Some orange in Brussels.About a week ago, I wondered what the chances were for an explosion when hundreds of thousands of people are smoking at a gas station. Unfortunately, now their leaders seem to have begun fooling around with the gas pump handles in truly ‘zoolanderesque’ manner.
More and more commentators seem to be afraid about Russia’s hardline stance and the possible geopolitical fallout of the Orange Revolution, while such a realpolitical approach offends others for the little concern it has for the people freezing for freedom – or, more precisely, a little democracy and approximate rule of law.
As so often, it’s a little both. And to avoid an explosion, both conceptual layers need to be given the appropriate consideration: How to make sure no one, and above all the Ukrainian people, ends up paying the bill for continuing a pointless conflict when the Orange Revolution, this plebiscite on modern governance, is actually opening up a whole range of opportunities for Ukraine, Russia, and the West, and – particularly – the EU.
First of all, however, I think it is important to understand that accepting continuing Russian influence in Ukraine is not equivalent to declaring Russian ownership of Ukraine. Stanford’s David Laitin argues in his book “Identities in formation: The Russian-speaking Populations in the Near Abroad“, that
“[t]he historical legacy of political incorporation influences three key outcomes. First, the degree to which Russians assimilate into the titular cultures now that independence has been achieved, second, the threat of interethnic conflict in the newly independent states; and third, the degree to which the newly independent states will become rationalized as classic nation-states.”
In Laitin’s understanding, Ukraine was to be incorporated into tsarist Russia on equal terms with the center, which was allegedly an easy task due to relatively similar languages and a similar state of economic development. During the Soviet period, with some exceptions, the ?special relationship? between the center and Ukraine stood strong ? Ukrainians received more jobs at the center any other non-Russian group.
Ukraine thus represents a “most-favored-lord”-model of integration: a tactic which offers elites of the incorporated state rights and privileges equal to the elites at the center of the expanding state. According to Laitin, in this situation, there is a strong incentive for elites to allow themselves to be coopted. The local culture might even be regarded as “backward and poor” in the long run, when “peasants [have] become Frenchmen.” However, co-opted elites most probably retain the option to mobilize regional differences, should this seem worthwhile to put pressure on the center and achieve more favorable distributive patterns. The danger, however, is that ideologically uncontainable national aspirations could arise, while the elite’s intention was rather symbolic.
I do not think that is what we are witnessing in Ukraine these days – but it appears to be a valid point of view – from a Russian perspective.
Moreover, as opposed to the European non-Soviet countries in the last Russian empire, whose economies in the end even exploited the imperial center, especially by trading unreasonably priced low-quality manufactured goods for world-market priced fuels and agricultural products, the Ukrainian and Russian economies are far more integrated.
According to a number of reports, there are important remnants of command style economic structures in Ukraine that have not, and probably cannot be replaced soon, which ensures Russian influence and requires continous cooperation. Some commentators believe that Mr Yushenko, if elected, will visit the Kremlin as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, all this is happening at a time of profound Russian insecurity. For all the recent talk about an enlightened Empire, Mr Putin’s command-style Democracy in itself indicates rather lucidly that Russia is uncertain about its place in the world as well as any possible route of getting there. Yet there seems to be a general consensus that Russia, inexperienced as a nation-state, wants to remain some kind of integrative pole for its periphery, certainly for those countries with an ethnic Russian minority – the ‘near abroad’, as Laitin terms it. I read somewhere this week, Russia doesn’t want to join the EU (just as much as no one in the EU wants Russia in) or NATO (as long as the latter remains militarily operational), it just wants to be treated like a member of the club.
Russia and the West both need each other. The Russian economy needs hundreds of billions of Western investment. And the West, Europe, in particular, needs Russia’s energy resources and wants to develop a significant market. Most analysts predict occasional tensions while fundamental cooperation continues. All this indicates to me that Russia is more worried about another “grassroots-democracy” precedent than losing fundamental clout, even though, in the long run, more grassroots, more civil society, is just what Russia needs.
A “process victory” in Kyiv will certainly swing a lot of doors open in the West. But let’s not fool ourselves: EU membership for Ukraine is unlikely, not just for the foreseeable future, regardless of who wins the election.
And, maybe counterintuitively, that is why I think the Orange Revolution may become an opportunity for everyone: The example set in Ukraine might force the EU to develop a meaningful strategy of privileged partnership – if possible together with Russia – for the near abroad, or what I would call “interface countries.” Countries like Ukraine that have been and still are looking to both Russia and Western Europe: They are bridges on a political, economic, and cultural level.
And maybe not being the only “privileged partner” will – in time – even become an interesting option for Turkey – another true “interface country”, thereby solving one of the biggest current political challenges for the EU.
This may seem entirely unreasonable, drunk on too much orange juice. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I started believing that the Orange Revolution will not just be morally valuable, it might actually turn out to be a catalyst for solutions to some of the more important geopolitical challenges.