Geopolitics inside the Buffer Zone
Europe is changing faster today than the continental public opinion might have thought before May 2004.
The Association Agreement with Ukraine to the EU can also an incredibly positive opportunity for Russia; despite the fact that some old school politicians have said that the Eastern Partnership is a western intrusion into Moscow’s backyard and a blow to the concept of spheres of influence.
In a globalised world who is to say where the borders of these restricted areas are anymore? Should modern states limit their relationships with others simply because they are members of unions or special groups? In recent years, China has invested heavily in the African continent, considered in the past a sort of hunting ground of the United States and France. Moscow is following in Beijing’s footsteps in South America, especially in the military and energy sectors. So, why should the so called “buffer zone” – born after the EU enlargement to the East in the spring of 2004 – be excluded from global economic and political strategies? And shouldn’t the former Soviet republics decide their own future independently?
Let us be clear. The acceleration, given by the Lithuanian EU presidency to the Eastern Partnership, is partly the result of the Kremlin’s parallel project which calls for the creation of a Eurasian Union by 2015. Is the ancient monster, known as the “Evil Empire” during President Ronald Reagan’s time, resurging? This is the most frightening and crucial question, still unanswered in most of the chancelleries of Moscow’s former satellites.
Central European governments sometimes reflect the old worries, and enhanced by the inability of Russia’s foreign policy to propose a new image of itself abroad. But how well-acquainted are Central Europeans with today’s new Russia and how much do Russians understand what is really happening in Kyiv? In my travels I, have always had the impression of an existing growing wall made of incomprehension, prejudice and insufficient knowledge. After the last European Football Championships in 2012, even in the Russophone city of Donetsk, the local people were more attracted by the European idea than by the Kremlin’s sirens. Ukrainian businessmen want to have the final say in their country and not be submissive to any ancient foreign logic. The case of the scandalous privatisation of Kryvorizhstal steel in 2004 should have been an important warning of the change of epochs. Needless to say, Russians have continued to think about Ukraine as their own oblast (region).
Nevertheless, Europe is not the magical solution for all of Ukraine’s problems. The EU approach to the Greek economic crisis has shown that if you want to be a member of the community you must rise to the occasion. If Kyiv’s politicians do not realise this, a terrible disappointment is waiting around the corner. Especially since the Association Agreement will only bear fruit in the long run and the initial months after the Vilnius Summit signature might be difficult for Ukraine due to the predictable Russian reaction. Moscow is the rejected former partner in this divorce. Its projects have been turned down. After the economic boom, created by high oil prices, Russia currently lives in a sort of new Brezhnevian zastoi (stagnation). Its society, sick of endemic corruption, is blocked and the economy is not developing at the same speed as in the past.
In the 17th century, cultural and religious ideas which were new and revolutionary for that time reached Muscovy through Kyiv. Some decades later, Peter the Great tried to westernise and modernise Russia. Who knows, with time the Association Agreement of Ukraine with the EU could even have the same indirect dynamic on Russia in the 21st century.
Giuseppe D’Amato is an Italian journalist and historian, based in Moscow, who specialises in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union.