Some stupid stuff about Ukraine

While researching the recent floods in the Ukraine, I stumbled across this wince-inducingly stupid article. It appeared a few weeks ago in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

The article is by Richard Wagner, a Transylvanian German writer. (Well, former Transylvanian. Like most T-Germans, he emigrated from Romania as soon as he could get out.) While much of the article goes off on a red herring chase about whether “Galicia” is really European or not, the core of it is here:

Ukraine is firmly anchored in the Eurasian region that traditionally answers to Moscow. The cultural-historical fusion with Russia reaches deep into the past to the Kievan Rus, the original formula of the East Slavic concept of state, as does the Byzantine-Orthodox hold on mentality and society. The majority of the population speaks Russian and geographically and geo-politically speaking, the country has a number of non-European coordinates that are indispensable to Russia: the Black Sea, Crimea, the Caucasus. The Ukrainian economy is tightly bound up with its Russian counterpart, it is reliant on Russian raw materials and energy resources, and is organised along the same lines. The same goes for the political structure of post-Soviet society which, in both countries relies on the Byzantine habitus and the survival skills of Homo sovieticus. Oligarchic interests and a bizarrely ad hoc party landscape define the political climate in both Russia and Ukraine and no end of bold “Orange” revolutionaries will be able to change this. They have defended their honour, but they don’t hold the political reins.

A good many of the western proponents of the Ukrainian entry into EU and Nato are governed by imperial desires. These are either American strategies aimed at weakening Russia, or EU superpower fantasies. Yet it would be extremely hazardous to over-stretch the unconsolidated EU project. Precisely because Europe now has the unique historic opportunity to regulate its business, we should recall the Occidental idea at the heart of the project. This is something that was strongly emphasised by its founding fathers in the fifties, politicians like Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer.

The Occidental idea is incorporated into cultural and geo-political borders…

And then off on the Galicia thing.

Austrian journalist Martin Pollack tried his hand at a response, but got sidetracked in much the same way. However, Pollack does ask one rather silly question: “How does an author who comes from the Romanian Banat region come to do such a thing, I ask myself.”

Well, that’s easy: it’s because Transylvanian Germans always saw themselves as a cut above, a breed superior to their Romanian neighbors. The T-Germans contributed a lot to Romania, but it was always very much de haut en bas. In that sense, Wagner’s screed is exactly what you’d expect.

But it’s worth engaging with, at least briefly, because it raises a lot of bad ideas and conveniently bundles them together.

“Ukraine is part of Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence”: Clearly this means we must kick Poland, Finland and the three Baltic states out of the EU at once.

This is not to say that we should ignore Russia’s legitimate security concerns, or pretend that the close ties between the two states are irrelevant. They’re important, and should be carefully considered. But at the end of the day, you know, independent sovereign state.

“It’s an Orthodox state that draws its cultural and political heritage from Byzantium”: Right, we must now kick out Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece as well.

Late-breaking news: the EU has already grown far past the old Rome-Byzantium boundary line. Around 50 million EU citizens are Orthodox — roughly 10% of the population. The descent into Byzantine Caesaropapism and obscurancy is already under way. [Sarcasm.]

“Their economy and politics are dominated by oligarchs, and their mentality is still Soviet”: This is an excellent argument for not admitting Ukraine now, or any time soon. But since nobody is arguing that Ukraine should be admitted now or soon, it’s a straw man.

Just ten years ago, most of the Eastern European economies were dominated by oligarchs, and all of them were still struggling with the “mentality” problem. Some of them still are. But they’ve all come a very long way very fast. Wagner gives no reason Ukraine couldn’t do the same.

“EU superpower fantasies… imperial overstretch”: You can make an argument — maybe a strong one — that the EU shouldn’t expand further because it’s big enough, or too big already. That doesn’t seem to be Wagner’s point, though. He seems to be claiming that the EU wants to become a superpower, which is another silly straw man. (There are at least two traditional great powers in the EU; neither has any interest in having Brussels make their strategic choices for them.)

“Cultural and geo-political borders”: Dude.

The EU includes the Azores and the Falkland Islands. The EU includes the African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and a group of islands off the coast of Newfoundland. The EU includes hundreds of thousands of Malay peasants planting rice and chopping sugar cane in Reunion, and nearly a million people on half a dozen different Caribbean islands. The EU has a land border with Brazil. The Oyampi Indians of the Guiana rainforest? They’re EU citizens, Richard — their currency is the Euro, and their vote for the EU Parliament counts the same as yours.

