusal is often much closer e.g. to the British one than many people at all sides like to admit). All these negative sentiments are almost certainly even stronger in Ukraine whose average people are significantly different in many respects.

At the same moment, while I dislike (much of) the influence of the EU it is bringing to the West (and us, usually), I do think that the EU may have a nearly purely positive influence on countries that haven't really started to function well. After 1989, I would be rather enthusiastic about the memberships in all the Western blocs; I would be pleased whenever "they" would say something nice about us, too (of course, the Western folks cared much less than I would be imagining); well, it's hard to figure out when "exactly" I lost this nearly uncritical enthusiasm but it may be much more than a decade ago. So my guess is that a closer association of Ukraine with the EU would be ultimately better for Ukraine. Be sure that despite my criticisms against the EU, I do think that the political practice in Ukraine is much more messed up than the political practice in the Brussels (but that doesn't mean that the incorporation of Ukraine into the EU would be guaranteed to fix things).

Western parts of Ukraine which include the capital Kiev tend to prefer pro-Western candidates; Eastern parts are more pro-Moscow. A split of the country may sound brutal but in Ukraine's history, it wouldn't be "quite" unprecedented, either, and it may reduce lots of tension.

But you can't really direct the country in this direction against the wishes of (most of) its citizens. I think it's more important for Ukraine to learn how to operate the democratic system in some automatic way. My feeling is that a few thousand of dissatisfied citizens who don't like the current, legitimately elected president don't really matter for anything. The president has the power – and thanks to the violence, perhaps even the moral right – to make them irrelevant. And Yanukovitch isn't a "Russian puppet", either. I think that even for him, some of these foreign policy decisions may be nontrivial.

Modern Europe-Asia boundary (since 1850): European states (green), transcontinental states (blue; light/dark is European/Asian part), Asian states (violet).

Ukraine's size is "small enough" so that you can imagine it as a member of the EU. In this respect, it differs from Russia whose membership in the EU could also be seen as the EU's incorporation into the Russian Empire; the relationship would look more symmetric, especially if you look at the territory. Russia as a EU member would surely change the character of the EU qualitatively (no one is really thinking about such a thing these days). But just because you may imagine Ukraine as another EU member doesn't mean that it's actually more natural for all the Ukrainians to morph into "ordinary" Western Europeans than it is for the Russians.

Everyone should understand that if there is some "natural or sustainable" border between the West and the East that puts (most of) Russia to the East, chances are that this most "natural or sustainable" border goes along the Western borders of Ukraine (shared with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary – and now we must also add Romania, a full-fledged EU member) – or at most, "somewhere inside Ukraine". You shouldn't imagine that Ukraine is just another Western nation (that is even ready to weaken the interests of Russia) because it is not one. You may find folks – perhaps even Nadiya Tkachuk – who wouldn't hesitate to sever all ties with Russia if they were deciding about the future of Ukraine. But that shouldn't make you overlook the "forest"; the majority of the Ukrainians may see (and probably does see) their future and their identity differently.


  1. An election with two victors ! Sorry, two vicktors.

    But seriously, perhaps like Czechoslovakia, a country with such a political split that is so regionally determined should probably just split itself into two.

  2. Thanks for the artice, interesting read!

    While the US has shown its utter ignorance about the idiosyncrasies of Europe, especially the CEE region, I think this is not the case with the EU. First and foremost, divergent mentalities and culture clashes have always been prevalent in Western Europe as well, just think of the Benelux states or the fact that a late 19th century census showed that only 20% of France spoke French as a first language. The issue is driven by ideology and an attempt for a sustainable Europe, stemming from the bitter experiences of failures since the nation states formed in the 19th century. It's a different question whether the pursuit of a united Europe is futile or not, but the idea of fostering diversity is a defining ideology behind the EU (ideology not necessarily in a depeciative sense).

    For example, Hungary entered the EU in 2004 in spite of the blatant differences in mentality, maturity and economic factors, but the expansion process was not purely driven by pragmatic reasons.

    Also, as Ukraine is a historical stronghold of Russia, it's a valid geopolitical goal for the EU (wishful-thinking aside) to have an ally there.

    Just one remark: Hungarian is the only non-Slavic language in the region being Finno-Ugric, and related to Finnish and Estonian.

