Ukraine would lose even more if Crimea remains only “formally” within Ukraine. Interview with Mykola Riabchuk.

10 березня 2014 р.

Mykola Riabchuk is one of the most prominent Ukrainian intellectuals. His books dealing with Ukrainian contemporary politics are available in all the bookstores in Kyiv, even when in Ukraine, scarce space is left for current politics on the shelves and the publishing sector is dominated by Russian publishing houses. And let me tell you that Riabchuk´s essays are far from matching with Russia´s preferences on Ukrainian and global politics as a whole. A common writer in Western international press such as the New York Times and a usual speaker in seminars in the most prestigious Western universities (Cambridge, Oxford or UCLA), his writings and speeches are both guileful and nimble, the way the poet is himself. Always provocative, Riabchuk is a brilliant polemicist, who either leaves you dazzled or drives you literally round the bend. Someone who will in no case leaves anyone indifferent. Senior research associate at the Centre for European Studies, and both co-founder and member of the editorial board of “Krytyka”, a leading Ukrainian intellectual magazine, Riabchuk not only follows the Ukrainian current events but also participates as a living and relevant actor. In conclusion, this must-read interview will provide you with the kit tool to understand how those Ukrainians  who support the current Kyiv´s Government feel and think.

RRR: The West has provided its total support for the entire opposition movement and has acknowledged the legitimacy of the new government as soon as it saw the light. Now, The EU and the US have different approaches to deal with Russia. Do you think the EU is reacting in a proportionate way to Russia´s challenge bearing in mind the support to the Euromaidan they had been providing since November?

MK: No, I don’t think the EU policy vis-à-vis the Putinist Russia (in fact, a rogue, fascizoid state) has ever been adequate – starting from the second Chechen war and the de facto genocide in Chechnya, and ending with the invasion in Georgia and the occupation of its territories (despite the EU-brokered agreement to withdraw the troops). Lack of any tangible Western reaction to these and many more acts of international banditry (like the poisoning of Litvinenko etc.) have predictably paved the way to the current invasion in Crimea. Moldova might well become the next (esp. if the communists lose the next elections – some fake Gagauzes may ask for another Russian “protection”), and Latvia’s and Estonia’s turn may come after that (however unlikely it looks today – ten years ago the occupation of the Crimea looked also improbable).

The West has a long record of flirting with rogue regimes and appeasing dictators – starting from Hitler and Stalin and ending with China, which still occupies Tibet and bullies its neighbors. One of the reasons for this might be the imperial affinity that all these states share. They have a similar Weltanschauung, and they understand each other much better (at least at the level of collective sub-consciousness) than it is the case with their victims (And vice versa, ex-colonial, ex-subjugated nations understand each other much better). But the main reason for Western fecklessness is, of course, Realpolitik, i.e. prioritization of interests over values. This makes Russia with its resources a powerful player in position to subtly corrupt the entire Western governments, let alone individual politicians, journalists, and academics.

This not only undermines the much professed “Western values”, replacing them with the notion of Western hypocrisy and double standards, but it also puts at risk the strategic goal of global (also Western) security for the sake of some short-term, tactical benefits (“trading with cannibals”, as a British prime-minister put it long ago). We cannot expect from the West any military intervention since it is absolutely unrealistic when it comes to nuclear states like Russia or China. However, the West has many more leverages, which have never been used against rogue regimes even in their slightest capacity. Year by year, the EU tries to persuade the Kremlin that the win-win game would be more beneficial for both sides. But the Kremlin defiantly plays a zero-sum game – the only game that regime knows and actually likes. The West should accept this game, whether it likes it or not, because any other behavior in such situation is self-defeating.

RRR: Russia has invaded Crimea in flagrant violation of International Law. Would you like to see NATO taking part directly in the conflict to restore the Ukrainian authority in Crimea?

MK: NATO has nothing to do with the current crises since Ukraine is not a member. But the Baltic states are, and it remains to be seen whether NATO would be able and willing to protect its members there after a likely Russian invasion under a similar fake pretext. To avoid this scenario later, all the possible sanctions against the Kremlin should be applied now.