Even if you snip off all the confusing overseas bits — which means excluding about five million people, but let that ride — it’s still pretty much impossible to draw “cultural and geo-political borders” that include Norway and Cyprus, Ireland and Bulgaria, Estonia and Portugal, but clearly and obviously exclude Ukraine.

This is not to say there aren’t good arguments to be made against further EU enlargement generally, or against Ukrainian membership specifically. There are. But this article is a mishmash of bad arguments. — So why bother responding? Well, these particular bad arguments — Russian interests, too backwards, not ‘European’ enough — keep popping up again and again. So they’re worth knocking on the head.

It’s moot at the moment, and will be for years to come; Ukraine isn’t anywhere close to candidacy, and may never be. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to think how far the EU might go, and how, and why.

21 thoughts on “Some stupid stuff about Ukraine

  1. As somebody, oddly enough, in Kyiv right now analysing the structure of Russian trade with Ukraine, it should also be noted his comments on Ukraine’s economic relations with Russia are deeply out of date. Yes Ukraine is largely dependent on Russia/CIS for energy imports (but then again, who isn’t in Europe these days) but trade in raw materials and manufactured goods is generally no different than one would expect of a medium sized industrialised country with an extremely large neighbour (and its market) alongside its borders. In fact, comparatively speaking, Ukraine’s trade with Russia is a bit on the low side, mainly because, (drum roll please) it’s focused quite a bit on reorienting its export economy towards the EU in the last decade or so.

  2. I’m confused by a number of his geographical statements here.

    Since when is Ukraine anywhere near the Caucasus? Does he know how to read a map? As for the Black Sea, since when is that not European? Are we saying that Constantinople or the Pontic Greeks or Troy were not European?

    I can understand why a Transylvanian German would be upset with Romania – it’s not like the residents of the Siebenbuergen were treated particularly well by the Hungarians or Romanians, even after they supported the union of Transylvania with Romania. I don’t really understand what his problem with Ukraine is though.

    I’m curious about the prospect of linguistic change in Ukraine. He says a majority of Ukrainians speak Russian (and Ukrainian), and I agree with that, but I wonder if that will be true in thirty years. There has already been a noticeable change in language usage in many of Ukraine’s cities since independence (including Kiev), and the percentage of Ukrainian-language schools keeps rising, even in the east.

  3. One more thing – why are the Germans the most Russophile of the major European powers these days? What’s the real basis of it?

  4. Geoff, fair cop! I actually was about to look up the Falklands, then said “oh, hell with it, just hit post”.

    Doug M.

  5. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Ukraine: “No Place in the EU”?

  6. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Ukraine: “No Place in the EU”?

  7. Pingback: Muir refutes Wagner’s nonsense « The 8th Circle

  8. I just keep on asking myself: if you are a minor global player, and a great country comes to you, offers its economic and military alliance, do you say, you cannot be my ally, because you have not been my ally? Is this a way of gaining strength?

    If Ukraine was responding to Moscow, why would it seek an alliance with its strategic rival? And if it was true, would not it show the greatness of the EU and NATO if Ukraine wanted to switch sides?

    I think the EU has done a lot of harm to itself with handling Turkey’s accession they way it had. There could have been two better options than the many decade long inconclusive muddling: either a yes, or a no with an offer of real alliance on a number of issues. We have just kept a big and strong country frustrated for many-many years. This is something the EU should not do with Ukraine.

  9. Last time I looked Norway wasn’t part of the EU, but of the Schengen zone…

  10. Re Germans being Russophiles: Kissinger predicted that in his book “Does America need a foreign policy?” (which I mentally subtitle “Remedial foreign policy for backward presidents”). His argument was something like, that under Bismarck Germany successfully kept diplomatic options open with both Russia and the Western powers, and since then whenever Germany has lost its ‘Russian option’ things have gone badly for them, so many Germans instinctively fear throwing themselves entirely in with the EU.

    I don’t know enough history to evaluate his thesis.

  11. Further, what the hell is a Byzantine habitus anyway? Strange, it looks a lot like this bag of unexamined assumptions I happened to have lying around.

    Also, there was a very good reason why the 1950s EU was “dedicated to the Occidental idea”; the other bit was occupied by the Russians.

