Ukraine : Between Civilizations

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- For anybody wanting to understand countries like Ukraine, Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” should top their reading list. In Ukraine, which is closely bound to both Europe and Russia, the clash of civilizations is profoundly visible.

Ukraine is a country closely bound to both Europe and Russia.

Fault-lines between civilizations have replaced the political and ideological borders of the Cold war as a flashpoint. With the crumbling of the Iron Curtain ideological division disappeared only to be replaced by other types of division – visa curtain, obstacles in trade, movement of capital.

The years that followed witnessed the beginning of dramatic changes in people’s identities and the symbols of those identities, with global politics being reconfigured along these lines.

Ukraine is a perfect example of this, being a fault-line that separates in terms of Huntington Western catholic civilization from Russian Orthodox world. Nowadays this divide has become evident in the assessment of Ukraine’s “Europeaness”, with Ukraine almost having to prove it is European.

Off-the-cuff remarks by both Ukrainian politicians and foreign dignitaries are frequently interpreted as Ukraine swinging in one direction or the other.

While geographically Ukraine is part of the European continent this has not proven sufficient to guarantee a warm welcome from the EU. Ukraine's Soviet past, its links to Russia and to neo-Soviet political culture mean that, for many in the West, Ukraine is still psychologically not part of Europe.

This goes someway to explaining why the EU continues to refuse to offer the country a membership perspective.

A New State is Born

20 years ago, 90% of Ukrainian’s voted for independence. However, not everyone welcomed the emergence of this new European country comparable in size to France.

In his famous chicken Kiev speech, given a few weeks before the vote in the Rada, former US President G W Bush senior, cautioned against “suicidal nationalism” advising Ukrainians not to withdraw from the Soviet Union.

With this statement, the US clearly spelled out that it would prefer Ukraine to remain part of the USSR. However, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the destruction of frontier markers between Austria and Hungary and the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe it was the only way forward.

Back then Ukrainians viewed themselves as being no different to their former Soviet bloc neighbours and Kiev was optimist that Europe’s reunification project would soon penetrate its borders.

This was not to be the case. Almost immediately the then European Community made a clear distinction between former CIS states (including Ukraine) and the satellite states (Poland, Hungary, etc). Therefore, reforms launched in Ukraine were not as robustly supported by the EC as in other Central and Eastern states.

A New Iron Curtain

By the mid-1990’s the differences were more visible. While then Poles and Hungarians were soon able to travel westward without visas, which eventually led to all of Ukraine’s western neighbors joining the EU, Ukraine was left out in the cold.

It seemed that a new Iron Curtain had been constructed just a few hundred kilometers from the old one. Of course, Ukraine was not helped by its then leadership. While President Kuchma may have regularly voiced a desire to be part of the EU, his autocratic style ran against the key values of the EU. Therefore Brussels had the perfect excuse for keeping Ukraine at arms length.

However, the 2004 Orange Revolution opened a new page in Ukraine’s history. Suddenly Ukraine was recognized the world over, as not only a democratic state but as a model in its unruly neighbourhood.

Unfortunately this “change of guard”, while warmly welcomed, failed to bring about a change in the EU’s approach. Ukraine was advised not to submit a membership application, but rather to crack on with reforms to prove it would one day be “worthy” of membership.

Left alone Ukraine began to drift and sink. Without an EU perspective to glue their partnership together the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko tandem plunged into chaos finally collapsing in 2010.

The Importance of the EU

This summer Ukraine will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. The past was difficult and the future remains uncertain. The country naturally considers itself European and maintains a strong desire to join the EU.

However, it seems that somebody has already drawn the borders of Europe according to Huntington’s map and Ukraine has been left without place. Rather Kiev is persistently told its place is with Algeria, Armenia and Palestinian Authority, as part of the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, not as a member of the EU. Kiev will never accept this.

Europe has become increasingly inward looking, lacking visionary statesmen and outreach. The leaders of today’s EU seem barely able to see beyond the end of next week let alone ten years down the line.

It would seem the EU’s leadership has forgotten why the EU was created in the first place – to bring security, peace and stability to the European continent.

It seems that some European politicians are only able to change their stereotyped way of thinking if they start to smell gunpowder, as was the case with the former Yugoslavia.

Only after bloody rivers began to flow was the decision to grant a membership perspective to the countries of the Western Balkans taken. This perspective offered considerable incentive to move towards a future beyond their troubled past and helped to quickly stabilize the region. Of course, a membership perspective is not a magic formula for solving everything.

The Kosovo issue cannot be solved just this way. However, the Transnistrian dispute could be. If Ukraine and Moldova were both included into the enlargement process, this conflict could quickly be settled bringing increased stability and security to the entire region.

A new vision is needed

Today, Ukraine’s European mission is in the hands of President Yanukovych who, after only one year in office, has shown himself to be dedicated to European integration. However, there seems to be little hope that Ukraine’s friends in the EU will be able to convince those which are steadfastly opposed to offering Ukraine a membership perspective to change their minds.

This policy is short-sighted. For the EU the question of Ukraine’s future is more than a question of foreign policy. The threat to its own security has been insufficiently recognized. What happens in Ukraine effects the rest of Europe both economically and politically.

The continuing lack of clarity in policies towards Ukraine is not sustainable and is based on an imperfect understanding of Ukraine’s significance for Europe as a whole. The end result is that Ukraine continues to struggle with its political identity, flip flopping between their aspirations of a western style democracy, based on capitalism, and the old communist system.

Europe urgently needs new political thinking and a new vision for its future. With an ageing population, a comatose social security system and a stagnant economy it is unlikely that Europe will be able to compete against a rising powers unless new impetus is injected.

Ukraine and the Eastern European region together with Turkey can give new impetus to the economic development of the continent and transform the EU into a global actor, provided Huntington’s stereotypes do not impede this. Now, as we are moving towards a new world order with an increasingly assertive China and India, it is the exact moment to embrace such a vision.

Source: New Europe