Westerners visiting Ukraine and observers analysing the post-Soviet space talk a great deal about Kyiv politics today being a "mess." Few, least of all Ukrainians themselves, would disagree. But sometimes Western ignorance about Ukraine combines with European arrogance to reproduce stereotypes eerily similar to those with which Moscow's former KGB officers like to portray Europe's largest new democracy.
Worse still, what is usually not mentioned in West European assessments of current Ukrainian affairs is that the EU, the foremost Western organisation dealing with Ukraine, bears responsibility for Kyiv's current political disarray.
Most analysts would agree that the EU perspective played a considerable role in, or was even a necessary precondition for, the quick stabilisation and democratisation of post-communist Central Europe. Many political scientists would admit that, in Western Europe too, peace, stability and affluence during the last 60 years have been closely linked to European integration.
However, few EU politicians and bureaucrats are prepared to state in public what would seem to follow logically from these observations, in the case of Ukraine. If from Tallinn to Dublin the prospect of EU membership has had a clearly beneficial effect, then in the case of Ukraine the absence of a European perspective for a manifestly European country also means the absence of that effect.
The post-war notion of "Europe" is intimately linked to the economic, social and political dynamism of increasing pan-continental cooperation. When we use the word "European" today we often mean the EU and the largely positive repercussions which the integration process has had and continues to have on securing economic, political and social progress across borders.
However, against the background of these recent historical achievements, some forget the state of Europe generally, particularly some countries, before integration. Much of pre-war European history was, by contemporary standards, far "messier" than Ukrainian politics is today. Remember the League of Nations, Weimar Republic or Spanish Civil War?
Enlightened East European intellectuals might also admit that, without the prospect of EU membership, their countries today might look more like Belarus or Georgia than Portugal or Ireland. Both West and East European political elites and governments have needed a road map towards a better and common future. Only when European integration provided such a vision did politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals of many EU member states get their act together and make their countries more politically and economically successful.
If we are prepared to admit the relevance of the prospect of, preparation for, and eventual attainment of, EU membership for the internal development of many European states, we should also acknowledge the effect that an explicit denial of such a vision has on Kyiv's elites.
Ukraine finds itself left in the "old Europe" of the pre-war period. Unlike politicians in most other European countries, Ukraine's leaders still have to navigate a world of competing nation states, shifting international alliances, introverted political camps, and harsh zero-sum-games where triumph for one national or international actor means defeat for the other. That is how domestic and European politics functioned before the two world wars, and eventually brought about those wars. East of the EU's current borders these incentive structures are still largely intact. Among numerous other negative repercussions, they have led to the recent wars in the Balkans and Caucasus.
Most Ukrainians would themselves be the first to admit that Ukraine today is not ready for EU membership, or even for candidate status. However, many pro-European Ukrainians find it difficult to understand EU policies and rhetoric on these issues: why is Turkey an official candidate for EU membership? Why are Romania or Bulgaria already full members, while Ukraine is not even offered the tentative prospect of future candidacy? Is Turkey more European? Are Romania or Bulgaria really that much more developed than Ukraine? Did the Orange Revolution and the two succeeding parliamentary elections - all approved by the OSCE, Council of Europe and EU - not show an adherence by Ukrainians to democratic rules and values? Has Ukraine not been more successful than other post-communist countries in averting inter-ethnic strife and in integrating national minorities? Did the elites and population of Ukraine not show restraint when tensions were building up between conflicting political camps in Kyiv, or when Russia was acting provocatively in Crimea?
Some recent developments in Ukraine also point in the opposite direction, of course. These include ongoing governmental corruption, increased political stalemate, as well as lack of progress on the reform of public administration and on industrial restructuring.
However, with every year that passes since the Orange Revolution, the question becomes more pressing: are the setbacks in Ukraine's recent political and economic transition the reason for the EU's continuing unwillingness to offer Kyiv a prospect of European membership? Or are they rather a result of that unwillingness? Maybe one reason for Ukraine's frustrating domestic conflicts and halting economic transformation is the fact that the country's foreign orientation remains unresolved? Is it possible that the EU's demonstrative scepticism with regard to Ukraine's ability to integrate into Europe is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are the EU leaders of the EU not to some degree responsible for Ukraine's continuing failure to meet "European standards"?
