Don’t be misled by chuntering about fascist Cossacks. Europe has a massive interest here, and this is not a zero-sum game with Russia
Ukraine has not yet died – as the country’s anthem observes. But the face of Ukraine today is the bloodied, scarred face of the opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov. Comparisons with Bosnia are still far-fetched, but think of this as a political Chernobyl.
I have no idea what will happen in Ukraine tomorrow, let alone next week. But I know what all Europeans should want to happen over the next year and the next decades. In February 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the Yalta agreement, Ukraine should again be a half-way functioning state. A corrupt and rackety one, but still the kind of state that, in the long run, forges a nation. It should have signed an association agreement with the EU, but also have close ties with Russia. In February 2045, on the hundredth anniversary of the Yalta agreement, it should be a liberal democratic, rule-of-law state which is a member of the European Union, but has a special relationship with a democratic Russia. ‘What pie in the sky!’ you may say. But if you don’t know where you want to go, all roads are equally good. This is where we should want to go.
That outcome would obviously be good for Ukraine. Less obviously, it would be good for Europe. Look at the shifting balance of world power, and look at the demographic projections for Western Europe’s ageing population. We’ll need those young Ukrainians sooner than you think, if we are to pay our pensions, maintain economic growth and defend our way of life in a post-Western world. Less obviously still, it would good for Russia. Russia has lost an empire but not yet found a role. Its uncertain sense of itself is inextricably bound up with its deep-seated confusion about Ukraine, a cradle of Russian history which many Russians still regard as belonging back in Russia’s nursery.
Once upon a time, young Conservatives like David Cameron shared such a vision of a wider Europe of freedom. Inspired by the velvet revolutions of 1989, and by Margaret Thatcher, they loathed the statist, federalist and socialist Little Europe of Brussels, but loved that far horizon of liberty. Yet where is the British prime minister’s voice on Ukraine today?
Back in his idealistic youth, it was Germans who were the mealy-mouthed stability-huggers, and Brits who spoke out for human rights in eastern Europe. Now, Angela Merkel tells her parliament that the Ukrainian authorities must not ignore ‘many people who have shown in courageous demonstrations that they are not willing to turn away from Europe. They must be heard,’ she declares, to applause. Meanwhile, the Conservative benches of the British parliament resound with appeals to, er, turn away from Europe, and to keep out those numberless hordes of east European welfare-scroungers. Among the few Ukrainians welcome here are the oligarchs, who get Britain’s special visas for the very rich, and buy the fanciest places in London. One of them, Rinat Akhmetov, paid £136 million for a 25,000 square foot pied-a-terre in the luxurious One Hyde Park apartment complex.
Granted, it is hard to see how we can make much difference in the short term. This is no longer a velvet revolution, as the 2004 Orange Revolution was. It started as a protest against the (freely and largely fairly elected) president Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. Opinion polls show that a majority of Ukrainians favour more European integration. The heart of protest in Kiev is still nicknamed the Euromaidan (Eurosquare). What characterises a velvet revolution, however, is that non-violent discipline is largely maintained, even in the face of violent oppression by the state, and it ends in a political negotiation. Now, mainly because of the stupidity of the Yanukovych machine and the brutality of its Berkut militia thugs, but also because there are other opposition forces at work in different parts of a fractured country, the velvet is burning.
Some very nasty far-right groups have mounted the barricades. How large a role they play is disputed. A Ukrainian specialist on the European far right, Anton Shekhovtsov, who was there during the recent protests, says that while there is a real neo-Nazi and hooligan fringe, especially in a group called White Hammer, most of the so-called Right Sector activists see themselves as national revolutionaries fighting for independence from Russia. Yet even if you take a more alarmist view, to suggest that Europe should just sit on its hands because fascists and anti-Semitic Cossacks (recognise a stereotype anyone?) are taking over the show is even more ridiculous than it would be to pretend that this is all the sweetness and light of Vaclav Havel’s Wenceslas Square in 1989. Abandon all meta-narratives, ye reporters who enter here.
Worse than ridiculous is the notion that the EU should not ‘intervene’ in any way because this is a purely internal Ukrainian affair. Putin’s Russia has been massively intervening here for years, overtly and covertly, while insisting that no ‘outsiders’ should interfere. In the last decade, Russia has twice turned off the gas tap to force Ukrainian hands, and the methods Moscow uses behind the scenes to persuade Yanukovych and pivotal oligarchs can barely be described in family newspaper.
By contrast, the EU’s outrageous imperialist intervention has consisted in offering an association agreement, attempting to broker a negotiated settlement between the warring parties, and mainly verbal support for non-violent, pro-European demonstrators. To denounce this herbivorous EU ‘intervention’ while ignoring Russia’s carnivorous ones is either Orwellian doublethink or rank hypocrisy.
But comrade Lenin’s question remains: what is to be done? The Poles, together with members of the Ukrainian opposition, call for a larger carrot. ‘Not martial law but a Marshall Plan’ says opposition leader Arseny Yatseniuk. In your dreams, Arseny, in your dreams. Others call for targeted Western sanctions against the Yanukovych clan and selected oligarchs.
I suspect all this will make only a marginal difference. History is being written hour by hour on the ground in Ukraine. But if the British prime minister does want to reconnect with the idealism of his youth, while practising the realpolitik required in his current job, I suggest he has a private word with those key swing-players in Ukraine, the oligarchs. Men like Victor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash (a generous donor to Cambridge University), and Akhmetov. We know where they live – which is in London, amongst other places. So to have that discreet fireside chat, the prime minister would only need to pop down the road, from Downing Street to One Hyde Park.
Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he currently leads the www.freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Further more, Timothy Garton Ash is member of IWM’s Academic Advisory Board. His latest book is Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name.
First published in The Guardian, February 2, 2014
© Author / The Guardian