Ukraine Can Be a Neutral State

15. 3. 2017

An interview with Roman Szporluk by Filip Memches

The people who took part in the revolution on the Maidan were born after the downfall of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the situation got out of control of the elites— says Roman Szporluk in an interview with Filip Memches.

Was the revolt of the Ukrainian society, which we saw on the Maidan, directed against the Ukrainian power and business elite, or was it an emanation of conflicts within the elite?

The initiators of the dramatic events in Kiev, of this revolution—because this is how we should call them—turned out to be people of the younger generation, very pro-European in their political outlook. The principal reason for their coming to the Maidan was to oppose the cancellation of the signing of the association agreement with the European Union. And it was the pressure of these people which caused the split within the ruling camp. Some people around Viktor Yanukovych made a turnabout. I think, therefore, that what occurred was a real revolution rather than a conflict within the ruling clique.

But still, even if we assume that the primary causative factor here was a grass-roots protest, we cannot turn a blind eye to what was happening with the political and business establishment. A fairly widespread opinion is that the oligarchs saw opportunities for themselves connected with the future integration with Europe, so when Yanukovych decided to stop this process in its tracks, they rebelled against him…

For people who came to the Maidan, the Ukrainian regime—including the predecessors of Yanukovych—is a continuation of Soviet power, that is a corrupt and illegitimate system. At the same time, the ruling circles and business— both among the oligarchs, and less influential businesspeople—include persons who know the West. They are the ones whose children are studying in prestigious British universities, and who have villas in the south of France. They also want Ukraine to be a European, civilized country, because they are aware that in a free and democratic country they can enjoy a much better life.

The events on the Maidan were not the first revolt of the Ukrainian society since the Soviet Union collapsed. In late 2004 and early 2005 the Orange Revolution broke out. But then the tragedy which took place nine years later had been avoided. There was no bloody internal confrontation. Why?

The answer is very simple: almost ten years had passed. As a historian, I am keenly aware of the importance of the passage of time. One generation goes, another comes. This is a very important issue. The people who took part in the revolution, which broke out recently, were born after the downfall of the Soviet Union. The Orange Revolution ended in a compromise, a deal between various factions of the establishment. And in February this year it seemed that a second installment of the Orange Revolution would come to pass: that Yanukovych would remain President, opposition MPs would be co-opted to the government of the Party of Regions and somehow things would drag on until the next election. But the situation got out of control. Yanukovych was forced to flee, and thus there has been a radical change.

During the Orange Revolution Russia did not intervene. This year it attacked Ukraine annexing the Crimea…

Moscow was terrified that Kiev could begin to make serious European reforms. Vladimir Putin feels threatened because of the fact that the revolution of 2014 will have a strong impact on Russia. Because it is not an anti-Russian revolution, but an anti-Soviet one. If Ukraine becomes a democratic country in which the Russians will feel safe, then Putin and his companions will have cause for concern.

But Kiev is now making a mostly geopolitical choice. It did break the umbilical cord tying it to Moscow, it set a course towards the West.

However, in internal politics you cannot see any radical steps. The oligarchs, who have been capitalizing on the existing economic situation, continue to play a key role. When it comes to geopolitics, realists came to the fore in Ukraine. They are not planning a rapid NATO accession, they are not preparing a military agreement with the West against Russia. The challenge is, rather, a geo-economic or geo-cultural transformation. Ukraine can be a neutral state. And joining the European Union can take place no earlier than in ten, maybe twenty years. And when it comes to the oligarchs, they are much impressed with the West, and they are also fed up with pathologies such as corruption.

Except that the oligarchs, assuming that the government will not try to discipline them, are so wealthy that even without any reforms they can live at a level which is beyond the reach of an average Ukrainian. Such pathologies like huge corruption are most painful for ordinary citizens.

Of course, the oligarchs do not have to bribe traffic policemen leaping on drivers from behind a tree and demanding a fine. But the general mood is changing, especially among more educated segments of the public or those who have direct contacts with Europe. And if you talk about oligarchs, we have an open question here. Time will tell if the pro-European masses will manage to persuade them. In fact, this will decide if the revolution of 2014 could be considered victorious. By the way, the oligarchs feel at home in the West.

