Ukraine, Unexpected

Ukraine's political demagogues are squandering its benign strategic circumstances. They are doing neither well nor good for their unexpected country.

Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 366 pp., $29.95.

OF ALL the weak, corrupt, semi-independent semi-states that emerged, willingly or not, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is both the most important and the most disappointing. It is also the most troubling, with the reckless waste and selfishness of the last decade bringing Ukrainians to compare their venal leaders to those of the Congo, and to charge them with undermining the very independence they were elected to preserve and enhance.

Belarus, with little tradition or history of independence from Moscow, is the most ludicrous of the successor states, unless one happens to be a Belarusian; the Baltic nations, moving with all the speed they could muster, have been the most successful. But from Georgia through the Caucasus and the five "stans", there is little to admire from those politicians who promised a free democratic future, with open markets and transparent justice, allied to the values of the West. Crippled and failing states litter the post-Soviet landscape. The preservation of independence itself, in the face of Russia's intermittent reach for renewed empire, has been their single great triumph. But they have had historically unusual help, for Russia itself has been hopelessly confused about what kind of state it wants to be, and within what borders. Luckily, Moscow's flickering ambitions have been restrained by poverty and weakness. But for how long?

Russia has been preoccupied with its two disgraceful wars in Chechnya, with the West tolerating from Moscow behavior for which it bombed Belgrade. But the mess in Chechnya has been oddly salutary, too; it has sharply deflated Russian military arrogance and may have saved Ukraine from an altogether different kind of Russian pressure.

For most American policymakers, Ukraine, now nuclear-free, matters only because of its proximity to Russia, and because of what its independence means for Russia's future and for European stability. In 1994 Zbigniew Brzezinski famously (and Eurocentrically) posited: "It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire."1

To keep Ukraine alive (and Russia counterbalanced), Washington has provided more than $2 billion in aid since 1990, far more than has been given to any other former Soviet republic. Brzezinski's admonition did not, however, seem to bring Ukraine the kind of thoughtful Western media attention it deserved. Still, seven years later, some of the most dire predictions about Ukraine's collapse (and Russian appetites) have come to nothing, even as new fears arise over Vladimir Putin's efforts to reassert Russian authority in the so-called near abroad.

Andrew Wilson's fine book, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, helps explain why. A lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, he has worked hard to explore and dispel many of the contradictory myths about Ukraine held most fervently by both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists.

This is not an easy read, but it is a scrupulous one, critical of received wisdom and fair to the facts as they may be known. In particular, Wilson tries to describe historical alternatives to Ukraine's development, making clear that its sovereignty now was hardly foreordained, and that its position between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds could have led to a Ukraine more aligned with Poland than Moscow.

Wilson properly stresses the divided cultural, religious and linguistic nature of Ukraine, between the nationalist, Catholic west and the more Moscow-oriented east, where Russian is more widely spoken and Soviet ideas of a unitary state dating back to the founding of Rus have taken strong hold. Such divisions help to explain Ukraine's unavoidable sensitivity to Moscow's needs, whims and demands, and its reluctance to trust too thoroughly in the blandishments of Washington, NATO and the European Union. Ukraine's divisions are also a major reason for Kiev's political paralysis and the continuing reign of a corrupt, if shifting, corporate and bureaucratic center committed only to its own aggrandizement. As Wilson writes: "This permanent government of the corporate center is paradoxically the result both of the weakness of the right and the strength of the left", with the Left here being the Moscow-oriented Communists and the Right being the nationalists and Rukh, the now-divided dissident movement that pressed for an independent Ukraine. "The right cannot govern alone", Wilson says. "The left, however, might"--but cannot be trusted to do so. The problem with "the center", of course, is that it believes in nothing except itself.

The result has been "stagnation, corruption, and the growing abuse of the power of the state", matched by popular disgust and alienation. But even such severe divisions can be managed, Wilson argues convincingly, without dooming the independence or unity of Ukraine. Unfortunately, he suggests, the best guarantee of Ukraine's independence may be that "elite interests are already consolidated around the new state." What might be left of the state after they have sated themselves is another question.

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