16 January 2013, 13:08

'Russia can't claim primacy within the Eastern Slavic community and Ukraine can't base her Eurocentric policy on appealing to her past' - expert

'Russia can't claim primacy within the Eastern Slavic community and Ukraine can't base her Eurocentric policy on appealing to her past' - expert

It seems counterintuitive, but a strongly pro-Russian Ukraine may have the best chances of reversing her fortunes when dealing with Putin’s Russia. This argument does not mean that Ukraine must yield to Kremlin’s demands.

On the contrary, it suggests that Kiev can outsmart Moscow, attacking “its former imperial master” from the direction that the latter believes to be impossible. However, before the argument is developed, let me dismiss a false assumption and point to a contradiction that confuses debates about the Russo-Ukrainian relationship.

It is commonly believed that Ukraine is a former Russian colony. However, historically speaking, Ukraine was the first Slavic state to appear under the name of Kievan Rus on the political map of Europe. It is only due to Ukrainian expansion to the “wild East’ that Muscovite Russia assumed its language, Orthodox religion, and cultural identity. Therefore, it is Russia that initially was a Ukrainian colony rather than the other way around.

The second premise concerns the rightful belief that Ukraine is more “European” than Russia, while pretending that the country derives her roots from the late medieval polity of Ukrainian Cossacks – the Zaporizhian Sich. This combination of beliefs is contradictory. If it were the Cossacks who founded Ukraine then the country would have been more Asiatic, because her founders would have come from the Turkic nomadic tradition. In contrast, Moscow’s assertion that it is the heir to the Byzantine Empire – again, through the Kievan connection – makes Ukraine more European as its tradition comes from the medieval Greeks.

I have delved into these historical facts to show, first, that Russia cannot claim primacy within the Eastern Slavic community and, second, that Ukraine cannot base her Eurocentric policy on appealing to her past. These two negations shift the focus of discussion from post-colonial struggle in the Eurasian space to competition for cultural dominance between Kiev and Moscow. The EU becomes in this dimension an external observer whose main objective seems to be the prevention of consolidation of large Slavic states along its eastern border. But does Ukraine have a real chance to overpower its larger neighbor? My impression is “yes” but under conditions that this country needs yet to achieve. At this point a discussion of Russian weaknesses within its social space is in order.

Modern Russian elite places the concept of unbridled economic egoism at the core of its social value, which places the nation under constant stress. Unlike North America, where strong religious principles mitigate the resulting damage, or Western Europe where long-lasting traditions of class solidarity restrain the excesses of the upper class, Russia has no means to maintain its social fabric other than through state redistribution of its petroleum largesse. However, Putin’s model of governance lacks an effective mechanism to keep resurgent corruption under control. As a result, the redistribution fails progressively to bind the society together as growing chasm between the “haves” and “haves-not” attests. In short, unrest is brewing in Russia.

Granted, Ukraine is not spared from the same deficiencies, but her ruling class possesses fewer resources than its Russian counterpart and, hence, is less likely to maintain its position. The question is: who will come after Viktor Yanukovich? If the next leader bases his or her agenda on restoring social justice, the appeal of such policy would resonate wide across the Ukrainian eastern border. The example of Belarus is indicative in this respect. In early 2000s, when the idea of the Russo-Belarusian political union was mulled over in both countries, the discussion of who would become its president indicated that Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was sufficiently popular with the Russian electorate to win the popular vote. Potentially, it is exactly this possibility that was instrumental in turning Moscow policymakers away from the idea. Next time it may prove to be impossible for the Kremlin to stave off a challenger from the near abroad, given the growing dissatisfaction with its rule. However, up to now the discussion has not touched on the EU position towards its eastern neighbors.

The EU’s actions indicate that its key interests in the area are purely economic. Its main inquietude concerns the pricing of Russian natural gas, which the European Commission finds to be excessive. Otherwise, the current Eurasian situation is favorable to the EU. Both Russian and Ukrainian national elites are not encumbered with a sense of moral duty to their countrymen and hence they are ready to offer for sale all assets their countries possess. Thus, the EU is keen to do nothing except to keep an eye on possible consolidation of eastern Slavic states according to the Russian scenario. Essentially, the Kremlin intends to organize what can be dubbed in corporate terms as a “hostile takeover” of Ukraine. Yet, such a move would not be damaging to European vital interests. It would merely raise the Kremlin’s bargaining power in a potential “swap” of shares in “Russia Inc.” for a minority stake in the “West Inc.”

Vlad Ivanenko

PhD economics, Ottawa

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