    Regarding German Russophilia, this goes right back to Bahr/Gromyko; the theory is something like this. There is no conflict between Ostpolitik and NATO/EU membership – this membership (Westintegration) is the guarantee that permits us to deal with the East Germans and Russians. This is however dependent on inter-superpower calm (no Grosswetterlage as Honecker put it), and therefore it is a primary German interest to make nice with the Russians.

    Obviously this got revised with reunification; in a sense, East Germany was swapped for the ex-Warsaw Pact states. Their integration in NATO and the EU was dependent on Russian acquiescence; therefore Germany must be nice to the Russians.

  12. I like Wagner’s screed because it manages to be splendidly incoherent and inconsistent on so many levels at once.

    Galicia was never part of Ukraine, and all the local luminaries were Jews, Poles or Germans, and Ukrainians were hardly ever a significant part of the local population, but even if they were, it doesn’t matter, because the whole region was just a half-Asiatic non-European backwater, and the Ukrainians were not among the upper class, but even though there were hardly any Ukrainians in Galicia or at least they didn’t identify themselves as Ukrainians and had no prominence whatsoever, they _still_ were a “political and cultural elite” and had enough clout to destroy the whole Habsburg Empire and because of this cardinal sin, they should be refused access to the European Union.

    I mean, huh? I know a nice lady from the University of Ivan Franko. Perhaps I should forward the article to her, so she could have a good laugh.

    Anyway. Wagner doesn’t seem to know much of anything of the history of the region, but the part about how the Galician Ukrainians share the responsibility for the destruction of the Habsburg Empire is particularly hilarious. The traditional Galician loyalism and the story of the Ukrainian Sharp-Shooters in the Imperial and Royal Army seems to be unknown to him. Not to mention the story of those Ukrainians who were thrown to concentration camps in 1914-1915 by the Russian and Austrian military authorities, respectively.

    Still, perhaps blocking the EU membership from all those countries that participated in the destruction of the Habsburg Empire really is a pretty good idea. Let’s throw out all those Entente countries who sent troops to the Isonzo and Saloniki fronts. Especially France, since Clemenceau played an important part in the final decision to put Austria-Hungary completely out of its misery.

    But who the hell named Austria-Hungary as the precursor to the European Union, and where’s Wagner getting this from? I could just as well regard the League of Nations as the direct predecessor of the EU, and state that “we should not forget all those peoples who were instrumental in bringing down the League; not least the Germans and the Italians”.

    As expected, Wagner also manages to throw in the usual stuff of how the West Ukrainians were all goddamn Nazi collaborators. Never mind that this is a slur that one usually hears from “Homo Sovieticus”-types who don’t really share the “occidental” views on the world.

    (Ukrainians were Nazi collaborators? As opposed to Balkan Germans? Okay.)


    J. J.

  13. Would admitting Ukraine make it more difficult for the EU to keep excluding Turkey? Perhaps that’s the real issue.

  14. I noticed the use of the word Byzantium has been used several times in this article. Although the word Byzantium is commonly used, personally I don’t like the use of Byzantium because it is an artificial concept. It came out of the fantasy of historians, long after the fall of Constantinople. Although the political and historical reasons for which historians have created this concept, have long ago loosed their valid, it remained for them a fixed idea.
    When I should ask an historian: “what empire cease to exist with the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by caliph Mehmed 2?”, he would probably answer me that it was the existence of Byzantium what was ended by this event. But than I would say to him that that was not possible, because in 1453 it still has to take many years before the fantasy of the historians would have created Byzantium. So, if Byzantium was not created in 1453, what empire did ended then? When we were able to ask the same question to a defender who survived the siege of Constantinople, he should have given us the right answer: it was the (eastern) roman empire. And I doubt if there is a historian to be found who is able to convince that defender, that the name of his native country was actually Byzantium.

  15. Peter, I think you are right that many people would claim that admitting Ukraine would make the accession of Turkey more difficult. There are very different interest at stake. I don’t think that is the real issue here, but I think there will be people who will make an either/or case and a bad compromise may be the neither/nor.

  16. Great discussion and deserved critique of Wagner’s regrettable views on Ukraine. He happens to be a good writer, and it is always a bit shocking to find out that someone who has seen and written penetratively about the situation of the Romanians and Romanian-Germans can be so narrow-minded about a neighbouring population. (It’s probably what shocked Pollack, too.) In the interest of keeping the discussion on the level, though, and because much of it is about geography, I feel compelled to make the following correction: Richard Wagner is not from Transylvania, but from the Banat, a region with a completely different history and culture from the former. Although the Germans of both regions are now known as Romanian-Germans, the Transylvanian Saxons and Banat Swabians have very different traditions and self-identities. The Transylvanian Saxons, for instance, didn’t care much for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which robbed them of a former independent status, while the Banat Swabians were deeply attached to the Empire. The Empire is often proposed as a model of multiculturality, a kind of proto-EU, a desirable manifestation for ex-Austro-Hungarian populations now on the margins of the EU.

