In Search of Ukraine's Identity: The Geopolitical Condundrum of a Country Lodged between East and West

By Oleshko, Olesia | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

In Search of Ukraine's Identity: The Geopolitical Condundrum of a Country Lodged between East and West


Oleshko, Olesia, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


As most of the former Soviet countries which broke free from the Kremlin's rule in the early nineties, Ukraine is still trying to identify and establish its new geopolitical role as well as bolster relations with its Eastern and Western neighbors. The cause of Ukraine's identity crisis is clearly rooted in a conflict between the country's present relationship with Europe and its lingering connection to communism, since remnants of the communist era are still evident in the country's political decisions, its priorities in economic cooperation, and even in everyday life. Now, it is apparent that the global financial crisis, which has been especially taxing for Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, may as well play a role in this quest for identity.

Ukraine's Identity Crisis

Today Europe provides a good example of unity--merging borders; limitless options for life, work, and study; and unified responses to global challenges. Nevertheless, most Europeans have not given up their national identities, which many consider to be theirs by default.

But if one were to ask individuals from Ukraine to identify themselves, two polar answers would emerge: "Ukrainians are the brothers of Russians, we belong to the same family and we would like to return to them"--according to people living in Crimea and in the Russian-speaking regions in the east. "We are a part of European culture; we must join the European community because that is where we belong"--according to Ukrainians from the western half, which is historically connected with Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

Ukraine's identity crisis, therefore, rests in this dual identity. While the significance of this crisis remains open for discussion, identity issues are heavily bound to another crucial aspect of state functioning: Ukraine's national interests.

What, then, are Ukraine's national self-interests? Of course, Ukraine's politicians always profess to have an answer to this question. Despite this, no politician has managed to define the priorities of Ukraine's long-term development or propose a feasible way to go about it. The multi-vector policies of the former president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005) envisaged "staying in between" the East and West in order to benefit from both sides, be it Moscow, Brussels, or Washington, DC. But a multi-vectored policy creates policy contradictions; rather than defining Ukraine's national self-interests, it is simply an easy-way-out substitute for real policy-making. Furthermore, this supposed multi-vectored policy merely appears to follow in Russia's lead. It is obvious that Ukraine's occasional overtures to the West do not evince proof of independent decision-making.

To this day major political players continue to manipulatively play the East off of the West and vice versa, especially in an attempt to address voter expectations as Ukraine steps into the active stage of its 2010 presidential election campaign. Some of them behave similarly to Alice of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?," Alice asks the Cat. "It depends a good deal on where you want to get to!," answers the Cat. "I don't much care where," replies Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you will go," resumes the Cat. "... so as long as I get somewhere," Alice explains.

The same scenario prevails in Ukraine--the country is definitely on the path to somewhere, but nobody knows exactly where. One side of the political spectrum foresees a European future for Ukraine, another side solicits for closer ties with Russia. "European integration is one of the top issues on our foreign policy agenda," Grygoriy Nemyria, a vice prime minister for European integration stated at one of the press meetings, "and that is what makes our government different from all the previous ones."

In a contrasting view, Viktor Yanukovich--the former prime minister of Ukraine and one of the front-runners in this presidential election--argues, "Without a doubt, Russia is and has always been the most important geopolitical player for Ukraine since it has all the means to affect Ukraine's economy. …

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