Ukraine's Still Cuddling The Bear

KIEV, Ukraine -- Driving in from the airport, the sign reads “Welcome to Kyiv” — a variation in the familiar spelling that speaks volumes about this ambivalent land. Kyiv reflects the Ukrainian, rather than Russian version of the city's name in Latin script.

Long under the political control of Moscow, Ukraine is now self-consciously independent for the first time since 1654 (except for three years after 1917). But, of course, Ukraine remains at Russia's doorstep, sharing an often tortured history and economy, and immersed in Russia's language and cultural values.

As Ukraine's history over the past decade has shown, the country is independent within a continuing embrace, vibrant in its Ukrainian identity but beholden still to its Russian character and minority population.

Somehow, in the coming years, Ukraine will find the recipe to reconcile its location and history with its dominant nationalism and aspirations for Europe — or it could split along the east/west line that divides its population on religious and cultural grounds.

So far, the dance is working, albeit with moments of drama and risk. The defining point was the Orange Revolution that, two years ago, drew a line in the process by which Ukraine is governed.

The fact President Viktor Yushchenko's party subsequently split and effectively lost the last election is less significant than the fact he prevailed through the corruption and manipulations of the earlier presidential contest.

A minimum standard was set and ultimately observed for the rule of law, as fragile as that standard may still be.

Now, Mr. Yushchenko shares power and constitutional responsibilities with Premier Viktor Yanukovich, his political nemesis, who is representative of the Russian gene in the Ukrainian body politic. As tense as the relationship is, this “cohabitation” reflects Ukraine's persisting ambivalence, both in circumstance and inclinations.

Mr. Yanukovich steadies the relationship with Moscow as the Russian-oriented business class sweeps back into Kiev from eastern Ukraine and the economy powers ahead with growth of 6.5 per cent this year.

Now that Russia is on track to join the World Trade Organization, Ukraine can pick up on its own agenda and do the same. The culture of corruption in both countries' business communities will hopefully weaken as the desire for legitimacy prevails.Meanwhile, Kiev emerges from a Communist shroud as a handsome, even inspiring landscape.

Renovation illuminates Kiev's fine inheritance of classic apartments and public buildings, while large, expressive condominiums emerge from suburban fields. The legacy of Russia recedes as the regime asserts Ukrainian culture and memory in the pores of daily life.

In his beautiful suite on a promontory overlooking the city, Mr. Yushchenko shows every sign of recovering from the brutal attempt at poisoning him during the election campaign two years ago — a handsome, eloquent martyr.

Limited as he may be by his relationship with his powerful premier, and unpopular in the polls for the collapse of his own coalition, he is fiercely determined to see Ukraine through to modernity, with closer ties to Europe.

At his dacha in the countryside just outside the city, the President has created an affecting centre of traditional Ukrainian culture, restoring old houses, collecting the artifacts of daily life from rural landscapes, amassing art, planting trees, protecting birds and favouring music.

Here, one witnesses the passion he brings with his American-born wife, Katya, to the revival of Ukrainian history so often and criminally repressed by Moscow. Mr. Yushchenko's decisive role in the rebirth of Ukraine is incontestable, whatever follows when his term ends in 2009.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington mused about Ukraine's risky path out of the Soviet Union and predicted that “Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally co-operate closely with Russia.”

This seems a properly nuanced view for now, which sustains the conditions for democracy, supports this phase of prosperity and, ultimately, generates much more discretion for Ukraine as a distinctive presence in the world.

Source: Globe and Mail