As a result of the EU attitude, Kyiv is left in a geopolitical nowhere land. Lacking a credible long-term vision, Ukraine has become the unofficial battlefield in a political proxy war between pro-Western and pro-Russian governmental and non-governmental organisations fighting for the future of this crucial, yet unconsolidated European country. Without the disciplining effect that a credible EU membership perspective provides, there is no commonly accepted yardstick against which the elite's behaviour could be measured. Ukrainian politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals lack a focal point in the conduct of their domestic and international behaviour. They are left to guess what the West's and Russia's "real" intentions with regard to Ukraine are, and how they should behave to secure economic development and political independence for their country.
The stabilisation of Ukraine is not only in the interests of the citizens of this young democracy. It should also be a key political concern for Brussels, Paris and Berlin. An economically weakened, politically divided and socially crisis-ridden Ukrainian state could destabilise and exhibit disintegrative tendencies. Ukraine's population could polarise along ethnic lines, with ukrainophone Western and Central set against russophone Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Such a development could in turn serve as a pretext for Russian intervention - with grave repercussions not only for East European politics, but Russian-Western relations too. In a worst-case scenario, the entire post-Cold War European security structure could be called into question.
The prospect of EU membership constitutes a key instrument for the West to influence Ukrainian domestic affairs. The prospect of future European integration would reconfigure political discourse and restructure party conflicts in Kyiv. Neither the Ukrainian common man nor Russia's political leadership are, in distinction to their stance on Ukraine's possible NATO membership, opposed in principal to the idea of Ukrainian entry into the EU at some future date.
An official statement by the EU on the possible admission of Ukraine to the EU some day would oblige the Commission and member states to little, during the next years. The Delegation of the European Commission at Kyiv is already engaged in a wide range of cooperation projects with the Ukrainian government. Offering Ukraine the prospect of EU membership would require few practical changes in the current conduct of EU policies towards Kyiv. Yet such an announcement would have a benevolent impact on the behaviour of Ukraine's elites and make a deep impression on the population of this young democracy.
The EU's leaders should try to see the larger picture. They need to remember the recent past of their own member countries, and stop behaving with a cognitive dissonance that denies their own history. They should try to understand Ukraine's current issues against the background of the instability their own members experienced before European integration.
In the interests of the entire continent and its people, they should offer Ukraine a European perspective sooner rather than later.
Dr Andreas Umland is a lecturer in contemporary East European history at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Upper Bavaria (http://ku-eichstaett.academia.edu/AndreasUmland ), general editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (www.ibidem-verlag.de/spps.hmtl ), and co-editor of the German-Russian journal "Forum for the Ideas and History of Contemporary Eastern Europe" (http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/ ).
Over the past few years various forms of nationalism have become aspects of everyday Russian political and social life.
The Caucasus war of August 2008 was a shock to Russian-Western relations. The West's timid reaction to the five-day conflict and to Russia's de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces do not bode well for the future of European security. The recent renewal of friendly relations between Moscow and Washington and the current rapprochement between President Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal Russian intelligentsia may give reason for hope, but a major source of instability in northern Eurasia remains in place.
A radically anti-Western and decidedly neo-imperialist faction of the Moscow elite has gained a foothold in the Russian governmental apparatus, Putin's United Russia party, electronic and print media, (un)civil society and academia. Ultra-nationalists, who are more or less influential and often relatively young, have become part and parcel of everyday political,journalistic and intellectual discourse in the post-Soviet world. They range from the newly appointed presidential administration officer Ivan Demidov to the popular political commentator Mikhail Leontyev and the recently-elected Moscow State University professor Alexander Dugin. These and others with similar views were among the government's whips during the Russian army's intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last summer.
Kremlin-controlled TV channels reported the armed confrontation in the Southern Caucasus as a proxy war fought by the Georgians for, and with the support of, the US against Russia. The media campaign during and after the August war gave official status to the bizarre conspiracy theories that Leontyev, Dugin and Co. have been propagating in prime-time television shows and highbrow analytic journals for a long time.
