What unites the European Union and Ukraine? – The search for identity!


Although a comparison between the European Union and Ukraine does not appear compelling at first glance, there is one thing they have in common: their marginal position within larger groupings. The EU forms part of the Transatlantic-Pacific alliance, and extends to its easternmost borders, while the U.S. still perceives itself as the center of the triangle. The ever-declining importance of the inner-western triangle compels the EU to develop its own identity. Ukraine also finds itself in the position of a border state vis-à-vis the EU and Russia, alternately inclining more towards Russia or the EU, or at times being co-opted more heavily by the one or the other side.

By Dr. Reinhard Hildebrandt

1. The EU: A marginal position in the inner-western triangle

During the East-West conflict, the Western European states generally toed the US line without major dissent. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, they certainly felt liberated from their fear of the Soviets, and increasingly dwelt upon their nation-state identities; yet – initially at least – they made no attempts to leave the inner-western triangle comprising the USA – Japan – EU. Although these West European states demanded a greater say vis-à-vis the United States, they continued to perceive themselves as an integral part of the „West“, secure in the community of values they shared with the US.

During the Clinton era, the West European members of the EU complained more frequently about Britain’s special position, with Britain perceiving itself as a part of the Anglo-American hegemony, often operating as an agent of U.S. interests in the EU. But it was not until the following two periods of Bush Jr.’s presidency – which were marked by the unilateral nature of his politics – that the EU became more involved in the formation of a pan-European identity, without this aspect becoming relevant to the political practice of the day. Many EU members still viewed themselves and assessed the rest of the world predominantly from the perspective of the Transatlantic partnership, holding a privileged relationship with the United States to still be indispensable. This attitude only changed gradually, when the EU came under the full impact of the severe repercussions of the financial crisis emanating from the U.S. The member states of the EU had – in fact still have – to realize that their continued behavior as subordinates of the United States weakens the role and status of the EU on the international stage. What sparked off this realization was the declining importance of the inner-western triangle and the rise of India and China, whose ruling elites treated the EU with nothing short of disdain.

Some select examples – among many:

When Wang Xi, Professor of History at Peking University, was asked at the February 8th 2010 event on „The relationship between the U.S., China and the European Union“, organized by the Berlin John F. Kennedy Institute, why the EU was rated so low as a global player by the international community, he replied by pointing to the EU’s lack of identity to date. Since the EU does not appear to be a player acting independently of the US, China prefers to turn directly to the latter and would rather contact individual members of the EU for day-to-day business. At the „Indo-European Dialogue“ organized in Brussels and Paris by the Brussels Foundation for European Progressive Studies in November 2009, India’s response to the EU was unabashedly similar. When Banning Garrett, Director of the Asia Program of the Atlantic Council, condescendingly remarked at the said event organized by the John F. Kennedy Institute that a strong EU is obviously much better for the United States than a weak one, the other members of the panel (Eberhard Sandschneider, Professor at the Free University of Berlin and Director of the German Society for Foreign Policy; Moritz Schularick, Professor of Economics at the Free University of Berlin; Andreas Etges, Professor of History at the John F. Kennedy Institute, Free University of Berlin) as well as the audience reacted with an embarrassed silence. Banning Garrett seemed to be unaware that the U.S. cannot have both: a strong EU and a debilitated one – debilitated by the close cooperation between Wall Street and the City of London, and the strategy of playing off the so-called „old“ (Western) and „new“ (Eastern) Europe against each other. Surprisingly, no panelist drew Banning Garrett’s attention to his contradictory stand; neither did anyone counter him with an independent EU standpoint. Consequently, the impression created was that the panelists wholly concurred with Banning Garrett in holding the EU solely responsible for the weak position it was said to be in. At any rate, even after this critical juncture, the panelists continued to affectionately refer to Banning Garrett as „Banni“.

The behavior of American banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase also contributed to the weakening of the EU. These banks helped Greek and Italian politicians cover up the growing indebtedness of both countries by allocating real, but obviously also dubious, derivatives. In return for the cash infusions, the two governments pledged their future revenue, in the case of Greece revenue from airport taxes and lotteries. As early as in 2001, Goldman Sachs had helped the Greek government cover up its deficit. Shortly after Greece’s entry into the euro area, Goldman Sachs lent Greece several billions of dollars against hefty fees. This was simply recorded as a currency transaction (swap) rather than a loan (Newspaper article: Wall Street, “Athens helped conceal the crisis”, in: Zeit Online – DPA News ticker, 14.2.2010/Mark Schieritz, “Chasing the Fortune-Hunters”, in: Die Zeit, 25.2.2010).