  17. It is regrettable to find such an interesting discussion so much time after it expired. Anyway I would like to correct some assumptions of Ms. Cernahoschi, regarding Banat-Swabians and Saxons from Transylvania. First of all, the Saxons never had any independent entity, neither in a feudal sense, and especially not according to a post-Westphalian framework. They had a large autonomy – inherited from the middle ages and extended in the period of a Transylvanian Principality, a fief of the Ottoman Empire – and abolished in 1848, reinstalled in 1860/61 and once gain abolished in 1876. But during the 18th and early 19th centuries, as a way to preserve this situation, a significant part – maybe a majority – of their elite and intelligentsia increasingly relied on the Habsburg dynasty as a guardian of their particular situation. It was altered after the compromise in 1867, but the dynasty remained a reference point, especially as Hungary’s political scene was seen as always posing the danger of overturning the system of the compromise and let loose the forces of Hungarian nationalism without any restraint. But paralelly they became aware of the German option as well, a part of their politicians opting for the latter, another part trying to make a balance, even a compromise with Hungarian political forces keen on keeping the Monarchy intact.

    Ironically, the WWI lead to the strengthening of the German and the Hungarian option simultaneously and for everyone. The uprooted Saxons, running away an invading Romanian army were received warmly in Hungary proper while the Romanians were driven back by German troops and even Wilhelm II paid a visit to the region in 1917. Anyway, the decision of the famous Medias/Mediasch assembly in January 1919, embracing the Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania, was not the result of some hate of the Empire – ceased to exist for any not so dumb observers of the events as early as November –, but rationalistic calculation.

    But even the Swabians were not so focused on the empire, especially among their urban middle class a pro-Hungarian stance was prevalent. Moreover, the awakening of their German-ness was not the least a result of the activity of some German oriented Saxons. But the difference between Banat-Swabians and Saxons certainly existed, even in their self-awareness, due to differences in religion, culture, social system, although the process of Gleichschaltung was an important source of unification.

  18. As for the merit of the blog entry, Wagner certainly treats the matter with a rush judgment, sometimes with condescension and says stupid things. For example the notion that some people can play away their right for something due to the act of their forbears. But – mainly, but not exclusively – from a point of view of someone who, maybe with naivete, took the discourse of the transition and enlargement at face value he makes some valid points. As the transition was marked by such ideas as democracy, European values etc. (the accession criteria was interpreted and treated that way as well) it is legitimate to ask whether those already prevailed in Ukraine or not. (And after the half-success of the real enlargement it is not the worst idea. Before somebody would attack me, as enjoying the advantages of the enlargement and denying it from others, I have serious doubts whether it was a good idea to let Hungary in the way it happened.) On the other hand Ukraine is really a divided country and moreover it is facing a demographic disaster, effectively making it a failed state in the mid-term.

    Everyone taking enlargement with Ukraine seriously have to address these problems. Personally I’m in favor of any enlargement in Europe, but only if a, Europe is transformed into a federation, the only way to address the problems of ECE and b, if that way every candidate country has to adhere strictly to the preconditions set by the fact, that Europe is a federation. And even if it won’t be one in the nearest future, the latter should be applied. Clear preconditions and their application in their entirety. (Or the EU can seriously be reconsidered. My point is not about absorbtion capacity and such things, but on the problem if the EU’s identity – in a broad sense – is that of a loose one or a more coherent.)

  19. I find most, if not all, of the commentary made herein by the author to be pretty close to ‘right on!’ Ukraine, if it is ever, & God I hope it never is) admitted into the E.U. it will be an absolute horror for the Union members to have to deal with. Ukraine has very little to offer the E.U.and would be a huge drain upon the more well to do countries. I do not believe it too strong to say that Ukraine is perhaps best referred to as ‘An Open Pit Toilet!’ It’s people are not aware of far too many essentials to even begin listing them here. I lived in that God forsaken country about 4 years (with my Ukrainian wife) and speak from personal experience.

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