Window on Eurasia: Ukraine is Escaping the Past but Russia is Not, Moscow Analyst Says
by: Paul Goble
Vienna, September 9 – In what matters most – a national self-definition that recognizes the futility of zero-sum politics in the modern world – Ukraine, with all its problems, nonetheless has achieved far more over the last 18 years than Russia over the same period despite or more precisely because of the bombast the latter displays continues to display
Consequently, Igor Yakovenko argued in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” last week, Ukraine has a far better chance both to develop as a modern nation and to integrate into Europe than does Russia, which despite its apparent advantages, remains mired in the imperial past and is unlikely to do either (http://ej.ru/?a=note_print&id=9407
As the two countries mark their respective 18th birthdays, Yakovenko says, many in both of these post-Soviet lands and elsewhere focus on their commonalities, including corruption, the mixing of business and government, alcoholism and health problems, and the many other characteristics shared by most post-Soviet states.
But the differences between Russia and Ukraine are not only striking but critical for the current and future direction of the two: Ukraine has elections, while Russia does not. Ukraine has a relatively free media, while Russia does not. And Ukraine’s militia and security services are not out of control, while Russia’s in many respects very much are.
And it is because of these differences and the sense that Ukraine might achieve something Russia is unlikely to that “Ukraine as the Anti-Russia is gradually driving out the US in the Manichean picture of the world” in the Kremlin.” This is not just because talking about the US as the Anti-Russia is “comic” given Russia’s inability to “catch up to Portugal.”
Statements by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, much covered in Russia and the West, have drawn attention to Ukraine’s problems, but they reflect Russia’s own as well. There are good reasons for “skepticism” concerning the ability of Ukraine to reach full maturity as a country, but there are even more good reasons for skepticism about Russia’s chances.
While some polls do suggest that many Ukrainians who voted for independence in 1991 would not do so again if given the chance, other polls show that “the overwhelming majority of residents of Ukraine do not want reunification with Russia” in any of the various forms some have proposed.
If reunification is not in prospect, a turn toward authoritarianism is not yet off the table in Ukraine. If Yulia Timoshenko were to become president, “her moral relativism in politics and definite demagogy,” Yakovenko says, could “destroy those extremely weak growths of European values which are barely noted in Ukraine but which give it a chance to become a normal country.
But even if Timoshenko does win, her rule would be “much less harsh than for example Putinism in Russia.” It would be “authoritarianism-lite.” And “the ‘Putin in skirts’ is someone Ukraine would not tolerate, and if it would allow it at all, Yakovenko continues, then this would not be for very long.”
“The heterogeneous quality of [Ukraine] both geographically and in terms of political clans will inevitably give birth to political and media pluralism. In Ukraine, it is impossible to create an analogue to the United Russia Party and to freeze the mass media according to the Russian model.”
All this shows, the Moscow commentator insists, that “Ukraine is already different. It, of course, is not Anti-Russia. It is Not-Russia. This is the result of its separate coming of age.” And its prospects for the future are far better, if not completely certain, than are those likely for Russia itself.
Ukraine’s “single real” chance to complete its national project is “integration into Europe.” That “goal is not near and the chances of its realization are not 100 percent, but they are far from zero.” And that is impressive if one considers the situation in the other 11 former Soviet republics and especially of the Russian Federation.
Russia remains trapped in the grip of a desire to build “a new empire,” but “the chances for the realization of this project are not simply small. They are equal to zero. They do not exist.” Russia could play a role if it was willing to accept the status of a junior partner to the US, Europe or China, but Russians are not prepared to do this.
They are not prepared to give up their “messianic goals” or to recognize that Europe has moved beyond zero-sum politics, in which there are clear winners and losers, into a system in which all participants must take away something positive. Russians remain convinced that any victory for them requires a defeat for others, and vice versa.
Moscow has “bought Schroeder, made friends with Berlusconi, purchased wholesale and retail experts and politicians in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States.” But this has not brought Russia happiness, because Russia is not in a position to achieve its messianic goal of a new empire.
This then, Yakovenko argues, is “the main distinction of Russia and Ukraine.” Russia continues to think that it is an empire, to celebrate its size and power as the main things. But Ukraine is rapidly moving toward an acceptance of the reality that it is a second-tier country that must cooperate with others in a European fashion in order to survive and flourish.
On the basis of this comparison, the Moscow writer offers three conclusions. First, he says, Russia and Ukraine have “met their 18th birthdays not as adults but more as difficult youths who have not yet succeeded in dealing with their complexes. Second, the trajectories of the two countries and their peoples are ever more different.
And third – and this may prove especially hard for many Russians to accept – “people speaking one language and having a culture which is largely in common are becoming hostages of politicians who have not proved capable of rising to the extent of the tasks which the times put before them.”