Robert von Heusinger is no doubt right when he accuses the former German Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, of resorting to the same tricks. Like the Greek government, Waigel also sought to meet the debt criterion of the monetary union by selling telecom and postal shares to the state-owned bank KfW, „(Frankfurter Rundschau, 16. 2. 2010). What is more, one of his successors, Hans Eichel, used the same trick again in 2005. But unlike Greece and Italy, Waigel and Eichel did not bring the U.S. banks into the picture. Unlike their two southern European counterparts, they did not provide the American investment banks and hedge funds with massive leverage which these banks could then use while betting against the solvency of the EU members, the stability of the euro or against unpalatable EU recommendations for regulating financial transactions.

Some approaches to a solution:

The European Union can effectively overcome its marginal situation vis-à-vis the US only if it

  • supports the European Parliament in its resistance to unequal agreements and – as in the case of the SWIFT agreement – refuses to meet U.S. demands for the handover of all data;
  • identifies and plugs all exploitable weaknesses of individual members in good time;
  • urges the British government to clarify its relationship with the EU;
  • closes ranks as a single entity on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty and prevents the possibility of one member being played off against the other;
  • aims at the integration of financial policy which has so far been entirely in the hands of individual EU members;
  • works towards finding an identity for the EU.

The process of finding an identity could become an important engine of advancement if the exclusion of the other, which continues to dominate existing collective memory, is eliminated and the practice of blaming the other for collective European failure duly overcome. This practice was evident in the case of Greece when a member of the Greek government tried to evade pressure from the EU by proposing that the German government settle Greek debt as compensation for crimes committed during German occupation of Greece in World War II. Despite the many common values which Europeans really become aware of when they stay outside Europe and are compelled to come to terms with the otherness of alien cultures, they have so far failed to evolve a common identity due to differences in their individual cultures of memory.

2. The need for identity in Ukraine

In Ukrainian history, periods of strengthened national independence alternated with periods of a total loss of sovereignty, periods of expansion with periods of a drastic loss of territory. Just the name Ukraine signals that it is a classic peripheral state, perpetually subjected to the territorial ambitions of neighboring states.

Over the centuries, the Mongols, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Ottomans as well as the Habsburgs and the Germans preyed upon Ukraine. After occupation by German troops in 1941, the Ukraine was even controlled by the Reich Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories (RMfdbO) for three years. But in 1945 the country was again incorporated into the Soviet Union as Ukrainian SSR. Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian himself and therefore aware of Ukraine’s attempts to gain independence, bequeathed the peninsula of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, to mark the 300th anniversary of Russian- Ukrainian unity.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Ukraine proclaimed itself an independent state on 24th August 1991. With this declaration of independence, Ukraine once again repeated the act it had taken recourse to at the end of Czarist rule. However, at that time, its aspirations for independence had been trampled upon by a revolutionary Soviet Union which soon reasserted its claims over Ukraine by once again annexing it.

The Ukraine’s tumultuous history saw the Russians, Poles, Romanians, Tatars, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Armenians, Jews and Germans – apart from the Ukrainians themselves – settle on Ukrainian soil. Following the extermination of Jews in German concentration camps and the expulsion of Germans and Poles after the Second World War, the population of Ukraine was mainly made up of Ukrainians and Russians. Although statistics put down 74.4 percent of the Ukrainian people as having mastery over the Russian language and Russian is the dominant language in both the east and the south, it is not accorded equal status. Ukraine’s identity problem gets reflected in the „language debate“ as well as in its varying religious affiliations. The two hostile Orthodox churches come under the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchate, while the Greek Catholic Church recognizes the pope as its head.

The post-independence period sees the representatives of West-leaning parties and the proponents of close cooperation with Russia standing bitterly opposed in politics. In the wake of the international financial crisis and the gas dispute with Russia, the NAK Naftohaz Ukrainy ran up 3.2 billion euros of debt, and by mid-February 2009 was even threatened by insolvency. The threat of financial bankruptcy jeopardized the transportation of Russian gas to the EU countries. The pro-Western parties put the blame for the conflict on Russia, while the pro-Russian side diagnosed failure on the part of Ukraine’s pro-West president.