Back in 1994, Ukraine gave away its nuclear arsenal and received security guarantees from all the nuclear states, enshrined in the Budapest memorandum. Russia has violated that document, and it is the highest time for the other signatories to enforce its obligations. Failure to do this will cause in Ukraine a feeling of Western betrayal and may revitalize nuclear resentment and ambitions (technologically Ukraine is capable to resume the production of nuclear fuel within a few months). Still worse, it would create a very negative precedent for many countries aspiring for nuclear arms. It would show them that no international guarantees are reliable, and that they should rather rely on themselves.

RRR:Focusing on the Crimean crisis, do you think the EU and the US are putting pressure on Russia in public and on Ukraine in private to cancel the risk of war as soon as possible?

MK: I feel the US are less corrupted by Russian money and therefore are more active and efficient than the EU in putting some pressure on Kremlin. But still it is very slim. I feel large-scale economic sanctions, visa bans and suspension of Russian membership in international organizations like the Council of Europe should be introduced.

Ukraine will not go to war. Instead, it is demonstrating a remarkable restraint under permanent Russian provocations. I do not think that any pressure on Ukraine is necessary. The government has taken fringe radical groups under its control while the Svoboda party drifts increasing toward a moderate center right part of political establishment, taming its previous rhetoric and marginalizing its own radicals (none of them got any position in the government, btw).

What Ukraine actually needs is encouragement rather than pressure. In particular, it desperately needs (first of all for political and symbolical reasons) a long-term prospect of EU membership and an efficient political and institutional guardianship by the EU. Ukraine has a decent and skilled prime minister committed to reforms and a government that may accomplish Putin’s nightmare – completely Europeanize the country.

RRR: What are your prospects regarding the future of the relationship between Crimea and Ukraine?

MK: Personally, I believe Ukraine would have been better off without Crimea, but I’m afraid neither the Ukrainian population nor its political class could ever accept this (Ukrainians are pretty united in this regard). Ironically, the Kremlin and its Crimean puppets will also probably oppose the idea, because implementing the secession of Crimea would require a number of legal and legitimate steps that might drive all the process out of their control. For this scenario there should be first some negotiations between the government in Kyiv and the government of the Crimea. However, whereas in Kyiv there is at least one undeniably and unquestionably legitimate body – the parliament (and shortly, by the end of May, there should be a democratically elected president too), there is no such a body in Crimea and can never be as long as the Russian military occupation persists and the rule of a self-professed “prime minister” whose nationalistic party won only 4% in the last Crimean elections continues. Secondly, any free and fair referendum in the Crimea is very unlikely to confirm separatist claims. The last (Feb. 8-18) opinion survey indicated that only 41% of respondents in the Crimea supported a union with Russia. The majority would probably be satisfied with a higher autonomy within Ukraine, which is barely the ultimate goal of the Crimean putchists. And thirdly, any secession of Crimea – either as an independent state or Russian province – raises a set of questions regarding the Ukrainian and, especially, the Tatar minority (who are actually the only native and therefore the most legitimate inhabitants of the peninsula). Their rights should be clearly negotiated in advance, enshrined in the constitution, and internationally guaranteed, esp. in view of the racist, chauvinistic and Tatarophobic attitudes that reign supreme in Crimea.

All these reasonable and legitimate requirements would definitely make the whole idea unacceptable for the putchists and their masters from Moscow, but I would like the Ukrainian government to promote it. At least, it would give Kyiv some initiative and place it in a win-win position instead of its current defensive position that ultimately leads to a fully lose-lose situation. Ukraine will lose if Russia absorbs Crimea without any clear-cut legal guarantees for local Ukrainians and especially Tatars. But it will lose even more if Crimea remains formally within Ukraine (to make the West happy) but beyond any control whatsoever from Kyiv. I’m afraid the latter scenario is the one that will be implemented by the Kremlin. This will satisfy Russian symbolical/nationalistic ambitions by cutting de facto Crimea from Ukraine. But they would also satisfy their geopolitical interests by keeping Crimean de jure within Ukraine as an effective instrument to blackmail Kyiv and scare the EU from closer relations with a potentially unstable state.