Since the rise of Vladimir Putin there have been years of unfettered xenophobic agitation in the Russian mass media by Moscow's revanchist intellectuals. This is now coming home to roost. Recent opinion polling data suggests that anti-Western - especially anti-American and anti-NATO - feelings are widespread among ordinary Russians. The Levada Center,Russia's leading opinion poll agency, has found that attitudes towards the US had become less positive even before the Russian-Georgian War. When Putin became President in 2000 the figure was 65%. When he left the Kremlin in July 2008 it stood at 43%.
Pro-American feelings have declined further in all sectors of Russian society since the war.The state-controlled Russian polling agency VTsIOM, which had earlier downplayed Russian anti-Westernism, admitted recently that Russians' views of, for instance, NATO "have changed fundamentally." In 2006, 26% of Russians had regarded NATO as an organisation primarily promoting US interests. In 2009 that figure is 41%. In 2006 21% of Russians regarded NATO as an organisation whose mission was to "conduct aggressive military acts against other countries". At the end of March 2009 31% were of this opinion. (VTsIOM Press Release no. 1191). Whatever the current "Obama-effect" in Russia, one suspects that it may not last long.
The political outlook in the world's largest country and remaining nuclear superpower has recently undergone a sea-change. This is particularly relevant in the context of several unresolved issues in Moscow's former empire, among them the future of the Black Sea section of Russia's naval forces. The Russian Black Sea fleet is based in the city of Sevastopol,an independent municipality of Ukraine with a population of 379,000. It is the largest city of the Crimean peninsula.
Sevastopol gained world fame in the 19th century. The major port of the Black Sea fleet and its siege, which lasted almost twelve months, became an important episode in the 1853-56 Crimean War between the Tsarist Empire and France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Many Tsarist army soldiers who fought and fell at Sevastopol were, in fact, Ukrainians rather than Russians. Nevertheless, in Russia the tenacious defence of Sevastopol against the Western invaders became an iconic image. For many Russians the Crimean War also provides justification of Moscow's rightful claim to Sevastopol. Thousands of Ukrainians made a direct contribution to the war, but the powerful military mythology around the Tsarist army's heroic defence of the empire's Southern border could be exploited by Moscow's political technologists in a modern conflict too.
The Crimean War is also important for an understanding of the generic security risks prevalent in the post-Soviet world and elsewhere. The mid-19thcentury standoff between Russia and the West in the Black Sea was the first modern armed conflict and is an example of how international wars have mostly come about. Today's public perception of the reasons for war is dominated by the military adventures of Nazi Germany. This is a topic dealt with in hundreds of documentaries and movies shown on TV on an almost daily basis in Europe and elsewhere. Yet World War II remains altogether atypical. It was caused by the long-planned attempt of the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" to destroy the states it invaded, annex their territories and subjugate or kill their populations.
This has, however, not been the main cause for armed confrontations in world history, as the prehistory of the Crimean War illustrates. Wars have often been declared not as a result of a long-planned and well-prepared military expansion. More often than not, they were the outcome of escalating tension between states which originally had no intention (or even interest) in fighting each other, or not on the battlefield at any rate. It took a long chain of events for France, Britain and Turkey (with Sardinia) to form a coalition in the 1850s and embark on a war with the Tsarist army in the Black Sea and other seas around the Russian Empire.
Aggressive factions among Moscow's post-Soviet imperialists would, it is true, like to annex the Crimea - if not all of south-eastern Ukraine - sooner rather than later.Many of these ultra-nationalists would also be prepared to wage immediate war in pursuit of this goal. But they do not play a dominant role in Russian foreign policy. Explicitly expansionist Kremlin policies would not be necessary for tensions to escalate around the Black Sea. If emotions were to become heated in connection with the future of the Sevastopol naval base, the position of Crimea's ethnic Russian majority vis-à-vis the Ukrainian state, or the rights of the Tatar minority within the Crimean Autonomous Republic, this would be sufficient to start the bloodshed. The ensuing sequence of political reactions, social mobilisation and mutual accusations by Kiev and Moscow would bring Europe's two largest countries quickly to the brink of an armed confrontation.