As a result of persisting internal divisions, Ukrainian foreign policy has been working towards very different objectives since 1991. The pro-Western parties are in favor of early EU and NATO membership; the representatives of people living in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine are for moving closer to Russia. After the privatization of the former socialist but actually state-owned enterprises, and the rise of some of the new owners as influential oligarchs, an additional phenomenon was discernible alongside the existing two: the division of the population into the mass of the impoverished landless and the wealthy few.

Under President Leonid Kravchuk (1991-94) and Leonid Kuchma (since 1994, re-elected 1999) Ukraine passed the first decade of its independence battling numerous setbacks. The initially high expectations of the people vis-à-vis the nation’s sovereignty were not met. The East Ukrainian population even suffered a double disappointment. Double-digit inflation, mass unemployment and a high external debt of almost 13 billion U.S. dollars (late 1990s) shattered all hopes of prosperity. Besides, they realized that their own Russian-oriented lifestyle was sidelined by the increasing dominance of the Ukrainian culture and language.

Their grievances, though understandable, were part of a long tradition of mutual contempt. Thus, under the Czarist regime, the Ukrainian-speaking population was subjected to the policy of Russification. By contrast, during the first twenty years of its existence, the Soviet Union promoted the culture and language of the Ukrainians. This policy was reversed again after the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939-1941) by an increasingly aggressive strategy in favor of the Russian language, particularly in the former Eastern Polish region of Ukraine. This was followed by Khrushchev’s ambivalent tactic to increase the proportion of ethnic Russians in the Ukrainian SSR, with the aim of using them as an effective counterweight to the Ukrainian population.

After the elections in the beginning of 2010 it was only to be expected that the pro-West-oriented social forces would try to advance the Ukrainization of the entire country and push for a Western orientation of the Ukraine. When this policy did not yield the desired results, it was clear that the pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian society would unleash a countermovement. The dynamic of movement and countermovement continued to have an impact even after the presidential election of 2004 (Orange Revolution). More vigorously than ever before, the pro-Western forces under President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine sought closer ties with NATO and the EU, whilst the pro-Russian side waited for an opportunity to turn the tables again, following the elections in the beginning of 2010, hoping to build better relations with Russia under the new President Viktor Yanukovych.

Some approaches to a solution:

This tussle between pro-Western and pro-Russian orientation will not come to an end until the Ukraine has found a distinct identity for itself. Despite the common origins it shares with Russia as part of the 10th century Kingdom of Kiev, the Ukraine is not a severed part of Russia; neither does Russia or Ukraine form part of the core area of Europe. Ukraine’s own identity rests on

  • establishing parity between the Ukrainian and Russian languages;
  • the tolerant co-existence of the hitherto antagonistic Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the Christian religion, common to all;
  • the mutual respect and appreciation of different cultures;
  • development of a middle class familiar with both languages and cultures;
  • bringing together the different industrial regions into an independent economic sphere of circulation and
  • integrating different collective memories and developing a common cultural memory.

Once Ukraine has made notable strides in its search for identity, its neighbors will have to change their behavior and accept the new situation.

3. Prerequisites for the development of good neighborly relations between the EU and Ukraine

3.1. Scenarios on the EU side

The first condition for good neighborly relations with Ukraine is for the EU to clarify its relations with the United States. If the EU as a whole, or some individual members, allow the US to control their policies, there is the danger of the EU’s relationship with Ukraine being subordinated to U.S. relations with Russia. President Bush’s desire to pave the way for Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty, at the NATO meeting in Bucharest in July 2008, is indicative of the pressure which the EU could come under if its priorities are not demarcated in time. The majority of the EU-members feared that their relations with Russia would drastically deteriorate if they acquiesced to the American plan to throw open NATO’s doors to Ukraine (and Georgia).

