‘The only thing Ukraine really needs is to have Russia stay away from it’

The recent referendum in Crimea which showed voters wanted to join Russia was a serious blow to Ukraine, says Mykola Riabchuk, Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Kyiv, and EURIAS visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut for Human Sciences (IWM). Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Hardnews: 

Mehru Jaffer Lucknow 

What next, now that Crimea is no more a part of Ukraine?

The Russian takeover of Crimea is a serious political, diplomatic, and probably economic blow to Ukraine. It is a more serious blow to the entire post-WWII international order. In modern Europe, it is the unprecedented annexation of the territory of a sovereign state by a stronger neighbour, creating a new situation where the rules of international law do not apply and sheer might makes an aggressor undeniably right. On the one hand, the Russian move looks like a mere continuation of Russian — both Soviet and pre-Soviet — policies of bullying and blackmailing weaker neighbours as a primary political tool.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin’s Russia crossed the red line twice. First, it not only recognized the “independence” of Crimea, but  also absorbed it immediately into the Russian Federation. This is something Russia had never dared to do with the Georgian Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Moldovan Transnistria. Second, Russia brutally violated the Budapest Memorandum, even though it was one of its signatories.

Back in 1994, Ukraine gave away its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees from all nuclear states, including Russia. Now, all nuclear aspiring countries will think twice before trusting any
international guarantee.

The West will react with various sanctions but the effect will be limited  on large, self-sufficient countries like China and Russia. This means that  Crimea will remain part of Russia in the foreseeable future even if its military occupation and annexation are not recognized internationally, exactly like the case of the Baltic states or the Japanese part of the Kurily Islands taken by Stalin.

Any cloud, however, has a silver lining. For the West, it might be farewell to illusions that Putinist Russia is an uncomfortable, but an acceptable partner in international affairs. The country that plays a zero-sum game and violates rules at its convenience should be treated as a rogue state. For Ukraine, the silver lining means a chance to consolidate the nation across regional, ethnic and linguistic lines. There are many signs today of external threat making many citizens of Ukraine think deeper about their citizenship, national belonging, and the need to solve internal problems peacefully, without external interference. For Russia, the silver lining might mean a gradual recognition that Ukrainians are different, they don’t dream about any “brotherly reunification”, and the best way to make Russia great and modern is not to suppress Ukraine’s westward drift but, rather, to follow it.

 

Please put into historical perspective the 1954 gifting of  Crimea to Ukraine.

The common wisdom disseminated by global mass media says that Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 as a propagandistic “gift” to celebrate 300 years of the so-called “reunification” of Ukraine with Russia. All the pre-1954 history of Crimea is either explicitly non-existent or implicitly “genuinely Russian”.

In fact, Crimea is a historical homeland of the Crimean Tatars, the only native people of the peninsula who, through the end of the 18th century, held their own state and cherished a vibrant culture like the still impressive Renaissance palace of Crimean khans in Bakhchisarai.

After the Russian takeover of the peninsula, they were subjugated and marginalized by the colonizers, and ultimately deported wholesale, within one night, by the Soviets in 1944 to Central Asia. Only by the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika were they allowed to come back but got no land or property or any assistance from the authorities. Instead, they encountered an extremely hostile reaction from the colonial settlers who never expressed any regret or repentance for the historical injustice or any sympathy for the ethnically cleansed people. Russian chauvinism, racism, and Islamophobia are quite conspicuous in the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars have pinned their hopes on Kyiv and the European Union (EU) rather than on Moscow for protection from the chauvinistic majority and for a boost to their cultural and economic revival.

Today, they are under real threat as more and more reports appear in the press about violent attacks by Russian nationalists on Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and all pro-Ukrainian citizens in Crimea. While Ukrainians are able to find shelter in mainland Ukraine — and hundreds have already flown away from the Russian nationalistic mob, Tatars have no place to go. They are actually the one group in the peninsula that really needs international protection. It is simply immoral to sacrifice them to Russian nationalists and criminals who run the peninsula on Russian bayonets.

