Recent Past Weighs Heavily On Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is currently undergoing a crisis, according to several of its leading intellectuals. It is not an economic quandary, but rather one of self-perception and future path.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Ukrainian leaders at a meeting in Kiev on Tuesday.

Six years after the Orange Revolution had appeared to put an end to a neo-Soviet leadership, the country has yet to establish a national identity and a clear direction.

One of its leading writers comments that although Ukraine is celebrating its 20th year of independence, it will cease to exist in 20 years' time.

Are such statements credible? Why is there such a crisis of identity today?

In terms of politics, there is no question that the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych has reversed some of the gains made in 2004-05. Both western analyst Alexander Motyl and Ukrainian writer Mykola Riabchuk have highlighted the cronyism and corruption of the Yanukovych team.

But it was author and poet Yuri Andrukhovych who expressed the "doomsday scenario" in an interview on April 5. Noting that Ukraine is divided today between "Soviet Russians and Ukrainians," he maintained that opponents of the country's independence are as numerous as its supporters.

In this situation, normal development is impossible. Instead, Ukraine is being dragged into what Andrukhovych calls "the Russian world" under the leadership of its east Ukrainian clan.

Writing on March 18 on the website Current Politics in Ukraine, Riabchuk observes that the leading Ukrainian oligarchs are afraid of a pro-western policy, open competition and the rule of law.

Thus they have abandoned the more moderate and centrist position they held under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and opted instead to back the Russophile group that is currently in power, which relies on tight control and brutal crackdowns against opponents, in the best of Soviet traditions.

Regarding the pro-Ukraine policies heralded by the Orange Revolution, Kyrylo Halushko, a sociologist from the Drahomaniv National University in Kiev, speaking at the University of Alberta last week, commented that they were identified closely with the personal fortunes of President Viktor Yushchenko and thus disappeared from view once the latter's popularity began to drop sharply.

Thus national symbols such as Ivan Mazepa, Symon Petlyura, and the Famine-Holodomor of 1933 are barely recognized in contemporary school textbooks.

An additional problem has been the figure responsible for those textbooks, Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine's minister of education and science, youth and sports. In fact, Tabachnyk, who has even been chided by Ukraine's Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov for antagonizing teachers, symbolizes what critics perceive as the fundamentally anti-Ukrainian nature of the Yanukovych cabinet.

How can Ukraine attain a national identity if its national leaders deny that one exists?

A study conducted several years ago by scholar Yaroslav Hrytsak contrasted popular opinion in two antithetical cities, namely Hrytsak's native Lviv and Donetsk: one Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented and pressing hard for recognition of nationalist heroes; the other Russian speaking, Sovietized, and supportive of the Red Army heroes of the "Great Patriotic War."

The point, however, is not that both identities exist - they surely do - but that they represent the extremities.

Most Ukrainians are not interested in going back to the Soviet Union and the younger generation cannot even remember it.

Moreover, even the Yanukovych government wishes to join the Free Trade Area of the European Union. It is not yet confined within what Andrukhovych calls "the Russian space." It has not even joined the Common Economic Space with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

This week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is in Kyiv, with a mission to coax Yanukovych to integrate the Ukrainian economy more closely with Moscow. Economic pressure is today's substitute for the more forcible methods of the Soviet era.

Already there is talk that the agreement on gas prices might be waived, and Ukraine could pay $350 US per 1,000 cubic metres rather than its current $260.

Ukraine's situation admittedly is troubling, but even the Donetsk group currently in control has its own priorities, and these are national by default. They have no wish to be subsumed to the interests of their larger neighbour.

Ultimately then, Ukraine may be defined not for what it is, but what it is not.

And the key goal for Ukrainian intellectuals should be to find issues of common consent to identify what is Ukraine without alienating a large portion of the population. The recent past remains too divisive to be used as a basis.

The first task is to build up a strong opposition force that embraces democracy and the centrism of the Kuchma era without the corruption.

The removal of Tabachnyk should be the first task, and focus should be on the parliamentary election set for Oct. 28, 2012. Given the growing unpopularity of the government, there is a real opportunity to bring change.

The response to Andrukhovych is encapsulated by the title of Ukraine's national anthem: Ukraine is not yet dead!

Source: Edmonton Journal