Was the overthrowing of President Yanukovych necessary? Immediately after that, Russia took Crimea.

All revolutions are unexpected, and when they already occur, it turns out that they are also inevitable. No one expected what happened in France on 14 July 1789, but then it was clear that something had to happen. To use Marxist language, a qualitative rather than a quantitative change took place in Ukraine. In February this year negotiations between President Yanukovych and the parliamentary opposition were still going on in Kiev, also involving foreign ministers of other countries. But the protesters on Maidan vetoed the outcome of these negotiations. And now a fundamental question appears: whether this qualitative change is the first act of a grassroots process of a civil society emerging? And as for Putin, he does not think of the Ukrainians as a separate nation. For him the creation of the Ukrainian state meant carving out a piece of Russia. By annexing the Crimea he began to implement a program of reconstructing the Russian empire. In the visions of Putin there is no place for a democratic Russia. But to have a guarantee that Russia does not become a democracy, he must prevent the democratization of Ukraine. And he can achieve it only by annexing Ukraine or transforming it into a larger version of Belarus.

But that would mean that Vladimir Putin actually never recognized the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state…

Once, when George W. Bush was the U.S. president, Putin told him in a private conversation that Ukraine was not a real country. This is the authentic view of the Russian President, but of course Putin does not express it openly. If one of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century was the collapse of the USSR, as Putin famously said, the current host of the Kremlin considers the reconstruction of the empire as his task. Although of course he does not say it out loud. It should also be stressed that Putin sees the Ukrainians as a nation much closer to Russians than Georgians or Kazachs. For him the Ukrainians are brothers who have betrayed the family. Therefore, he does not want to let Ukraine become a European country, because it would mean it would distance itself from Russia. Besides, if the Ukrainians are also Russians only more crazy ones, they—following Putin’s line of thinking—can give a bad example to other Russians, the ones living in the Russian Federation. For if it turns out that in Odessa and Kharkov you can freely use the Russian language, then this situation will give the lie to Kremlin’s propaganda about the persecution of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

And here we come to historical policy. The Kremlin, which likes to emphasize the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over the Third Reich, is trying to tarnish the image of Ukraine by attaching a fascist label to current authorities. At the same time Banderovite emblems appeared on the Maidan…

On the current Ukrainian political scene, there are some elements considering themselves as ideological descendants of radical, extreme right-wing forces present in the Ukrainian society in the twentieth century. These elements, however, are probably weak. It is true that in the interwar Poland the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was very influential among Ukrainian youth. However, in elections to the Sejm the majority of Ukrainians voted for democratic, moderate, progressive parties, etc. When it comes to today’s Ukraine, we are dealing with relics of the old nationalism. Of course, you should not underestimate them. However, historical arguments used by Moscow are fakes. Please note that among the demonstrators on the Maidan there were Russian speakers considering themselves Ukrainians and Russian speakers considering themselves Russians. In Ukraine there is at the moment no Ukrainian-Russian ethnic conflict Balkan style. Moscow, however, would want such a conflict.

Or maybe the point is that the Kremlin fears a repeat of the 1990s and interprets events in Ukraine as an anti-Russian offensive of the West?

There are two Russias. Putin persecutes Russia too. He abolished free elections and local government. Russian intellectuals are censored. Even in the Soviet era I thought that the most important ethnic issue in the USSR was the Russian question. People laughed at me. They said that there were other issues, such as Jewish, Ukrainian and Estonian. It seems to me that the question has not lost its relevance. The Russians are still struggling for their country to become democratic. They do not want to be subjects in an empire. Nevertheless, Putin has managed to fool the Russian society. Television controlled by the regime says outright lies about Ukraine and the West. However, if the Ukrainian political events inspire the Russians, it may form the basis for a Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation. Because it must be emphasized that the Ukrainian democratic movement is not anti-Russian, but anti-Putin.

And perhaps it was for this reason—not feeling any hostility towards the Russians—that the Ukrainians gave them Crimea practically without a fight?

Kiev wanted to avoid a situation in which Moscow would use force on a mass scale. The peaceful surrender of Ukraine in the Crimea saved the lives of many people, and Putin has lost this excuse to undertake much more dangerous anti-Ukrainian steps.

