Thursday, 10 November 2011

Due West: Ukraine Still At The Crossroads

MOSCOW, Russia -- Will Ukraine join NATO? This question seemed to have been buried last year with the election of Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency.
It seems to me now that the issue wasn't closed but rather put in a cold storage facility somewhere in the near proximity of the presidential chancery on Kiev's Bankovaya street.

I have just returned from the Ukrainian capital, where the first ever “Ukraine-Russia-NATO” conference took place.

North Atlantic Alliance officials, diplomats, experts and politicians met to discuss the present and try to chart the future of the relationship in the Moscow-Kiev-Brussels triangle.

Actually, what became quite clear to me is that there is indeed a triangle, in which both Russia's and Ukraine's links with the alliance are significantly influenced by what happens between the capitals of our two neighboring countries, which while having so much in common, still go their own ways.

The similarities were easy to agree upon for the Russian and Ukrainian participants alike.

Both countries suffer from a post-Soviet identity crisis.

Both are being governed by political classes which are selfish, corrupt and - twenty years after the death of the Soviet Union - unable to offer both nations a vision for the future, which would be inspiring and realistic at the same time.

Both peoples are cynical.

However here the similarities end and differences begin.

The main one is simple yet profoundly important: Ukraine does not have what could be called a “post-imperial hangover”.

Its identity crisis stems from the fact that it had little experience with independent statehood and was an integral part of Russia.

This definitely provides for a confused identity.

However Ukrainian politicians do not have to cater to the taste for imperial grandeur territorial expansion and fortress mentality.

This is exactly what their Russian colleagues are doing.

Partly because this is what an average Russian still longs for – a sense of being a citizen of a superpower that struts the world stage meting out patronage to friends and dependencies and rough justice to enemies.

But partly these stereotypes are perpetuated and nurtured by Russia's rulers themselves.

They find it convenient to govern a society that constantly looks back towards the past.

This helps them to avoid painful questions about the future, including the main strategic dilemma: whether Russia will join what could roughly be called the “global West” or start an inevitable slide towards becoming a vassal of rising China in all but name.

The first path would mean adopting a significant part of Western values, like transparency and accountability, real media freedom and rule of law.

It also means that a regular change of government and fair elections are to become the norm, rather than the exception.

This is not something that Russia's ruling elite is ready to contemplate, at least for now.

The second path is something it is not prepared to contemplate either, but in fact Russia's rulers are leading the country down this path through their inaction and corruption.

Russia remains suspended between the past it cannot pronounce a firm judgment on and a future that is hazy at best, and dark at worst.

Ukraine did not have the imperial demons to exorcise.

Because of this it feels more at ease with accepting advice from Europe and America and even states its Euro-Atlantic preferences as a matter of government policy.

This was actually done by President Leonid Kuchma more than ten years ago.

As opposed to Russia, Ukrainians have no problem with joining clubs in which they are not dictating the rules.

Since then, Kiev has been blowing hot and cold over NATO membership but the goal of joining the EU is still considered to be one of the national policy cornerstones.

Though NATO membership was officially taken off the agenda in Ukraine, a staggering 25 to 30 per cent of population supports it.

Even under Yanukovych, who muzzles the media and jails opponents, chances of closer relationship with the Euro-Atlantic community of nations remain fairly high.

“Yanukovych doesn't have the economic and political resources to resist Western pressure that Putin has,” a professor from the Ukrainian Diplomatic Academy told me, “that's why he will eventually have to release Yulia Timoshenko from prison. That's if the EU really chooses to lean on him.”

I must admit I am not so certain.

That Yanukovych wants to emulate some of the Russian examples in dealing with opponents is evident.

And for the time being he might succeed.

But in the long term the Ukrainian expert is probably right – the Euro-Atlantic game remains the only viable option unless the Ukrainian businessmen and politicians (these two words essentially mean the same in Ukraine) decide to opt to become Moscow's vassals – which is highly unlikely.

“The problem with the our rulers is that they are essentially business people, lacking in political thinking,” says Mykola Versen, one of Ukraine's most popular TV and radio hosts, “hence their inability to produce a blueprint for the country's future”.

I tend to agree with Mykola.

The Ukrainian elite uses relations with the EU and NATO as a bargaining chip in gas negotiations with Russia, and they play “the Moscow card,” when dealing with Brussels.

They simply have no time, inclination or ability to formulate political strategy.

Eventually this will be done by a new generation of Ukrainian decision makers.

I have little doubt that their choice will be made in favor of integration with the EU, and, to the chagrin of the Russian political class, NATO.

Or, maybe, luckily for Russia by that time its own political leaders will have less time for Soviet nostalgia and more for doing what the Ukrainians will eventually do – finally join the “global West”.

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