Ukrainians are still talking

There’s still no sign of a breakthrough in Ukraine’s political crisis, although it’s reported that talks continue between the government and the opposition, mediated by the European Union’s foreign minister, Catherine Ashton. Yesterday it was suggested that the government was at least considering the option of early elections, a key opposition demand – although the opposition wants a new president as well as a new parliament.

The fact that the two sides, at least for the moment, are talking rather than fighting is a hopeful sign. Prospects for some sort of compromise solution look rather better than they do, for example, in Thailand.

It was with that background that Dr Alexey Muraviev, head of the department of Social Sciences and International Studies at Curtin University and a world expert on Russian security matters, spoke on the Ukrainian crisis at a seminar at RMIT on Tuesday. While his perspective couldn’t be called pro-Russian, it was more sympathetic to the Russian side of Ukraine’s ethno-political divide than much of the coverage we get.

The key point that that I took from his presentation was that Russia and the EU have potentially a large measure of common interest in Ukraine. Russia and the EU need each other, and Ukraine can be important as a bridge between them. Neither side’s interest is helped by it becoming, as it now has, a weapon for dividing them.

The narrative that we tend to hear in the west, of Ukraine trying to escape from the smothering Russian embrace, is misleading. Ukraine’s economic and social ties to Russia are very real, and while most Ukrainians certainly want a closer relationship with the EU, that isn’t going to work if it’s seen mostly as a means of denying or minimising the Russian connection.

Muraviev didn’t pursue the point, but it seems clear – as Jonathan Steele argued back in December – that the EU has been at best insensitive to Russian interests, and to the interests of those Ukrainians who, whether for economic or other reasons, are oriented more towards Russia in their thinking.

A number of other interesting points emerged from Muraviev’s remarks:

  • The key problem for Ukraine is poor governance. President Viktor Yanukovych has disappointed Russia as well as the EU, including such measures as failing to keep his promises on upgrading the status of the Russian language. In some ways he has been more difficult for Kremlin to deal with than his pro-western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.
  • Conversely, Yushchenko’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, now in prison, was not as anti-Russian as commentators often imply. In fact, although it would be too much to describe her as a consensus figure, Russia would probably not be unhappy at a result that restored her to a position of power.
  • The stronghold of pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine is Crimea, transferred from Russia by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. One can perhaps imagine a future pro-western government in Ukraine allowing Crimea to revert to Russia, disposing of a geopolitical problem while at the same time ridding itself of a swag of hostile voters.
  • As in most of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine’s economy is dominated by a small number of oligarchs, who are driven by greed rather than sentiment. But although the country’s elites are economically tied to Russia, they are politically oriented towards the west – hence the need for policy to look both ways.
  • There’s a recurring ambiguity in the term “west” and for that matter “Brussels”, which is the headquarters not just of the EU but of NATO as well. Western priorities are military as well as economic, which adds unnecessarily to the difficulties of the situation. Much of Ukraine’s heavy industry is defence-related, and due to its Soviet origins is overwhelmingly geared towards Russia.
  • For all the difficulties of its international position, Ukraine’s fundamental problems are internal: the need to sort out governance issues, forge some sort of political consensus and end the state of political and economic crisis that has prevailed, off and on, for the last ten years.

If the protests eventually lead to a more accountable government, then it will have a better chance of sorting out its competing foreign policy priorities. Here’s hoping.

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