The country that used to be the breadbasket of Europe is a new
bone of contention between the European Union and Russia. Ukraine,
the land of the southern Russians (as Yugoslavia was the land of
the southern Slavs), sits on Russia's Western frontier.
It is rumored that the Poles and Lithuanians are pushing
Brussels to bring Ukraine into the European fold. Although they
have old scores to settle, these pale in comparison to a shared
desire to payback Russia for a historical pattern of
It is difficult for Westerners to understand why any country
would want to join a European Union that is currently experiencing
so many problems. In fact, this is a totally irrational desire: the
Orthodox former Soviet Republics, whether it be Bela Rus, Ukraine
or Georgia, are obsessed with not wanting to be identified with
historically backward or Communist Russia. Notwithstanding their
own backwardness they want to be considered part of the
culturally superior West. Having lived in Eastern Europe for
six years when it was still part of the Soviet Empire, I can
testify that it is impossible to overestimate this longing.
When I worked at the Hungarian Radio, lack of recognition that
together with Poland and Czechoslovakia it was indeed part of
Europe was expressed as: "They think we still cook meat under the
saddle.' Of all the countries of the East European block,
Hungary most actively strove to play the role of bridge between
East and West. Its efforts culminated in the opening of its
frontier with Austria starting in May 1989 that allowed thousands
of East German tourists to reach the West. A previously unthinkable
act, it led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the
dissolution of the Soviet block. [Kiev]
But Bela Rus, Ukraine and Georgia have far less of a claim to a
European identity than the Eastern European satellite nations. In
the Middle Ages, Bela Rus, Ukraine and Russia were all part of the
principality of Kiev, or Kievan Rus, which extended from the Baltic
to the Black Sea. While all three countries claim Kievan Rus as
their cultural heritage, today independent Bela Rus and Ukraine
constitute a sort of no-man's land that buffers their vast and
powerful neighbor. As of 2011, Ukraine was the world's
third-largest grain exporter , and according to Wikipedia, it is
one of ten most attractive agricultural regions. Although regarded
as a developing economy with high potential, indispensable economic
and legal reforms would be more brutally implemented under Brussels
tutelage than if they happened at Ukraine's own pace.
And yet, for western Ukrainians, (as opposed to the pro-Russian
eastern half), the fact that Brussels cannot afford to bring them
up to speed economically is obviously less important than being
part of glamorous, sophisticated Europe. They probably feel
that they are well-acquainted with hardship, but the demonstrators
in Kiev should ask themselves whether they would they be happy in a
European Union that is being forced to walk back its welfare state?
With respect to mutual recriminations of behind-the-scenes
manipulation of the population by both Russia and the EU, this is
surely a fact: Napoleon and Hitler both contributed to Russia's
obsession with being surrounded, while the EU, increasingly
beholden to Wall Street, carries out the Empire's policy of
intimidation and encroachment, seeking to diminish Russia's growing
clout by co-opting the countries on its borders, both economically,
via the EU, and militarily through NATO.
In my 1989 book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde I wrote that the Soviet Union could not hope to become part of the European Union because it was simply too big to be considered primus inter pares. That situation remains the same with the Russian Republic, which covers a land area almost four times that of the European Union, even though its population is only one third that of the EU. Nor does Russia seek EU membership. Rather, as Vladimir Putin put it a few days ago, explaining the danger to Russia's economy of the Ukraine being flooded with cheap European goods, "What do we have to do so that they (the EU) like us?'.
Here too, we get the same sense of being considered culturally inferior by Europe. But Russia is allied with both China and India, two powerful emerging economies, all participants in the BRICS, which include forty percent of the world's population and twenty-five percent of its GDP. In this game of chess it should be able to keep its cool, realizing that its "near abroad' - Ukraine, Bela Rus and Georgia - do not represent its future as much as do the "far abroad' BRiCS, for the "East' is now also "the South', and is destined to outweigh the "North' and the "West' however much these areas dominated the past.