Who understands Ukraine?

By Jonathan Power

The Western press doesn’t understand Ukraine. That is clear after weeks of reporting the demonstrations. We are given the absolutely minimal background on the history and culture of Ukraine. This is like when writing about the sea to only write about the waves and not the fishes and rocks beneath.

Until relatively recently the national consciousness of Ukrainians rarely surfaced. In the mid-19th century, when it was almost a totally peasant society, they were either subjects of Russia or Austria – and quiet ones. Only gradually did a sense of being Ukrainian develop. Even as part of the Soviet Union nationalists were a small minority. Their best and brightest went to Moscow to study, write, sing, dance or work in government. This is what they wanted to do and the people back home were proud of them. Nikita Khrushchev was Ukrainian and rose to be premier of the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1964. (He was responsible for the building of the Moscow metro and later denounced Stalin in a landmark speech.) So most Ukrainians didn’t feel politically outsiders.

But we can go further back than that. In 1453 Constantine fell to the Ottomans. The Roman Empire ceased to exist. The Orthodox Church which many consider to be the true Church once the Roman emperor Constantine had moved his capital to Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople the centre of gravity of the Church shifted to Kiev and Moscow.

For a long time the Ukrainian church was independent. Not until 1686 did it come under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate. Moscow was considered to be the “Third Rome”, following the previous sites of the headquarters of the Church in Rome and then Constantinople.

The powerful and popular church in Ukraine owes allegiance to the Moscow patriarchate. Ukraine’s industry and agriculture remains dependent on supplying Russia. Oil supply will long be an umbilical cord. Even if the country moved its centre of gravity westward these things would remain true.

Arts and culture have long had a significant Russian orientation. A number of Ukrainians have written in Russian and are considered by Russia to be among the best – Nickolai Gogol, the play-write, who satirised political corruption in the Russian Empire; Mikhail Bulgakov, the novelist, author of “The Master and Margarita”, the enduring best-seller, and Anna Akhmatova, the greatest female poet in Europe, among others.

50% of the population of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, speak Russian at home although the Russia ethnic group is only around 13%. In Ukraine as a whole it is 17%.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t expect Ukraine to lose its present day independence. But he would like history to be recognised. The closeness is far more than Britain and France or Spain and Italy. It is more like Germany and Austria or Sweden and Norway.

From Moscow’s perspective it makes economic sense if Ukraine furthers its economic links by joining the new customs union that embraces many ex-Soviet states. It will also give Ukraine a powerful voice again in Moscow.

But this doesn’t mean that Ukraine can’t get closer to Europe. But it must take it a step at a time as does Turkey. It is less economically developed than Turkey and is politically less democratic. There is no good reason, other that EU Realpolitik, why Ukraine should jump over Turkey in the queue.

Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-president of the Soviet Union, when in office used to talk about Russia being part of the “European home”. Putin has echoed that sentiment. But Europe has not reciprocated even though Russia in its culture and arts is arguably the leader of all Europe.

The US and Europe have broken the US promise not to expand NATO up to the Russian borders. Besides being militarily unnecessary it is a profound provocation, putting Russia on the defensive and make it wonder what the EU is up to when it wants to embrace Ukraine so tightly.

Personally I favour Ukraine being at the front of the queue for entering the EU just as I do Turkey but the EU has not set about it in a sensitive enough way. Perhaps there is a way for the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union to forge a treaty of cooperation.

The demonstrators have to straighten their ideas out. Too many of them appear to be allowing the violent militants (many from the far right) too much latitude. Only if the majority of the crowd now occupying the city’s main square make it clear to those using violence against the police that they must stop is a full dialogue with the government possible.

Maybe a new election, as the opposition calls for, will break the impasse between them and President Victor Yanukovych, especially if the political prisoners, including Yulia Tymoshenko, are freed. But whoever wins an election would have to acknowledge the importance of the Russian-speaking east and not try to steam-roller it.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014

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