 

Why is Ukraine taking so long to settle down  after its independence?

“To settle down” in the post-Communist world probably means to consolidate either as a full-fledged democracy — as most East European countries did successfully with Western assistance — or an iron-clad authoritarianism, as happened eventually in most post-Soviet republics. Ukraine remained at the crossroads as a hybrid regime, with a pretty competitive political field, open media, but also with very weak, often dysfunctional, institutions and a serious deficit of the rule of law. The stalemate resulted from a near-equal balance of forces between the Ancien regime supported by the Sovietophile, paternalistic, backward-looking part of the population, and the anti-Soviet, Western-oriented and civically engaged. The former strove for the patron-client system of Russian, Belarussian, and Central Asian type of governance and the latter wanted Ukraine to follow the way Poland and other East European states have moved towards liberal democracy and rule of law embodied by the European Union.

In this view, the recent Ukrainian revolution can be considered a third attempt to “settle down”, to complete the unfinished business of the 1989 East European revolutions. In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Ukrainian democratic and national liberation movement was hijacked by the Communist nomenklatura who got rid of the party membership, but not the old habits. In 2004, Ukrainians made another attempt, broadly known as the Orange Revolution. They brought new people to power but did not force them to carry out the much-needed institutional reforms, starting primarily with the rule of law. They allowed their leaders to play with the rules, rather than by the rules, and such a lawless, dysfunctional democracy compromised itself to such a degree that the Orange electorate punished the leaders by staying at home and watching the supporters of Victor Yanukovych vote him by a slight majority into office. The result was disastrous. The destruction of institutions and complete monopoly of power by the president’s “family” made peaceful removal of the incumbents in elections virtually impossible. The third Ukrainian revolution turned regretfully violent, following, rather, the Romanian than the Polish, East German, or Czechoslovak pattern.

It is not clear whether Ukrainians will “settle down” any time soon considering the enormous political, economic and institutional problems they face — which are exacerbated by the Russian military invasion. There is no doubt, however, that new attempts will continue to be made till the country’s Westward value-driven drift is completed. Both the persistence of past attempts and increasing pro-Western orientation of younger people will make such a shift inevitable.

 

How much are the EU and the US further fanning the problems for the people of Ukraine?

I feel the EU and US contribute to Ukrainian problems much more by their inaction. The US has been too preoccupied with some other regions in  past decades, and rather naively relied too much on Russian cooperation on various international issues. The only role Russia effectively plays on the international scene is that of a spoiler. As for the EU, it is corrupted by Russian money and too eager to sacrifice the professed values for the sake of realpolitik involving geopolitical, mostly mercantile, interests.

The EU has never considered Ukraine as part of the European project since its very emergence and did not offer any guardianship, any long-term membership prospects after the Orange Revolution when the expectations of the Ukrainians were high and largescale transformations under wise guidance were quite possible. The Ukrainian project has no raison d’etre for imperial Russia, who denies Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s very existence. So Ukrainians, anyway, try to move into the opposite direction, closer to the EU, with or without its consent.

What is the ideal solution for Ukraine so that its citizens can go on with life?

The only thing Ukraine really needs is to have Russia stay away from it. In the past 20 years, Ukrainians have failed to develop their country on a par with Poland or other East European states, but they definitely developed a much more liberal, open, pluralistic and politically competitive society than Russia or anywhere else east, post-Soviet. And, despite all its domestic problems and tensions, there was bloodshed in Ukraine as the Kremlin pressurized, encouraged, and probably manipulated Yanukovych to open fire on peaceful protesters. This kind of “brotherly” care from Russia only impedes Ukrainian development like it has for three centuries. The country is likely to manage itself if left alone, like all its Western post-Communist neighbours have successfully done.

 

Is it in the interest of the people of Ukraine to see Putin boycotted and sanctions imposed against the people of Russia now?

I don’t think the West is considering any sanctions against the “people of Russia”. But the ruling clique deserves all possible sanctions for the reasons I mention above. Any attempt to appease dictators leads to nowhere – as the  case of the 1938-39 annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party graphically illustrates.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014