Recasting Ukraine's identity?

Nicolai N Petro
30 January 2009

The latest Russo-Ukrainian gas spat may have finally taught the elites in those two countries a vital lesson. Namely, that they stand to gain far more from acting in concert, than either one of them gains from acting against the interest of the other.

The latest statement by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that "Europeans" will not forget how Ukrainian and Russian leaders acted during this crisis, reveals more than just impotence. It serves as a reminder that many Western Europeans are still not ready to accept either Ukraine or Russia as part of Europe. It would be wise for both Russian and Ukrainians not to lose sight of this fact, for it both shapes and constrains the policies of European Union towards them.

At the outset of this latest spat, both Ukrainian and Russia political elites made the mistake of assuming that EU leaders cared about the issues. They therefore put all their efforts into making their case in the media, instead of undertaking direct negotiations.  Ukrainian leaders hoped to mobilise western sympathy by portraying their country as a victim of Russian imperialism, while Russian leaders sought to portray the Ukrainians as thieves. Each then tried to involve their Western European partners more directly, urging the European Commission to send monitors to the pumping stations, inviting the parties to a gas summit, and floating schemes by which European intermediaries might step in to guarantee payments in the event of further payment arrears.

In the end, however, all these strategies failed. Belatedly, and with the greatest reluctance, the EU did eventually send a handful of pump station monitors and observers to the gas summit, but mainly to urge the two sides to get serious about direct negotiations. It was only when Russian and Ukrainian leaders finally realised that the EU would not be drawn into their dispute that negotiations resumed, and within hours both sides reached an agreement that established not only the gas price for this year, but a framework covering the next ten years![i]

The details of this agreement are less important than the lessons that both Ukraine and Russia can draw from this experience.

Lessons of the gas dispute

One is that the EU is simply not a viable forum for conflict resolution. It has neither the political will, nor the ability to act, even when its economic interests are directly threatened.  It is not a body that leads, it is a body that follows. On purely institutional grounds, therefore, any strategy that expected meaningful pressure to come from Europe was doomed to fail.

Another lesson is that the European Energy Charter Treaty, once touted as the best means of guaranteeing access to gas supplies from Eastern Europe, did not survive its first test. As soon as it became necessary to demand compliance with the treaty's provisions prohibiting the interruption of flows, or the implementation of "specific conciliation procedures," nothing was done, even though Ukraine had both signed and ratified the treaty[ii].

Finally, it is now abundantly clear that the prolonged and systemic crisis of Ukrainian politics-of which this spat is just the latest manifestation-is the direct result of a strategic vision that is profoundly at odds with Ukrainian culture.

Consider the following. Five years after the Orange Revolution of 2004, with its accentuated efforts to marginalise Russian cultural, economic and political influence in Ukraine, over 60% of Ukrainians retain a favourable view of the period of national history tied to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union[iii].  Three-quarters still regard the Soviet victory in the Second World War as a national holiday, and popular usage of the term "Great Patriotic War," in contrast to the more neutral Second World War, has actually risen[iv].

Nearly 88% of Ukrainians say they have a positive attitude toward Russia, while two-thirds say they would vote against NATO membership, mostly because it threatens Russian security. About as many say they want closer relations with Russia[v]. But perhaps most telling of all is the fact that during almost this entire period by far most popular politician in Ukraine has been . . . Vladimir Putin. His popularity rating among Ukrainians has hovered around 70%, compared to no more than 15% for the most popular Ukrainian politician (Ukrainian president Yushchenko's rating, meanwhile, fell to a new low of 3% in early 2009)[vi]

Clearly the problem is not, as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has put it, that Ukraine is "a country where nation-building needs a little help."[vii] The problem is that the wrong sort of nation-building is being attempted-the kind that views Ukraine's centuries old religious and cultural affinity with Russia as an obstacle to be overcome. The result has been a smouldering cultural civil war, in which large swathes of the population are engaged in destroying the very edifice that others are seeking to build, thereby condemning to ruin the structure that they both must live in.

But coming, as it does, in the midst of a global economic meltdown, this latest energy spat may just serve to concentrate the minds of both Ukrainian and Russian political elites on the utter futility of the confrontation that has been imposed on them by this model of mis-development. It might even point to the way out.

As long as Russia could afford to provide energy to Ukraine below market prices, Ukrainian politicians could afford to play coy. The end of this era of largesse has forced the latter to call in what favours they could from the West, and so last November, the International Monetary Fund extended Ukraine an emergency loan of USD 16.4 billion.  But this pales into insignificance in comparison with the estimated USD 47 billion grant that the Ukrainian budget has had since 2005.  This is the result of receiving gas at its border at a steep discount, then nearly doubling the price for its domestic consumers, and finally adding on another $100-150 dollars to the price before shipping it westward.  At the end of 2008 the price structure was:  an average of $179.5 per thousand cubic metres at the Russian border, $320 for domestic consumers, and $450 dollars for neighbouring Romania.[viii]

Cultural affinity, survival strategy

Small wonder then that, looking first and foremost to their own future, Ukrainian politicians are beginning to see the revival of ties with Russia as an attractive survival strategy. The ten-year gas contract just signed is not, of course, an economic agreement.  Who can predict what economic conditions will be so far into the future?  Rather, it is a sign that important segments of the Ukrainian political elite that were once betting on Ukraine's rapid integration into the West, are now hedging that bet.  

