As the winter cold settles in over Kiev, the protests and counter-protests in Ukraine continue. One side of the country wants to move closer to European Union integration, the other side wants to be closer to the old master, Russia. The protests are becoming increasingly volatile, as pro-Russian protesters from the east have arrived in Kiev to counter those who favor the EU – while the EU supporters insist the pro-Russia people are paid agents. The country, it seems, is split down the middle.
And Ukraine isn’t the only one. The post-Soviet period in Eastern Europe has seen a lot of similar social movements – between those who look to the possibilities in the west, and those who think back to the more secure days behind the Iron Curtain. Even in Germany, the most prosperous of all the European nations, there is a divide between the west and the east, with many of the easterners wondering whether things have really improved that much. We see divided societies like this around the world, and not just because of Communist/capitalist splits either – Thailand is in a perpetual low-level state of civil conflict, and the UK and US are becoming divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, those who have prospered in lean times and those who haven’t.
I find myself wondering whether these simple divisions are really all that meaningful. We are constantly presented with two options – in the case of Ukraine, the options are move towards and eventually join the EU, or move towards and eventually become a virtual protectorate of Russia. Those in Ukraine argue along these lines, and those of us in the rest of the world who take an interest in the topic tend to do the same. But I think we miss something by framing the debate so narrowly – maybe neither of these options are the best for Ukraine.
On the one hand, reliance on Russia would provide Ukraine with a lot of natural resources at cheaper rates – particularly oil and gas, which Russia has an abundance of. This might seem like a very good idea to some of the people currently shivering in the squares of Kiev, but it’s not so good an idea for Ukraine to get dependent on an obsolete system of fossil fuels that is damaging to the environment and will take money away from the development of alternatives. On the other hand, joining the EU used to be a signal of prosperity and security, of joining a club of nations that were on the right track towards a modern future – but the last couple of years have seen things change drastically. The Eastern European members who have joined the EU have seen few benefits from it, and a financial crisis has started to spread across the continent. Being part of the EU has seen many people in places like Greece and Portugal lose everything.
So perhaps rather than following either of these paths, Ukraine has an ideal opportunity to find a ‘third way’ – something that isn’t the bureaucratic, pro-corporate mismanagement of the European Union, but is also distant from the corruption and exploitation of natural resources of Russia. Instead, Ukraine should aim to be a beacon on an increasingly troubled continent – a country which prioritizes care for its environment; care for its elderly, sick, and unemployed; and care for its neighbours. A country which has an internationalist vision of a more just society that focuses its energy on people rather than corporations, and on the poor just as much as the rich. If a vision like that emerges from the protests, it will be a bright light in the dark of the Ukrainian winter.
Article prepared by John Wish