  3. OK, but the Czech-Slovak border was one determined by languages and the political arrangement that has existed for 1,000 years. Despite the proximity, we've belonged to different political entities for a millennium. Slovakia was really a part of Hungary for all the time before 1918. It's something else than an ad hoc border you may draw in between (Ukrainian) regions with "slightly" higher support for one party or candidate or another.

    Moreover, even in the Czech-and-Slovak case, the split wasn't really inevitable in the long run. It just worked as a solution at some moment - solution to an "unusually strong" wave of the Slovak nationalism combined with the unusual large difference between the 1992 election results in the two territories (plus the desire of both party leaders to agree about the optimal split). But the problem-free relationships mean e.g. that a few days ago, the prime ministers had no problems to agree about the trademark "Made in Czechoslovakia" that still has some value, at least in the third-world markets. If it were needed for some other reasons, it wouldn't be "too upsetting" to revive Czechoslovakia. It just doesn't make sense, especially due to the continued divergence after 1993. For example, Slovakia is paying with the euro today.

    Creating new previously unknown borders is always a bit more problematic than to make some "autonomous borders" more autonomous than before.

  4. Interesting thoughts. I am aware of the EU's slogans about the diversity but I would personally think that the "core" of the EU is highly homogeneous; the "West" in the European sense is something that has a clear spirit. At least for several centuries, I think that nations like France, England, Germany and the smaller ones like the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark etc. were "on the same frequency" and their conflicts, however genuine, mostly reflected different egotist interests of the nations, not real gaps in the value systems etc. Of course, adding PIGS and various smaller ethnic groups somewhat preferring fights for sovereignty makes the picture less clear but I still think it's fair to say that the "West" has well-defined values and even lifestyle.

    Hungarians often look like aliens, when it comes to the language etc., but in some sense, their separation from cultural relatives isn't too much greater than e.g. Romanians' separation - Romania is also the only Romanic-language-speaking nation in the Central or Eastern Europe. Of course, the Romanic languages in general are at least Indoeuropean ones, like the Germanic and Slavic ones, so this does make the Finns, Hungarians, and Estonians "further".

    Well, the EU may want to have an "ally" in Ukraine but Russia surely has analogous but opposite interests as well, doesn't it? Ultimately, I think that now when Ukraine is a sovereign country, it should be their internal affair to decide. This comment of mine is both respectful and disrespectful towards Ukraine - concerning the latter, I think that Ukraine would be a pretty bad reason for a conflict between the EU and Russia.

  5. I am not advocating that EU's agenda is morally superior in this sense. Of course, I am partial to living in a society that champions plurality and individualism as opposed to a traditionally much more collectivist world view of Eastern cultures (and witness the clash on a day-to-day basis here in Budapest), but I totally agree that the decision is a sovereign right, and there is no place for either social engineering or a misplaced sense of preeminence.

    Those values that appear aligned today in WE were anything but, and took their toll to converge; however I tend to think that the wish to accelerate such a process is both destined to fail and presumptuous.

    Having said this, I can't see Ukraine's leaning either way only as an internal affair, because of the influence of Russia. My biggest gripe is style though: stronghanding Yanukovych in such a transparent way just simply hurts my intelligence.

    Anyway, I'm no physicist, only an enthusiast, and I keep coming back :)

  6. I favor the values you described, too. ;-) I am just less certain that the EU should be classified as a major defender of these values. For certain reasons, I would find Ukraine's membership to be beneficial mainly for the reasons why life in material wealthier societies reduces certain problems.

    But some people confuse these things. They think that if they're richer, it automatically means that their personal opinions and goals are superior. Sometimes, these people are only richer because of the work and principles defended by someone who had very different values from their own!

  7. The blue provinces are those with a majority or large minority ethnic Russian population. The blue/orange border would be a convenient way to divide the Ukraine into two separate countries. Or perhaps the blue part would become a province or Russia. In fact, maybe it should be.

    One of the interesting developments in the EU is the weakening of national identities and the growth of secessionist movements, like the Basques, Catalans and Scots. I suspect that if the EU endures many ancient provinces will separate out and the national governments will become marginalized or even disappear.