For the past one month Ukraine has found itself at a crossroad and based on the plentiful accounts in the media, the country has only two choices in terms of direction—Europe or Russia—one of which should lead to prosperity and the other to further degradation. Since November 21, Independence Square in Kiev has been overtaken by protests against the current President, Viktor Yanukovich, and demands for his resignation abound. The protests are a consequence of the president’s failure to follow through with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The deal could mark an important step toward European integration for Ukraine and the suspension of talks between Yanukovich and the EU under the alleged insistence of Russia highlights the biggest obstacle to a smooth process.
The protests have largely been peaceful, but on several occasions the situation escalated. On November 30, for example, witness reports confirmed beatings by riot police and prompted various human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), to voice outrage at the police brutality against civilians and journalists. HRW has subsequently demanded a thorough investigation, but while the ruling party acknowledged the complaints, it also dismissed them as unnecessary and as the means to cause panic and chaos. On December 8, the statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled as protesters voiced their intention to eliminate Soviet influence from their country. Russian officials have reportedly expressed surprise over the attention the situation in Ukraine has attracted both domestically and internationally.
Most analysts appear to agree on two important characteristics of the recent events in Ukraine:
- First, the increased tensions reflect the polarization between European and Russian economic pressures. Claims abound that President Yanukovich’s decision became a reality after significant push from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, while Western leaders have threatened Ukraine with possible economic sanctions, a BBC report indicates that Yanukovich and Putin have reached an agreement that would lead to significant economic assistance from Russia. The bailout package is expected to pull the Ukrainian economy out of the gutters and “keep the country from bankruptcy next year”. Putin’s desire to alleviate the struggles of the Ukrainian economy is seen as a clear sign of his intention to keep Ukraine close and the European Union at a distance.
- Second, the protests in Kiev are a perfect example of a generational rift: the younger generation tends to support the idea of a united Europe and a common European identity while the older generation insists on strong connections with Russia. Older generations, having lived though the impact of another union, the Soviet that is, seem a bit more skeptical as to the impact the EU could have and voice concerns that the independence of their nations is still in jeopardy. Conversely, the younger generation is fed up with the difficult economic situation in their native countries and see accession to the EU as an opportunity to move West and find better jobs.
Interestingly, the two most prominent characteristics of the developments in Ukraine correspond to the two ideals behind a united Europe—economic interdependence and a common identity. Economic integration was the major focus of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community (EEC), precursors of the EU, with the idea that those bound by economic interests will not be concerned with waging a massive and murderous war against each other. For a while, Europe seemed to be on the way to a bright future marked by peace and economic interdependence.
Another, and a bit more problematic, theme accompanying the establishment and enlargement of the EU is the search for the so-called common European identity. A shared cluster of characteristics, distinct to Europeans, is expected to smooth and ease the ultimate integration of all European countries into a community living harmoniously. As Delanty points out, however, this concept of a common regional identity sprouted out of and has been sustained by separation rather than by integration and peace. It is also important to acknowledge Peter van Ham’s observation about the enigma of what exact values, beliefs, and shared hopes would constitute the roots of this budding European identity and the likelihood of such an identity to allow Europeans to feel socially connected on a larger than the commercial level. The intention is for a diverse group of nations to come together under the umbrella of Europeanness and exist and prosper as one body. Moreover, a certain ‘European Gemeinschaft’ is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for the successful enlargement of the EU. It is not clear, however, whether the European identity already exists and the path toward integration is meant to solidify that identity or if the integration itself is supposed to create and reinforce the so-called European identity. The ultimate hope is that an emphasis on a common identity, along with economic interdependence, would reinforce the unification of European states and turn Europe into a powerful actor on the global stage.
In the last two decades it has become painfully clear that with former communist republics seeking admission, the two EU pillars of economic stability and common European identity are threatened and a truce is unavoidable. The idea of a united and strong Europe might still just be that: an idea. In Ukraine, some emphasize, what stands out is “the imaginary Europe that has captured Ukrainians’ minds”. A common market and identity that can keep nations together can only work if a basic level of economic and social development already exists. The original member states relied on and acted out of a shared political and economic template that was not what the new members are familiar with. The economic disparities between the long-time Western members and the new Eastern members place a strain on the union and jeopardize the hopes for economic stability across Europe. Indeed, a discussion about European disintegration has become prominent, especially in the first decade of the 21st century. Support for the EU and its mission has fallen in several of the more powerful European states such as Britain and France.
No doubt the region referred to as Europe is comprised of significant cultural, political, economic, and religious diversity. To have these distinct areas join into a united supra-national organization will take effort, time, and most of all compromise. The economic differences are so enormous that the integration under a common market seems unlikely. Former communist nations have standards of living that are at least 40 percent lower than the standard of life in older members of the EU. Political differences are also significant and while the early accepted Baltic nations are working hard at developing stable democracies, many nations in the Central and Eastern region have found themselves in more repressing regimes than at the end of the Soviet era. Different economic standards ultimately result in distinct ways of life, diverse beliefs, and a color palette of worldviews that in turn create issues with the concept of a united Europe. While language diversity is respected in the union, the cultural and social history it is accompanied by has so far not faced a warm welcoming. In terms of geography, all EU countries technically belong under the umbrella of Europe, but in terms of culture and way of life, not all within the confines of the old continent feel European or are treated as such. While demanding respect for all members within a specific state, the older members of the EU have yet to show a similar practice toward EU citizens across the EU regardless of their country of origin.
Recent reports indicate that President Yanukovich and his government have agreed to resume talks about the deal with the EU, but considering the information provided above, it is clear that a smooth integration would likely not be a reality. Indeed, while an agreement with the EU would in the long run benefit the country, the protesters on the streets of Kiev should not expect an immediate improvement in terms of economic development. This has certainly been the case in Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007. It seems that the leaders and governments of developing nations seeking admission into the union know that aid is coming with the membership, and they also know that to a degree, they have to help themselves. And as Framer shrewdly observes, these leaders help themselves the same way political elites everywhere do it: by helping themselves “to whatever they can get their hands on”. While corruption prevails and EU aid disappears down mysterious alleyways and bank accounts, those who suffer the consequences are the common people who really do not care who is in control as long as they have a decent life and are able to provide for their families without having to leave the country and be underpaid, and hated and abused for being there and allowing themselves to be underpaid. So while an entry into the EU is viewed as the way out of economic depression and into prosperity and development, one cannot help but be haunted by the questions asked by Eduardo Galeano, “How many people prosper in prosperity?/How many people find their lives developed by development?”
Ultimately, what is crystal clear is that former communist nations in Europe will not be left alone—either by the EU or Russia. Both powers claim to advocate for the small sovereign nations to be allowed to exert their independence, but no one really lets them make the decision on their own. A country is left to choose between the influence of one big entity over another and who is to say what choice comes with more negative consequences. Considering the continued economic hardships, the high corruption levels, and the escalating mistreatment of immigrants in the West, it is no surprise that some in the newest EU members believe that one repressive and discriminatory regime has simply been replaced by another. Former communist nations are treated like immature younglings who need the guidance of an adult to mature and civilize. Whether that adult is the European Union or the former Soviet Union is truly irrelevant. Churchill may have believed that building “a kind of United States of Europe” is the future of a prosperous Europe, but after over sixty years of hard work and construction, the road to a united Europe still resembles more the Soviet era remnants dissecting Eastern Europe than a German autobahn. As a person who has been on both, I must admit, I am not a fan of either.