Or maybe he really got the green light, which emboldened him and led to the destabilization of the situation in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa districts?

But the Crimea scenario was not repeated. It seems that the annexation of the peninsula was not the first act of an annexation of other regions of Ukraine.

You said that besides Putin’s Russia there is a more democratic and anti-imperial Russia. Where do you see it? After all, the vast majority of Russians support the current president.

The history of Russia in the twentieth century is very sad. The February Revolution, which was to lead to democracy, failed. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power. The Russian democratic emigrants described the Bolshevik Revolution as national suicide. In this sense, it cannot be compared to the French Revolution. Then it seemed in the period of perestroika that Russia was moving towards democracy. But under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin democracy lost again.

Is it a condition for democracy emerging in Russia that it would not be an empire, but a nation-state?

Yes. And in the early 1990s it seemed that events were moving in that direction. For one thing, Yeltsin was responsible for Russia’s secession from the Soviet empire. It was Russia, which rebelled against the Kremlin and announced its own independence. And then it signed agreements with Belarus and Ukraine concerning the dissolution of the USSR. Later, however, there has been a regression. In the history of Russia the scenario has always been that when controlling ethnically non-Russian areas, the government has done it through undemocratic measures and applied them also in the ethnically Russian centre of the country. In this way, the Russians themselves become victims of colonial violence.

Is the ruling camp governing Ukraine, now preparing for reforms, not facing a certain risk? My point is that the reforms may prove to be very costly for the broad masses of Ukrainian society and hence very painful, so the public opinion may rebel against the pro-Western course.

This is a very serious problem. Poland struggled with it in 1989 and later. And Ukraine is now in a worse situation than Poland was then. Dreams, ideals, positive sentiments must be translated into specific political solutions which would be convincing for the public. And here the West may help, not only by providing various loans, but also by sending experts who would offer appropriate advice. But it is also a challenge facing the young generation of Ukrainians. They must be aware of the fact that in the immediate future they may have to give up some comforts for the sake of long-term investments.

And the structure of the Ukrainian society itself? Does it not constitute an obstacle on the road to political consolidation? This structure is determined by the borders of Ukraine. Historically speaking, they extend from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Crimean Khanate. So we are dealing with a very culturally diverse society.

In various lectures I liked to repeat: imagine a country in which one district capital is Bakhchisaray, former capital of the Crimean Khanate; imagine a country including the once Hungarian towns of Transcarpathia; imagine a country in which there are both Lviv and Donetsk, Kharkiv and Ternopil. A very significant fact is that the most pro-Western areas of Ukraine are those belonging to Poland in the past, even before the era of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. At the opposite extreme is the Donbas. It is located in an area, which in the tsarist times was politically backward. Donetsk was founded in the nineteenth century. Its name was once Yuzovka from the name of its founder, the Welsh industrialist John Hughes. There were no universities there at the time, only metallurgical plants and coalmines. Indeed, given such diversity of the country, some people claim that Ukraine must decide what is to be the key to its integration—should Donetsk be the “future” of Lviv or the other way round. But, in my opinion, it is Kiev which should provide a model acceptable both for Donetsk, for Odessa, and for Lviv.

And what about the Crimea?

Today, of course, chances for recovering it are very small. But also without it Ukraine can democratize, especially that a considerable support for undemocratic forces is coming from there. At the same time it must be emphasized that any initiatives aimed at forcing the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine to use the Ukrainian language are inexpressibly stupid.

Maybe the source of these problems is that when in 1991 Ukraine gained independence, the Russian language dominated there? So for the past 23 years the aim was to somehow strengthen the position of the Ukrainian language.

It is true. The Ukrainian language was discriminated against in the Soviet times and in a sense it is sometimes also discriminated against today. In Kiev, it happened to me several times that I addressed restaurant waiters in Ukrainian, and they responded in Russian, claiming that they did not know Ukrainian. There is a need for affirmative action, but certainly not at the expense of Russian-speaking citizens. There must be a real equality. Therefore, public sector employees in Ukraine should be bilingual: so that they would be able to deal with Ukrainian-speaking citizens in Ukrainian, and with Russian speakers in Russian.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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