It was clear to one and all that it would be unthinkable for Russia to station the Russian Black Sea Fleet in a NATO country: for, once Ukraine joined NATO, the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea would be on NATO territory. It was feared that in the event of EU approval of Ukraine’s NATO entry, Russia would use all available means to prevent this materializing, for instance by estabilizing the country with the help of the Russian-speaking populations in the eastern and southern parts. Civil war in Ukraine would not only inflict severe damage on relations between EU and Russia, but also create conflicts within the EU between members who fully support the U.S. position and those who do not agree with the USA’s anti-Russia strategy. The long unclear position of the European NATO members led the Bush administration to hastily assume that the consent of the Europeans could be induced through massive pressure and surprise tactics.

Apart from the contentious issue of Ukraine’s candidature for NATO membership at a later date, the EU had since 1994 given the impression that Ukraine could become an EU member one day. In 1994, the EU negotiated an agreement on partnership and cooperation with Ukraine, with the intention of bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. In early 2005 a plan of action followed, which envisaged the convergence of the Ukrainian legal system with EU law, respect for human rights, creation of a market economy, stable political development and the creation of an FTA between the EU and Ukraine.

After Bush’s plan had been rejected, the EU negotiated an Association Agreement aiming at the gradual economic integration of Ukraine into the EU, and the deepening of political cooperation between both partners. One significant economic factor that propelled this agreement was the prospect of a large market of 46 million inhabitants. On 7 May 2009 the EU also invited Ukraine to take part in its „Eastern Partnership“ program with the intention of establishing Western democratic practices in Ukraine and expanding EU influence in Eastern Europe. Some commentaries on the treaty saw not only greater influence for the EU in Eastern Europe but also a positive impact on Russia. That this could lead to a further alienation of Russia was a possibility that was widely ignored in official commentaries.

If the EU were to even go so far as to accept Ukraine as an EU member and refuse Russia entry, relations with Russia would deteriorate significantly. This apart, if the EU were to also try to circumvent Russian territory in supplying oil and gas to the EU countries (Nabucco pipeline), and exclude Russia altogether while doing business with the Central Asian states, relations with Russia would be irreparably damaged. By pursuing an anti-Russia policy of this kind, the EU would be completely playing into the hands of the U.S, which under Bush Jr. sought to contain Russia. Besides, the EU would forfeit the advantage of achieving lower costs by using Russian transit routes to reach China and India. The fact that NATO failed to secure permission to fly its reconnaissance aircraft AWACS from Turkey via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, for deployment there against the Taliban, is testimony to the extent to which relations with Russia have deteriorated. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkmenistan was willing to permit use of its air space. Quite obviously, they bowed to Russian pressure.

The EU will only be able to maintain good neighborly relations with Ukraine if it acts independently of the US and conducts itself as a global player, while ensuring that its policy towards Ukraine does not damage its relationship with Russia. Lending support to Ukraine in its search for a separate identity, and involving it in the process of developing a common Eurasian economic area would no doubt be beneficial to good neighborly relations.

3.2. Scenarios on the Ukrainian side

As a state bordering both Russia and the EU, close affiliation with either the EU or Russia would prevent Ukraine from developing its own identity. As long as the pro-Western forces in Ukraine look to the United States for protection against Russia and regard it as the guarantor of Ukrainian security, they will continue to support a policy of confrontation towards Russia while constantly trying to get the EU involved in this policy. If the very same social forces also look upon the EU as a source of financing urgently needed reforms in the Ukrainian state and society, they will by no means be closer to developing good neighborly relations with the EU. If, on the other hand, the pro-Russian forces seek close affiliation with Russia, they will only create fear and apprehension among the eastern and central European members of the EU and further alienation between the EU and Russia. Without developing an independent identity, Ukraine -while remaining a much sought-after border state -cannot contend with real support for overcoming its domestic crises or staving off external dangers. The development of a Ukrainian identity would – as stated above strengthen social cohesion and see the country evolve into a reliable partner for the EU and Russia.

4. Concluding Remarks

If the EU and Ukraine are successful in the search for an identity and the development of an independent strategy, they will proceed with confidence and the EU may be well on its way to becoming a Eurasian grouping. Ukraine will then be able to assume the role of a strong, stable bridge. However, if the EU remains passive in its peripheral transatlantic role and Ukraine fails to find its identity, then both face the threat of ruin. There is an urgent need to expand the policy of information regarding Ukraine, and not just report on the difficulties posed by the transportation of natural gas from Russia.

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