A new dawn for Ukraine: Long-term opportunities for a transformed state

shutterstock 309715655They say the darkest hour is just before dawn. If we think of Ukrainian history from the longue durée perspective (meaning long term history), then the 21st century has been a dark time for Ukraine indeed. But if we open the doors of our perception of history to the long term and combine it with an analysis of present conditions, solutions to current problems may present themselves. A golden dawn may rise on this country, but when and how are uncertain. Facing pressures externally from Russia and internally from those who want to block constitutional reform and curb corruption, led mostly by oligarchs, Ukraine is at a crossroads. In American myth, the crossroads is where blues artist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for musical ability, so standing still at the crossroads can be as dangerous as taking the wrong path. Some of the lyrics from “Cross Road Blues” read:


And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west

I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west

Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress





Ukraine and the longue durée


Some 2,500 years ago in Ephesus (present day Efes, Turkey), a man named Heraclitus came up with a simple yet ingenious notion he summed up in a sentence – “The only constant thing is change.” He was trying to explain the flow of the universe, on all levels from the grandest scale to the most minute, and many believe he succeeded with these six words. The concept of the longue durée is attributed to French historian Marc Bloch. He is also a founder of the Annales School of History; one of his greatest and last works was The Historian's Craft, published posthumously and incomplete. Marc Bloch joined the French Resistance during WWII and was captured by German soldiers; a few months later he was executed, ten days after the invasion of Normandy (or D-day). But why is any of this important to Ukraine?


Photo by Shutterstock


If there is a long term of looking at history then there must also be a short term (courte durée). This is an event based on history and the Revolution for Dignity occurred only two short years ago. Ukraine is now trying to fight an external war against an adversary with a stronger military and simultaneously reform internally against powerful oligarchs and corrupt interests. In classical times, this would have been worthy of an epic poem; today it is a strong foundation for future generations of Ukrainians to proudly stand upon if successful. There is a difference between disinterest and disillusionment, and Ukraine is filled with the latter because there is a willingness to fight for a better future. They have imagined it and are disappointed it has not yet come to pass, but imagining is half the battle. The blueprint comes before the building. Though construction is the more difficult half, as the republican sage Cicero wrote “Sunt facta verbis difficiliora (Works are more difficult than words).”


One of the art of history masters Edward Gibbon once wrote: “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages and magnify the evils of present times.” That the Europe of the EU today is much better off than that of the past century which endured two world wars and a cold war are often forgotten. That Ukraine has only been free from the Soviet Union for less than 30 years is often forgotten. We tend to forget. This is a positive attribute in a way, as we focus on fixing current problems and plan for the future, but we must remember that leaders and countries change in the long term. Those leaders like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini that haunted the Europe of Bloch’s time are now gone and the governments and ideologies they created ghosts of Europe’s past. Putin will die too. It could be next month or 20 years from now, but he will not live or rule Russia forever. And hopefully his regime’s ideology and propaganda will dissipate from the minds and hearts of the Russian people as quickly as it takes a statue of Lenin to tumble to the ground.


Ukraine’s history is complex, even by Eastern European standards. Ukraine has had shifting borders and come under the control of foreign powers who have over time created cultural borders that do not necessarily match up with Ukraine’s political borders. The west of Ukraine has been occupied intermittently by European powers for centuries, including periods under Polish, Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian control. Meanwhile, the most eastern parts of Ukraine have often fallen under direct Russian rule and relate more in identity to Moscow than to the West. The Ukraine did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily, as it fought a war of independence that lasted from 1917 to 1921. Independence finally came on July 16th, 1990. A new country was born with an old soul.


One of the long term effects of the almost 70 years Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union is that an estimated 80 per cent of Ukrainians speak Russian. This is an often misguided fact when cited sometimes in the media; if an area is high in Russian speakers then it is also high in support for Moscow. But this is misleading, because there are many more Russian speaking people who support the Ukrainian government then separatists. But what is not often registered statistically is that many Ukrainians are bilingual. Like in other former Soviet states such as Poland, during the Soviet era they were forced to learn Russian. Now many Ukrainians that primarily speak Russian are having their children taught in Ukrainian. In this sense, the long term view must be taken, because in a few generations Russian will be spoken less in Ukraine. This is a language shift that will not happen overnight, but it is happening. In the long term, Ukrainian once again will become the vox populi (voice of the people).


One of the most difficult virtues to practice is patience. But even looking at the treatment Ukraine received during the Soviet Union, there are differences in diplomacy with a difference in Russia’s leadership. Ukraine was subject to one of the lesser known genocides of the 20th century known as the Holodomor (1932-1933). The term means death by hunger; an estimated 10 million Ukrainians starved to death in what many consider a man-made famine orchestrated by Stalin. After Stalin’s death, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to hold out an olive branch to Ukrainians in the form of the Crimea, which was ceded by Russia to Ukraine in 1954. In short, governments and leaders change over time, and Putin’s policies are unlikely to outlive him over the longue durée. New water is always flowing, though the names of the rivers remain the same.


