Alphen, Netherlands. 20 February. Look at a map of Europe’s political economy and Ukraine sits at the centre. To the north, west and south are member-states of the European Union. To the east lies Russia. Kiev is at the very epicentre of Europe’s shifting political plate tectonics. The violent protests in Independence Square are thus about so much more than the future of Ukraine. They are about past versus future, the struggle between democracy and oligarchy, between Russia and the West, between the US and Europe, between the EU and its member-states and between political establishments and networked activists.
In spite of the 2004 Orange Revolution President Yanukovych’s regime still looks too often more like that of Lukashenko’s Belarus than the liberal democracies to Ukraine’s West. Indeed, Europe’s political divide between the EU’s liberal bureaucracy and Putin’s Russian ‘oligocracy’ runs not just through the centre of Ukraine but right through the centre of the regime.
Many Ukrainians in the west of the country see a future firmly embedded in the European Union with all that implies for free movement of Ukrainian peoples, goods and services. In the east old ties to Russia are strong with the struggle in Kiev cast in the context of some old Cold War power movie that has no place in the twenty-first century. For Russians and Russian speakers the place of Ukraine in their history and identity is powerful. For the Kremlin to ‘lose’ Ukraine would be the final retreat in a series of retreats since 1989. Indeed, whilst President Putin will not act during the Sochi Olympics, he will almost certainly apply economic levers and other means thereafter. He will not give up on Ukraine lightly.
Putin’s mind is no doubt eased by the disarray of the ‘West’. The recent Russian revelation of the contemptuous attitude towards the EU of Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, demonstrates all too clearly the tensions in a relationship that is no longer cast in Washington. For a diplomat Ms Nuland has rarely hidden her dislike for people or institutions (me included). However, the current spat demonstrates the extent to which the Obama Administration believes the EU is failing to complete the job of making “a Europe Whole and Free” in the stirring May 1989 words of President George H. W. Bush.
Ukraine’s pain is also revealing the tensions between the EU and its member-states over just who or what should lead ‘Europe’s’ foreign policy. Indeed, is Ukraine even an issue of foreign policy? Under the European Neighbourhood Policy the implication is that Ukraine is already part of the EU’s disparate family. In that light political contentions should be seen as an internal matter as though Ukraine was already a member-state with the EU clearly in the lead. And yet today the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland are visiting Kiev ahead of a meeting of all EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
Did Messrs Fabius, Steinmeier and Sikorski go with the support of their 25 other colleagues? What is the role of EU foreign policy supremo Cathy Ashton? Or, is this a power play by Germany, France and Poland to put both the EU and the other member-states into a subordinate role? The truth is I am getting conflicting messages about the legitimacy of this visit and if it is simply a power play it will only serve to pollute the search for a political solution with the EU’s Byzantine power politics.
There is however a potentially much deeper struggle being played out in Independence Square and across Ukraine. It is a struggle one also sees on the streets of Cairo, across the Middle East and critically across much of Europe. It is the battle between political establishments and networked activists. For some of the activists the very idea of consensus and power-sharing and with it the almost glacial nature of political change is unthinkable. They want direct action and view all political establishments as anathema; be they incumbents or loyal oppositions. Some on the streets of Kiev clearly do want to see the replacement of oligocracy with liberal democracy. However, there are others who clearly reject the whole notion of representative government and prefer instead direct action for whatever particular mantra they hang their political/anarchical hats upon.
As Syria has so tragically demonstrated the West in particular must be very careful not to characterise all such activists as anti-regime and therefore good. Any political settlement that offers Ukraine a future beyond civil strife must be constitutional; i.e. one in which the sensible people of the sensible middle of politics work out their differences.
Therefore, for the sake of the Ukrainian people it is vital that all the actors engaged in this struggle understand that the solution lies with the people of Ukraine. By all means support them to find a peaceful, democratic solution but in so doing remember the Hippocratic Oath – do no harm.