Included in this interesting essay about the situation in Ukraine is a useful reminder of how the West succumbed to the short-term temptations of triumphalism when Gorbachev ended the Cold War in the early 1990s.
by Vadim Nikitin, Agence-Global
Released: 09 Dec 2013
A clear sense of déjà vu shrouds the Ukrainian protests. The demonstrators’ relentless calls for Western-style democracy evoke the idealism of the political rallies during the last years of the USSR, when thousands took to the streets of Moscow demanding freedom and opportunity. Then as now, citizens hungry to escape low living standards, a stagnant economy and a corrupt and cynical regime looked to Europe for hope.
Yet that experience ended in bitter disappointment when the West took advantage of Russia’s liberalisation without delivering on the newly free Russian citizens’ hope for a better life. The resulting backlash helped pave the way for Russia’s current authoritarianism. By playing on the exaggerated expectations of Kiev’s current protesters in order to achieve its economic and geopolitical objectives while giving Ukraine only vague assurances in return, the EU risks making a similar mistake with potentially even graver consequences.
An association agreement with Ukraine would have been a major coup for Brussels. In addition to turning away from Russia geopolitically, Ukraine would have committed to a major round of reforms including drastically lowering tariffs for EU imports, phasing out energy subsidies and agreeing to a set of draconian IMF conditions. As a result, Europe would gain a giant, stable and lean export as well as a NATO-friendly buffer with Russia. In exchange, the EU promised nothing except a vague intention to discuss a possible visa-free travel regime “in due course.”
Such a situation echoes the disparity between Russia and the West during the negotiations that accompanied the dismantlement of the Iron Curtain. Gorbachev agreed to remove Russian tanks from Germany and Poland, let the Baltic republics secede from the USSR, support the first Gulf War at the UN Security Council and dismantle the Soviet naval base in Vietnam. Yet the West refused to provide emergency loans to help Russia avert economic disaster (money arrived only later, and with strict IMF strings attached), reneged on an implied promise to keep former Soviet countries away from NATO expansion, and turned a blind eye as Boris Yeltsin bombed parliament and skewed the 1996 elections in his favour.
The West’s Russia policy during and after the fall of the USSR was not actively malevolent but rather opportunistic and short sighted. Russia in those days, like Ukraine now, had little leverage but lots of enthusiasm about an idealised vision of the West as a panacea. American and European policymakers found that they could play on these hopes to get Russia to voluntarily make major economic and geopolitical concessions for very little in return.
But something that seemed too good to pass up at the time quickly backfired. In less than a decade, the pain of punitive Western reforms and predatory business practices unleashed on an unprepared economy drove voters towards the authoritarian nationalism of Vladimir Putin that has set back democratic development in Russia by several decades.
As the scale and force of the protests show, Ukrainians appear eager to sign up to a series of reforms that are similarly likely to inflict severe pain on the population, at least in the short term. On top of that, the already poor and beleaguered country will have to deal with significant blowback from Moscow in the form of retaliatory tariffs and other punishment. Ukraine’s arms sector, which makes up a significant part of its manufacturing base and is orientated almost entirely towards Russia, is likely to suffer most from such moves.
Any liberal politician elected in 2015 will find it difficult to convince voters to put up with such painful and open-ended adjustments, and all but impossible to hold on to power in the face of a backlash that would no doubt attract the support of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, any unemployment caused by a fall in industrial exports to Russia may drive Ukraine’s industrial southeast ever closer into the embrace of extremist parties hostile to the EU. Under such conditions, the prospect of another Ukrainian spring succumbing to strife and political deadlock, with dire consequences for democratic development and regional stability, looks all too predictable.
Of course, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states all had to undergo a similarly difficult transformation, and appear to have come out well. But a key difference lies in not only the comparatively much more advanced state of their economies and political culture, but also the firm commitment, by both their own and European elites, that the sacrifices were made for a concrete purpose: to enter the EU within a realistic timeframe.
No such motivation currently exists for Ukraine, for which the prospects of membership remain a dim fantasy, and whose relationship with the EU does not so much resemble Poland at the turn of the millennium as it does Russia in the early 1990s. For Europe, that parallel should sound a serious warning about the future dangers of trying to do geopolitics on the cheap.