Some will perceive this as a defeat for the West. What they fail to appreciate, however, is that any definition of the West that excludes Russia because of its ostensibly divergent "values," must perforce exclude Ukraine, whose culture and values are inextricably interwoven with those of Russia. One need look no further than the fact that 40% of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church are located in Ukraine[ix], and played a key role in the election of the new Patriarch of Moscow.

It would be more sensible for all parties involved to stop fighting this natural affinity, and instead incorporate it into a new and more comprehensive paradigm of European identity. The current Western paradigm, as the late historian Martin Malia has pointed out, excludes Russia by treating it as a subspecies of "Oriental despotism."[x] Given Russia's pre-eminent role in the Orthodox world, this amounts to denying all the primarily Slavic and Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe the ability to participate as equals in the re-definition European identity.  Western Europe's alienation from its own Byzantine roots has thus perpetuated Cold War divisions in people's minds, long after they disappeared from the political map.

Two decades ago, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt foresaw this very danger, and warned of the need to embrace a broader concept of Europe. "We also know," he wrote presciently, "that the historical spiritual reality of Europe does not consist of . . . the [European Economic] Community, but that Byzantium and Novgorod, Krakow and Prague have also contributed to our old common civilisation.  And our concept of Europe will one day have to once again encompass the whole intellectual and artistic life of our Eastern European neighbours if we do not wish to become impoverished[xi].

Until the rich heritage of Byzantium truly becomes Europe's common cultural inheritance, proclamations by Russian and Ukrainian leaders of their European bona fides will continue to fall on deaf ears. Working together is the only way they stand a chance of bringing about the fundamental change in Western attitudes that is needed to place the task of European integration on a solid footing.  

It would therefore be an unexpected boon for all Europeans if, as a result of this latest crisis, Ukrainian elites finally realised the pivotal contribution they could make to European security by re-casting Ukrainian identity from a border region (Russia's border with Europe; Europe's border with Russia) into a European cultural centre binding its Eastern and Western halves. Doing so would offer Western Europeans a manageable bridge for integrating Orthodoxy into their political and cultural horizons, while at the same time serving as an opening for Russia, which can hardly disavow this part of its heritage, into Europe.

Ukrainian politicians who embrace such a strategy will find a largely untapped domestic constituency eager to support it, as well as allies in Russia and Belarus, two of the country's most important economic trading partners, eager to assist.

This combination might just be enough to allow Ukrainian society to overcome the malaise that has been afflicting it for the past two decades.


Nicolai N. Petro is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island (USA). He served as the U.S. State Department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under George H.W. Bush. Last November, in Kiev, he took part in a nationally televised discussion of security and development strategies for Ukraine, sponsored by the Ukrainian Forum, an association of Ukrainian civic and political leaders devoted to strengthening civil society as a key resource in state-building.

[i] "Gazovoye soglasheniye Timoshenko-Putina. Polnyi tekst" Ukrainskaya Pravda, January 22, 2009, http://www.pravda.com.ua/ru/news_print/2009/1/22/87168.htm

[ii] The Energy Charter Treaty (in particular, Part II 'Commerce' and Part IV 'Transitional Provisions'), available at: http://www.encharter.org/index.php?id=178.

[iii] "Over 60% Ukrainians Positively View Soviet Period - Survey." Interfax (Jan 10, 2007), cited in Johnson's Russia List 2007-#7. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 1/11/2007).

[iv] "Overwhelming Majority Of Ukrainians Regard VE-Day As Great Holiday." ITAR-Tass (May 8, 2007), cited in Johnson's Russia List 2007-#105. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 5/10/2007).

[v] "Nearly Half Of Ukrainians Want Country To Follow Own Development Path - Poll." Interfax (May 11, 2007), cited in Johnson's Russia List 2007-#108. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 5/13/2007); "Most Ukrainians Positive About Russia, But Russia Has Fewer Ukraine Fans." Interfax (May 12, 2008), cited in Johnson's Russia List 2008-#94. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 5/19/2008);"Nearly Two-thirds Of Ukrainians Still Against Accession To NATO,"
Interfax-AVN (Sept 24, 2008); "Most Ukrainians want closer rapprochement with Russia - poll," Interfax (October 27, 2008).

[vi] Svetlana Gamova, "Fraternal Peoples Do Not Want To Be 'Choked With Gas' Nezavisimaya Gazeta,January 21, 2009; "Less than 3% of Ukrainians support Yushchenko - poll," Interfax (January 12, 2009), cited in Johnson's Russia List 2009-#8. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 1/25/2009).

[vii] Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Preventive Action Symposium on "Preventive Priorities for a New Era," December 9, 2008, cited in Johnson's Russia List 2008-#226. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 1/21/2009).

[viii] "Gazprom's Position on Ukraine Gas Dispute," http://www.gazpromukrainefacts.com/, 26 December 2008. in JRL 2009-#5; Further described by "Gas tycoon sees politics behind Russian-Ukrainian gas row, BBC Monitoring of Ekho Moskvy Radio, January 15, 2009 in JRL 2009-#15.

[ix] "Russian Orthodox Church Has 26,590 Parishes: Patriarch." RIA Novosti (October 3, 2004), cited in Johnson's Russia List 8393. Available online at: <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/> (accessed 8/4/2006).

[x] Martin Malia, Under Western Eyes, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 6

[xi] Helmut Schmidt, "Byzantium and the East Is Part of Europe and It Should Be." European Prospect (1979). Available online at: <http://www.ellopos.net/politics/eu_schmidt.html> (accessed 2/21/2007

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