Apart from Russia or Part of Russia: A Sad Saga of Ukrainian-Russian Relations

By Torbakov, Igor | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Apart from Russia or Part of Russia: A Sad Saga of Ukrainian-Russian Relations


Torbakov, Igor, Demokratizatsiya


In his fall 1999 inaugural speech, Leonid Kuchma, the newly reelected president of Ukraine, unveiled Ukraine's top foreign policy priorities. His most important objectives, he said, would be to deepen the ties with the European Union, to realize the so-called European option of the Ukrainian people, and ultimately bring his country into the exclusive club of rich European nations and the rest of "Euro-Atlantic structures." The other two priorities were combined in a somewhat contradictory endeavor to develop a strategic partnership with both Russia and the United States. President Kuchma christened the entire--and rather shaky--edifice a "multi-vector diplomacy."

Today this glorious construct seems to be lying in shambles. Westerners--Europeans and Americans alike--view Kuchma's Ukraine as an authoritarian and corrupt regime, guilty of violating basic human rights and freedoms and possessing a nearly bankrupt economic system. And the embattled head of state--in light of recent scandalous revelations and accusations of gross abuses of power, complicity in the killing of an opposition journalist, and rigging of the election results--has become almost an international pariah.

Under these adverse circumstances, the needle of the Ukraine's broken foreign policy compass seems to be pointing steadily in only one direction: Moscow. Now only Vladimir Putin's Russia willingly deals with a new "sick man of Europe," hastily trying to bind Kiev closer to its former imperial master. So much for multipolar diplomacy. In this article, I trace the recent zigzags of Ukrainian-Russian relations and try to explain why hapless Kiev has found itself engaged in a glaringly unequal relationship with domineering Moscow.

Historical Background

In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, some analysts argued that the newly independent Ukraine and the Russian Federation were brand new countries with no previous experience of international relations between them and that they would start shaping ties and contacts from a "blank page." Although that was a generally correct assumption de jure, it has been an erroneous one de facto. These new state formations didn't suddenly emerge from thin air, although it is hard to deny that the unraveling of the USSR was a quite unexpected and precipitous affair. Russia, both legally and in the political psychology of its elites and masses, claimed a noble pedigree. It solemnly pronounced itself a direct successor to the mighty Russian empire and the formidable Soviet Union. In fact, the State Duma's recent adoption of a national coat of arms (the Byzantine-Muscovite double-headed eagle), flag (Peter the Great's tricolor), and anthem (the Soviet-era hymn commissioned by Stalin) is nothing less than an attempt to symbolically mark that political continuum. Ukraine, although lacking such an illustrious lineage, still was a territory where a number of efforts have been made to form a modern nation and build a sovereign state. However, and that's the point, in the timeframe of modern history, Ukraine--either in its entirety or partially--was absorbed into a Russia in one of its incarnations. Thus, from the historical perspective, the relations between contemporary Ukraine and Russia are the uneasy and bitter relations between former subject and ruler, colony and metropolis, periphery and center. This must affect and permeate every aspect of the tangled intercourse between the two East European neighbors in the last decade.

One might argue that the history of Ukrainian-Russian relations is the all-too-typical story of nationalism in its now almost classical Gellnerian sense. Once there was a boundless Russian empire populated by a host of various peoples united by loyalty to the Romanov dynasty and the sacred person of the monarch. At a certain point, these peoples (Ukrainians included), or rather their elites, decided that they were entitled to have states of their own and to be ruled by their kin.

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