Some of the devastation in the Donbas after product of Putin's military aggression into peaceful Ukraine. (Image: Slavyansk Delovoy)
What is taking place in Ukraine today, Vitaly Portnikov says, is not something unique but rather “part of a global crisis of the post-Soviet space” that has arisen as a result of “the complete exhaustion of resources as a result of the lack of real economic reforms and that over the next five years will affect all the countries of the region.
And because of the relationships of these countries with the rest of the world, the Ukrainian analyst told a group of Europeans in Kyiv to discuss the future of Ukraine that coping with this larger crisis “will be a bigger test” for the West than the one the Middle East represents.
During the last global crisis in 1990-1991, people in the countries of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic countries were able to make use of that time to “assert their sovereignty, to carry out reforms, and to become part of NATO and the European Union.” The situation for nations within the USSR was very different, Portnikov pointed out.
On the one hand, many of them “simply watched the death of an empire” rather than “struggled for their independence.” On the other, those like the Georgians and Moldovans who really struggled were “punished” with the imperial center “immediately seizing part of their territories. Russia did that in Ukraine in 2014: it is the reaction of an empire to freedom.”
“Was Ukraine all these 25 years a sovereign state?” the analyst asks rhetorically. And he answers bluntly: “No, it was a renamed Soviet republic and a Russian protectorate from the economic and political point of view,” a country the imperial center allowed a certain amount of maneuvering but no ability to act on issues of principle.
“Thanks to the events of the last two years,” Portnikov continued, “Ukraine ceased to be a Russian protectorate but it became a protectorate of the West from the financial point of view.” There is an important difference between the two, of course: Moscow wanted to “liquidate [Ukrainian] state sovereignty; the West wants us to be independent and sufficiently developed not to take its money.”
Can Ukraine successfully make that transition? The jury is still out, he said. “The revolutionary changes in society never led to a revolution in the institutions” of the state and country. That was because “any such liquidation would have led to the annexation of our territory by Russia” as in fact happened in 2014.
“In order to remain a formally independent state,” Ukraine was forced to leave many institutions untouched, as a result of which two years after the Maidan, it “has the very same Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the same composition of the Central Election Commission, and practically the same makeup of the public prosecution office.”
“Now Ukraine is in a transition period from a criminal state to a democratic country of the European model.” For that to happen, there needs to be a new economic model with new rules and laws, and the West has a vested interest in providing assistance in this area so that Ukraine will succeed.
But most critically, Ukraine must use this help in order to change the nature of its economic system even if many Ukrainians think that they can “get money in the West but live as in Russia.” Unfortunately, Portnikov said, “many of [Ukraine’s] politicians support this dangerous illusion” instead of working to demolish it.
The West won’t provide money just to provide money, he added. They must face the reality that they will have to live “15 to 20 years in honest poverty. Ukrainians have no other possibility.” But if Ukrainians have responsibilities in this situation, so too do the governments of Western countries.
There must be an end to double standards in which the West gives some post-Soviet countries visa free regimes but not others. Moreover, “there must not be an imitation of the end of a military conflict instead of its [real] end” just so Western businesses and governments can work with Russia.
Those in the West who are inclined to do that clearly do not understand that when Russia collapses, “it will pull down after itself all those who worked with it,” Portnikov said; and they do not remember that those who make concessions to aggressive dictators have to deal with the shame for decades as Europeans did after Munich.
But what is perhaps most important is that Western governments need to recognize that what is taking place on the post-Soviet space will not end by creating some kind of “gray zone” between the West and Moscow. There will be some clear border just as there was during the Cold War.
The issue now is where this border between civilizations will be. It is in the interests of the West and of the countries of this region that it be as far to the east as possible and that it be extended that way by peaceful means of economic development. That won’t be easy or quick, but it is possible and must be the goal of those who care about democracy and freedom.
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