RRR: In case of a Crimean secession, is it possible to witness a similar scenario in other Eastern regions?

MK: Definitely not. Even in Crimea this could not have happened without the direct intervention of the Russian military. There may be a substantial part of locals supporting some union with Russia (41% in Crimea, 33% in Donetsk, 24% in Luhansk, 15% in Kharkiv) but very few of them are eager to fight for this or to incur into any risks whatsoever (they profoundly differ from the people in the Maidan in this regard since they are driven by profoundly different values – civic versus paternalist/clientelist). This largely confirms the results of the earlier (2012) opinion poll, in which more than 70% of respondents in all eastern regions claimed they identified themselves as “patriot of Ukraine”. Probably, Putin’s initial plan was like this – to provoke war in the Crimea and spread it to all south east. But he miscalculated. The local support for separatism appeared much weaker than expected and impossible to fan without armed men (widely available in Crimea where Russian troops are stationed but not in other regions). Today, these regions are fully under Kyiv’s control, and there are many signs that the Russian aggression has rather consolidated Ukrainian populations than provoked a split.

RRR: Is Merkel´s idea as offered to Russia, of federalizing Ukraine admissible to the Ukrainian current government and the people who supported the Euromaidan protest?

MK:I think Russia should unconditionally withdraw its troops from Ukraine, and should have no word in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. M-me Merkel would do a better job by adopting the Magnitsky list than by appeasing Putin at Ukraine’s cost. Ukraine’s administrative structure is not Russian business at all, and the very fact that the EU discusses such bargains with Kremlin means that it is de facto capitulating to a brutal aggressor, by way of accepting a fait accompli and recognizing some “privileged interests” of the Kremlin in its neocolonial “near abroad”.

Personally, I see nothing wrong in the federalization of Ukraine but I feel Mr. Putin made it largely impossible and unacceptable for the majority of the Ukranian population, raising the scare-crow of separatism. Nonetheless, Ukraine really needs a serious decentralization, and I hope something like the Polish administrative reform from the late 1990s could be implemented in Ukraine.

RRR:Turning on the events that happened just before the conclusion of the Euromaidan´s revolution: How do you assess the fact that the deal agreed between Yanukovych and the opposition with the mediation of the EU and Russia was not respected?

MK:It’s not possible to say that deal was either “respected” or not. The deal stood, in particular, for a return to the earlier version of constitution (illegally trashed by Yanukovych in 2011) that gave more power to the parliament (and the would-be coalition government) and much less to the president. (Yanukovych was actually elected as president with very limited powers but gradually usurped much more). He had to sign this into law within 48 hours but instead of that he escaped. He did so probably because he lost support of his closest allies, esp. oligarchs. These were on one hand shocked by the last day´s massacre and scared by possible sanctions, so they rushed to distance themselves from the president and his greedy “family” who had been usurping everything. On the other hand, under the new-old constitution they had no reason to be much afraid of the president’s wrath and possible vengeance, as before, when many of them were simply blackmailed to join the ruling clique.

I feel that the government and esp. the president’s office simply collapsed – partly under the Maidan’s pressure but much more because of a mass defection of Yanukovych’s supporters. It largely resembles what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. In such situation I really don’t know how can any agreement be implemented if one of the sides that put its signature disappeared. What has in fact happened is the following: the revolutionaries did not usurp power for themselves but created (legitimately, in the parliament) an interim government with the prime minister and under an interim president, none of whom will be running for the presidency (!). They invited to the government all the parties but two of them (Party of Regions and UDAR) opted to stay off (probably to avoid responsibility for a grim economic situation and not to share those painful reforms that the “kamikaze government”, as Yatseniuk sarcastically called himself and his fellow-ministers, will have to take). Finally, they remained committed to internationally supervised presidential elections – but rescheduled them from December to late May, which was also reasonable after Yanukovych’s disappearance).