The rise and fall of plutocratic Ukraine


Plato wrote in his famous political work The Republic that “I will establish laws, and make you understand what is only reasonable, that private advantage must make way for public interest.” The oligarchy is one of the lower forms of government in Plato’s hierarchy, because he thought it is prone to instability and corruption. This is caused by its political nature, since political power falls to those with the greatest wealth, regardless of merit or talent. Further, those that do gain power but are not oligarchs are open to the corruption caused by the immense gulf in class division. The two words that best describe Ukraine in the 21st century are instability and corruption.


There are many different kinds of oligarchies, which basically means a small number of people that control a state. There is the gerontocracy where the oldest rule. The kritarchy, where the government is ruled by a handful of judges. Then the one that seems never to come to pass, the geniocracy, where the government is run by geniuses. But what most people think of when they think of oligarchy is that of a plutocracy, a country where the wealthiest few rule all. This has been Ukraine’s condition in some sense since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, but the wealth, power and control of this group in the country is waning.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, the process of converting public properties to private ownership was taken advantage of by a few people who became incredibly wealthy. This pattern was seen in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The problem is that once they had taken as much as they could from public funds they started to turn on each other. Putin did this in Russia, and a similar process took place in Belarus, where the oligarchy became into a more authoritarian based presidency. But every time this process started to occur in Ukraine the people rose up, preferring the plurality of power over an authoritarian government. This can be seen with the Orange Revolution and Revolution for Dignity. But there is a difference; the Orange Revolution started from the top down, while the more recent events of 2014 can be seen as a bottom up movement.


Reform and corruption will be a part of Ukraine for some time. But real results from the reforms are already being seen, as the net wealth of Ukrainian oligarchs has almost dropped in half, from nearly 22 billion in 2014 to 12 billion in 2015. There is still far to go; as George Soros noted “The oligarchs – industrialists who use political influence to enrich themselves – were more experienced in defending their interests than the reformers were in curbing them.” What will ultimately break the oligarchs of Ukraine is foreign investment and the changes to the country’s constitution that are being held up, but this cannot last forever. As the Roman poet Horace once wrote – Verbaque provisam rem non invita sequenter (When the matter is ready, the words will follow freely).


The gateway to Europe


On the island of Sicily, some 2,300 years ago, lived Archimedes of Syracuse. He formulated what is known as Archimedes' principle (among many other achievements), as a way of measuring volume by how much water an object has displaced. As an example, dropping an object in a full bath will create symmetrical ripples which spill over each side equally, which can be measured. It is estimated that 3 million people were displaced in Ukraine, both internally and those that fled the country, due to the war with the separatists in the eastern region and the illegal annexation of Crimea.


But what is strange is that most of the people moved in only one direction – towards the west. The cause being most prominently economic, but also to escape violent war torn areas. Most support Ukraine but not all; even those who are pro-Russian moved west. And they will keep moving further west if Putin pushes for more territory. It is in the EU’s best interests not to have a few million more refugees show up on its doorstep. This is the price of not supporting Ukraine for the West; though other issues have overshadowed those of Ukraine, it is no less important. The Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz once wrote: “The thunder that resounds here is to you but a flash.” The world may not be paying full attention, but Eastern Europe and the Baltic States are attentive and alert to the storm caused by Moscow in Ukraine.


Perhaps areas of eastern Ukraine will never again be under Ukrainian control. But then this could be seen as an opportunity for the rest of the country; with these larger pro-Russian populations out of the electorate, Ukraine could move more freely towards the West, with the future possibility of EU and/or NATO membership. There are even talks of Ukraine joining the Schengen Area at some point soon.


Since the 2014 events, the Ukrainian attitude has changed drastically, from a nearly 80 per cent positive attitude towards Russia, to one that is now at 30 per cent (according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology). This holds true on the Russian side as well, where 60 per cent have a negative attitude towards Ukraine (poll by the Moscow Levada Center). These are not “brother” countries anymore, nor will they be so in the near future. Ukraine looks as though it can hold its eastern border as the size, equipment and experience of its military has been steadily growing and improving. Domestically, it must continue its pro-democratic progress, while continuing to curb the powers of the oligarchs and push for corruption reform. If it can do both, outside investment and opportunities will come.


There will be set backs and frustrations in the short term, such as laws that are passed but not followed or current politicians profiting illegally from their office. But as the history of any country will show, the approach to the light of a more perfect society is made through constant error, coincidence, determination and patience. As for Moscow, change will eventually come to the Kremlin. Looking at the long term hope can be found when the present leaves little room for optimism. For now, the situation between the two countries is reminiscent of the Bob Dylan song “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine.” With some of the lyrics from the chorus reading:


Then time will tell just who has fell


And who's been left behind,


When you go your way and I go mine.




Jim Blackburn is an editorial researcher at New Eastern Europe. He is also a writer, journalist, and book reviewer. He did his undergraduate studies at Bard College and an MLA at Wesleyan University. He is currently a student at Jagiellonian University in TransAtlantic Studies.