How Ukraine could help re-democratizing Russia
Recent political developments in the three Eastern Slavic states, like the repression of opposition figures in Moscow, Minsk, and Kyiv, have been frustrating. They illustrate once more that the EU’s and, not the least, Germany’s policies towards Eastern Europe during the last two decades were a failure, in a number of ways. In spite of considerable efforts of the Western political elite with regard to Moscow’s leadership, Russia has, as the key Northern Eurasian state, become an advocate of anti-democratic tendencies. After consolidating an authoritarian regime inside, the Kremlin is now engaged in anchoring the Putinist model, around the Russian Federation. This concerns both the support or promotion of similar regimes in the post-Soviet space, as well as various attempts to come to a durable modus vivendi with the West.
The many interactions that the West had with Russia since 1991 resulted, to be sure, in a number of agreements on disarmament, cultural exchange, investment, and trade. And some of them, like START III, have been rather important. However, most of these deals would have also come about had Brussels, Washington, and Berlin been less intensively engaged with the Kremlin. The basic divide between the democratic West and authoritarian Russia has been hardly diminished by them.
Moscow’s elite discourse and Russian domestic politics, notwithstanding, do not operate in international isolation. The leaders and population of Russia interact most intensively with the citizens of the former Soviet republics. This concerns especially the other two Orthodox Eastern Slavic countries – Ukraine and Belarus. This circumstance entails a specific opportunity to readjust the West’s policies towards Eastern Europe, in general, and those of Germany towards Ukraine, in particular.
Belarus and Russia have, by now, been ruled by more or less autocratic regimes, for several years. They would have a long way to go to return to the democratic beginnings of the early 1990s. Things are different in post-Orange Ukraine. One can, to be sure, now observe authoritarian tendencies in Kyiv that remind of the regressions in Belarus since 1994 and Russia since 1999. However, the centralization attempts of the new Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich encounter multifarious resistance. TV channels defend the independence of their news reporting and political discussions. Rectors of universities take openly or covered positions against the controversial Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnik. A plethora of different social groups – nationalist parties, human rights organizations, entrepreneurs associations, feminist activists etc. – make their disagreement with Yanukovich’s policies heard every week.
Moreover, the new leadership, for all its pro-Russian orientation, is still markedly distinct from Russian and Belarusian political elites concerning its foreign policy orientation. The new power holders in Kyiv do not any longer aim at NATO membership. But they tirelessly emphasize that they – in continuity with their “Orange” predecessors – want Ukraine to become a full member of the European Union. These and some other specifics make Ukraine today a country that remains distinct from its North-Eastern neighbours. These Ukrainian specifics also have larger implications for European politics and Eurasian security.
Ukraine plays the role of both, the most important “brotherly people” and the largest imperial temptation of post-Soviet Russia. The future self-perception of Russia as either a saturated nation state or re-emerging empire will, above all, be determined by the development of Ukraine. If Ukraine returns into the Russian orbit, Moscow will see itself again as the pivot of a huge territory, and an imperial center that, in one way or another, controls much of Northern Eurasia. If Ukraine, on the other hand, will not only rhetorically, but also substantively converge with the Western community of states, the Kremlin rulers will, to be sure, still control the largest state in the world. However, the Russians would then be left on to themselves.
Such a constellation entails an important policy option for the West concerning the framing of the future triangular relationship between the EU, Ukraine, and Russia. Not only would a consolidation of Ukraine as an independent state have fundamental repercussions for Russia’s self-perception, and thus for Moscow’s relations with the outer world in general. The political development of Ukraine has also implications for the Russian domestic discourse. Because of the close relations and multifarious contacts between Ukrainians and Russians, a successful Ukrainian re-democratization and sustainable integration of Kyiv into the international community of democratic states would be significant beyond Ukraine’s borders. Such an evolution would leave a deeper impression in Russia than the various models, advices, and demands that the West has presented to the Kremlin during the last 20 years.
If the Ukrainians could demonstrate that a large Eastern Slavic and Orthodox post-Soviet nation is able to build and sustain a real democracy – this would be of all-European importance. It would constitute a more weighty argument for a renewed democratization of the Russian Federation too than the many respective appeals of the EU and US, of the past. References to a Ukrainian model would be something that the Russian leadership would not any longer – as in its current reactions to the liberal-democratic paradigm – be able to dismiss easily as Western ethno-centrism or an American subversion strategy.
A refocusing of Western – not the least German – foreign policies should, of course, not entail a break with Moscow. The successful START III negotiations have illustrated that one can also achieve important progress in the development of the Russian-Western relationship with an authoritarian Russia. In any way, Russia will, in view of its territorial size and geopolitical relevance, surely remain on the radar screen of Western diplomacy. What, however, is overdue is a readjustment of the foreign policy foci of the relevant decision makers in Washington, Brussels, and Berlin. Russian issues should not any longer absorb the bulk of attention of Western actors engaged with Eastern Europe. This would, against the background of the continuing idiosyncrasies of the political discourse and seclusion of the decision making processes in Russia, be a waste of energy and time.
Instead, the EU and Germany, in particular, should in their future Eastern policies concentrate on the country that is geopolitically relevant too, still open towards Western advice, and manifestly pro-European – Ukraine. Sooner or later, heightened attention from the EU concerning the economic potential, internal affairs, and foreign policies of Ukraine would result in substantive domestic change in Kyiv. Progress in the political development and European integration of Ukraine would, in its turn, have feedback effects within Russian domestic politics and thus indirectly also for Moscow’s relations to Brussels, Washington and Berlin.
In spite of the various setbacks of the last year, in Ukraine, there still exist important preconditions for a new turn towards Europeanization. What, so far, has been missing is targeted support, from the West, of such germs within society as well as political and intellectual elite of Ukraine. The main reason for this omission is the generally low interest of both national- and European-level Western political actors for Ukraine. Their engagement with the Ukrainian government and civil society is often casual or limited to diplomatic niceties. This is a result of the peripheral status of Ukraine within the Eastern policies of the EU and its member states, as well as within the international thinking of their political and intellectual leaders. Among them, one often still finds the idea that negotiations with Moscow and initiatives regarding Russia are the crucial or even only keys to the creation of a stable post-communist security structure. Against this background, Kyiv is considered of, at best, secondary importance to the emergence of a durable pan-European political architecture. Worse, Ukraine is frequently seen as a mere object or even blank spot within the new institutional configuration of the European continent in the 21st century.
In fact, Ukraine plays a decisive role for the future of Europe. Her fate will not only determine whether the All-European Common Home, once proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, will become reality or not. The EU will not be able to meet its elementary needs for sustainable security and confidence-building cooperation in the Euro-Asiatic space without taking Ukraine under its wings. A democratization of Ukraine would represent a chance to demonstrate to the Russian elite and society a relevant model for development for their own country. Should such a strategy be successful, this could also lay the foundation for a durable partnership and, perhaps, even for a values community between Russia and the EU in the 21st century.
A more extensive version of this article is forthcoming, in May 2011, in IP Global: The Journal of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), vol. 12, no. 3.