RRR: In Western Europe the image of the Euromaidan street activists has been downgraded because of the presence of extreme-right militants. Now, the Svoboda party and the Pravyi Sektor hold a significant power in the new government, especially in institutions such as the Interior Ministry. What’s your opinion about them? Would have the revolution been possible without them? Is it possible to achieve a democratic consolidation with them on board?

MK: The right-wing parties are in advance all over Europe, and Svoboda with 10% vote (half of it incidental, by default) is hardly the strongest. But the main difference is not in numbers but in essence. Svoboda cannot be properly understood within the West European framework (where the right wing parties are primarily anti-immigrant) because it rather belongs to a context of national-liberation, anti-colonial movements (their primary enemy still are Russian imperialism and neo-colonialism – but not Russians per se, something they emphasize every time). Svoboda, indeed, is nationalistic and illiberal/intolerant but barely anti-Semitic (they praise Israel as an exemplary ethnic democracy, and declare they love Ukrainian Jews who are “ours” but not Soviet Jews who are, in their view, Russian imperial hacks).

Cooperation with Svoboda might be uncomfortable for liberals but I fully accept the argument of Josef Zissels, the head of the Association of Jewish Communities of Ukraine and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, who compared the eclectic alliances made at the Maidan to the Popular Front in France during World War II that united communists, social democrats, monarchists, anarchists, and other very different forces against their common enemy,: “Ukraine’s key problem is not Svoboda, although Svoboda does indeed represent a certain kind of internal Ukrainian problem. The key problem is the government, its corruption, and its attempt to impose an authoritarian—if not, as the attack on the Maidan showed, even totalitarian—form of rule on the country. The opposition united in that conflict with the government. Once the problem of the government is solved, once there will be the first unfalsified elections, then will be the time to deal with our “right-wingers” and “left-wingers.” At the moment, “we are all allies against a very powerful enemy”.

Personally, I do not worry much about Svoboda, which seems to be gradually transforming itself into a respectable center right party (since the Euromaidan,they avoid any radical statements and try to marginalize radicals in their own ranks). I am more concerned with some fringe groups from the Pravy Sector – of unclear origin and affiliation, that can be still used for political provocations and manipulations by various actors, including Russian intelligence. There are some signs that Ukrainian security services take care of them but still, we should be vigilant primarily in this regard.

RRR: What is the core of the conflict around the law on the state language?

MK: Both Ukrainian and Russian languages are mutually understandable in Ukraine and virtually all citizens have some command of both. The language tensions are rather of symbolical nature, since Russian was privileged for decades in both the Russian and Soviet empires, whereas Ukrainian was either forbidden or marginalized and despised, with Ukrainian speakers being either mocked and humiliated as uneducated rural bumpkins or, if educated, repressed as “bourgeois nationalists”. This quasi-racist, supremacist attitude was internalized by a substantial number of Russophones, especially in the south east, who do not actually defend their right to use Russian (nobody ever denied it) but their old Soviet right not to learn and not to use Ukrainian under any circumstances. The controversial 2012 language law was not about the official use of Russian since such a use is guaranteed by the Ukrainian constitution (1996). As a draft, the law was heavily criticized by experts, including the Venice Commission, but rubber-stamped nonetheless in the parliament, with multiple procedural violations. It evoked hot controversy because it permitted the use of Russian in government bodies not alongside Ukrainian (as was before) but instead of it. It also absolved officials from any need to know and use Ukrainian – something that was perceived as an insult/discrimination for millions of Ukrainophones in the south east, as well as a general threat for Ukrainian language that might eventually become obsolete in Ukraine (something that has already happened to Belarusian in Belarus). The law should be certainly reconsidered but in a way that does not allow Russian propaganda to unscrupulously speculate on it.

Автор: By Rubén Ruiz Ramas


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