Since independence, Ukraine has grappled with intricately linked national identity and foreign policy. Ukrainian leaders have tried to balance between the two poles of influence — one led by Russia, and the other by the US, EU combine
Ukraine emerged as an independent country in 1991 in the aftermath of the Soviet disintegration. like other post-Soviet states, it had to undergo the difficult and painful transition from a Communist-era “command economy” to a market economy and from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy. It also had to grapple with issues of national identity and foreign policy, which are intricately linked. Indeed it has been a torn country — divided between those who favour European identity/course, meaning its integration with the West European security architecture (ie NATO) and political economy (ie European Union) and those who prefer closer cooperation with the Slavic ‘big brother’ Russia. In fact, some of the problems that we witness today are rooted in history and modern Ukraine’s search for identity.
The birth of the first eastern Slavic or the Russian civilisation and state is often traced to Kyivan Rus (or Kievan Rus as Russians call it) which was a powerful state in the 10th and 11th centuries. Internecine feuds and the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century weakened it. Russian nationalist historians claim that there was a shift in the centre of Eastern Slavic civilisation and polity. It got relocated to Muscovite Rus. The Ukrainian nationalists contest this view and assert that the history of Ukraine chartered a different trajectory after that. It became a part of the Grand Duchy of lithuania and later of the Polish lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century, the Cossacks established an independent state which continued for more than a century before being incorporated into the Tsarist Empire. Following the collapse of the Tsarist rule in 1917, Ukraine achieved a brief period of autonomy. During the Soviet period, Ukraine suffered due to severe famines and the Second World War (losing more than 15 million lives in these calamities).
The political transition became difficult for most post-Soviet states as they lacked the necessary democratic political culture and political institutions (e.g. democratic constitution, rule of law, political parties and party system, independent judiciary and election commission, free media, etc.). The economic transition created unemployment and severe hardships because of the withdrawal of soviet-era social security and subsidies. It became particularly painful for countries like Ukraine which did not possess hydrocarbon resources and were heavily dependent on imports from resource-rich countries like Russia. For nearly one-and-a-half decades, Moscow provided them gas supplies at subsidised rates but expected certain returns in terms of control over supply lines to Europe and, in general, deference towards Russian sensitivities/opposition to issues of NATO and EU membership. The Ukrainians though not overwhelmingly in favour of the membership of these European organisations would like to keep their options and strategic autonomy. They also desire to create and emphasise their unique and distinct identity and are outraged by the mindset of some Russians who consider them as ‘little Russia’ and the attempt by Russian leaders to partially reintegrate the former soviet republics.
Ukraine is important to Moscow not just because it is the origin place of Slavic Russian civilisation (many Russian nationalists believe that Russia is incomplete without Ukraine) but also because after Russia it is the second most populous post-Soviet state and is strategically located on its border with Europe. Russia is the biggest energy supplier to Europe and some of the important pipelines for these exports pass through the territory of Ukraine. During his second presidency since 2012, Vladimir Putin has aggressively pursued his pet project of Eurasian Union to reintegrate the former Soviet states. Ukraine is considered the most important partner in this regard. He also believes that the United States and Europe are trying to harm Russian interests and minimise its influence in the post-Soviet space, especially Ukraine, and bring them into their own orbit. Hence, there is a tussle between the two over this important country.
Since independence, Ukrainian leaders have tried to balance between these two poles and often had to contend with strong popular opinions on the issue. The situation is complicated by the fact that in a population of 46 million there are nearly 17 per cent Russians who are concentrated in the more industrialised eastern and the southern districts and Crimea. They are pro-Russians and support close ties with Moscow. This contest is reflected in the political parties and personalities as well. In the 2004 presidential election, the pro-Russian parties led by Viktor Yanukovich won the second round vote in what was seen as a rigged election. This led to protests, which came to be called Orange Revolution, and fresh elections. It brought the reformist and pro-West Viktor Yushchenko to power. However Yanukovich staged a comeback in the subsequent parliamentary (Rada) elections and became the Prime Minister. Another political crisis in 2007 led to fresh parliamentary elections and this time an “Orange Coalition” under the young and charismatic Yulia Tymoshenko came to power.
Yanukovich finally realised his presidential ambition in 2010 when he won the run-off election which was considered free and fair. Subsequently Yulia Tymoshenko had to resign and was jailed on corruption charges. The 2012 Rada elections, criticised by many as rigged, brought pro-government parties to power. Apart from the democratic deficit, the regime also came to be seen as extremely corrupt. Yanukovich’s profligate lifestyle and stories of his opulent mansions and expensive cars infuriated the public opinion. Yanukovich’s decision to turn his back on a European Union Association Agreement and instead consider a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan was like the last straw on the camel’s back. It stirred public outcry and widespread protests. Thus it is a complex interplay of external and domestic factors, identity and corruption issues that has triggered the change. But the pro-Russia rallies in Crimea and some other parts of Ukraine, and Russia’s show of strength have brought the situation to a very precarious stage. Various political groups within the country and the external powers — Russia, Europe and the US — will have to show maturity and sense of accommodation in order to pull Ukraine back to normalcy.
(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, Delhi)