Inter-ethnic violence would put both sides under pressure to intervene militarily. The Russian-Georgian war illustrated that Russia has no qualms about deploying regular army units beyond its borders swiftly and on a large scale. Furthermore Moscow was prepared to provide "assistance" to South Caucasian peoples. In the ethnic Russian heartland of the Russian Federation (RF) these people are often victims of racist prejudice. They are classified as "persons of Caucasian nationality", and Caucasian here means "black" rather than "white" people.
In the case of Abkhazia, Moscow offered "assistance" to a population that was under no immediate threat from Georgian troops. The case is especially remarkable because in August 2008 the Abkhaz republic was finally excised from Georgian state territory. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians were not in the majority in the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic(ASSR), a situation that was replicated in many other USSR autonomous republics. The peculiar migration policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union meant that at the last USSR census in 1989 45.7% of the inhabitants of the Abkhaz ASSR were classified as "Georgian", whereas only 17.8% called themselves "Abkhazian". Abkhazians were thus only slightly more numerous than Russians (14.3%) and Armenians (14.6%).
By "recognising the independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deploying troops on their territories, the Russian political elite has demonstrated its desire for a partial revision of the results of the fall of the Russian empire. The situation in the Crimea is unlike the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia: most inhabitants are ethnic Russians who appear to be actively acquiring RF passports. Should the public in the RF come to believe that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians in the Crimea are under some sort of threat, the Kremlin may feel obliged to "protect its compatriots", whatever the larger implications and geopolitical costs.Decision-makers in the Kremlin may even understand that the chances of a full military victory in the Black Sea peninsula are slim. This was not the case with South Ossetia. But if public opinion were to be whipped up by apocalyptic visions and hate-messages from the likes of Leontyev or Dugin, even moderate Russian politicians would feel a compulsion to prove their "patriotism," and "take a principled position."
The two foremost Western specialists on the Crimea are Gwendolyn Sasse of Oxford University and Taras Kuzio, a regular contributor to openDemocracy. They explain why existing ethnic tensions have not so far led to large-scale violence in the Crimea. Sasse found in mid-2008 that "in recent years, Russian leaders have understood the benefits of a cooperative relationship with Ukraine, but have also taken advantage of close ties to the Crimea as a means of influencing Kiev." Kuzio is more sceptical of Russian intentions, but he too noted (early in 2009) that there is a "low level of animosity between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea." Kuzio identified inter alia "the ability of the Ukrainian security service to undermine Crimean separatism."
These and other factors recently listed by Sasse and Kuzio are still valid and will remain so. However, it is not clear if they have taken full account of recent changes in Russian public opinion concerning the outside world in general, and the political mood of Moscow's elite regarding the conduct of foreign affairs in particular.
In a confrontation between relatively pro- and radically anti-Western political factions within the Kremlin, Russia's new frame of mind could easily be exploited by Moscow's ultra-nationalists. Encouragement of Crimean anti-Ukrainian and separatist forces could be seen by the extreme right as a strategy to undermine the Russian-Western rapprochement.
A resulting Russian-Ukrainian war would be devastating for the relationship of these two closely-linked nations and disastrous for European security. A worst-case scenario could replicate the situation during Russia's first two Chechen wars: it could lead to the deaths of thousands of Crimeans (including many ethnic Russians), and a long period of international isolation for Russia.
It would also discipline President Dmitri Medvedev, as the Russian-Georgian War held back - at least temporarily - the new President's domestic and foreign initiatives. Another irredentist war would transform Russia into something like a fortress with an even more rigid internal regime and less international cooperation than today. It would again postpone, or even put an end to, the Medvedev circle's attempts to re-democratise Russia.
Moscow's revanchists may calculate that the political repercussions of escalating tension in the Crimea will strengthen their position in Russia. Should they get a chance to manipulate the politics of the Black Sea peninsula, a second Crimean War could become a reality.
An abridged version of the above article was published by "Russia Profile." It also appeared, in Russian and Ukrainian, in the Kyiv weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnia," on April 25 2009.