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From the unknown to the better known. Evolution of French thinking about Eastern Europe

Interview with Alexandra Goujon, a professor of political science at the University of Burgundy. Interviewer: Clémence Lavialle.

August 13, 2021 - Alexandra Goujon Clémence Lavialle - Interviews

Professor Alexandra Goujon. Source: wikimedia.org

CLÉMENCE LAVIALLE: Please tell me, how did you choose the post-Soviet states and specifically Ukraine as the area of your research?

ALEXANDRA GOUJON: I decided to focus on these because of my family background. I have Polish and Belarusian roots. I first visited these places way back in 1989 when they were still part of the communist bloc. After this visit, I continued to stay in touch with my family in Belarus. I tried to combine my studies in political science with the study of this area. My first research was a master thesis into Belarus and its national awakening in the 1980-1990s. At that time, in the early 1990s, most political scientists in France were Russia specialists. Thus, my focus on the Russian’s western neighbours was a way to work on a topic that was not well known and explored in France. There were very few specialists who knew Ukraine or visited it.

In 1996 I decided to extend my research on Ukraine because these two countries border each other and have some similarities in the awakening of a national movement during the fall of the Soviet Union. In other words: Russia considers both of them its “near abroad”, even a part of the so-called “Russian world”. They would become EU neighbouring countries several years later. The goal of the PhD that I was working on back then at Sciences Po (Paris) and I defended in 2001 was to evaluate how the USSR had fallen in these countries, even though most of the analyses at that time were about a break-up of the USSR stemming from Moscow. The main focus of academics was on the relations between Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev and the attempted coup in 1991. I travelled to Belarus in 1989, 1992, then to Russia in 1994-1995 and then again to Belarus and Ukraine.

From the knowledge that I gained about these “peripheral” areas I was able to propose a different perspective on the events that took place in the 1990s. However, since in France these topics were still very little explored, I reached out to American researchers. In the US, the Ukrainian diaspora played an important role during the Cold War, contributing to establishing a broader public interest in Eastern Europe. This also translated into a larger body of research on Ukraine and Belarus that came from the country’s geopolitical interests. To give just one example, let me point to Harvard University where the Ukrainian Research Institute was created in 1973.

I started teaching post-Soviet studies in the mid-2000s, notably at Sciences Po. There, since 2003 I have been teaching a course on nationalism in the post-Soviet space that focuses on its many manifestations including in Ukraine and Belarus. To do so, already from the beginning I included the Ukrainian Famine of 1933 into the syllabus. At that time this topic was still little known in France. Over time things have changed, also thanks to the work of the historians, film directors, and this tragic event is getting better known now. My students informed me it is being taught in French high schools which was not the case 20 years ago.

What would you say about the state of academic research on post-Soviet states in today’s France?

Today there are more academics working on the post-Soviet space and among them you have specialists on Ukraine, Belarus, Russia etc. This is in sharp contrast with the 1980s when we only had a few political scientists researching the Soviet Union and gaining their knowledge mostly from Moscow. That was especially the case for the western part of the USSR and less the case for Caucasus or Central Asia on which some historians focused their research. Today’s scholars are representing diverse perspectives, also those that come from different post-Soviet states: each of them has its own specialists.

For example, the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine (which continues to this day) have shed a new light on Ukraine. As a result, since 2014, I have been teaching a course on Ukraine, while before I thought on a broader subject such as post-communist transitions or nationalism in the post-Soviet space. Students are willing to learn more about Ukraine.

Do you also see a change in the media approach towards these countries over the years?

Yes, such a change has taken place for sure. We cannot separate research from media coverage. For example, I had done some research into how French press covered these two states, Ukraine and Belarus, after they became independent in the early 1990s. At that time newspaper articles were all asking the same question: “But what are these countries? How can we define them? Are they legitimate?” Back then there was only one French correspondent in Kyiv. He covered a fairly large area and produced only a few papers on Ukraine.

Looking at these times from today’s perspective we can now talk about this “post-Soviet effect”, which was accompanied by the Eastern enlargement of the EU. Poland was the country the press focused on in France but nation-state was never question for Poland unlike for its eastern neighbours including Moldova, which I didn’t research a lot but I included in several papers I wrote on the EU’s Eastern neighbours. There is a real political question about the borders of the European Union and where it ends. An interest in this area also arose with the establishment of the European Union’s neighbourhood policy in the mid-2000s.

However, the political transformations in the countries themselves brought on change in attitude in the West. The Ukraine’s Orange Revolution generated a fairly large media discussion in France, one in which I also participated along with other scholars. And of course, the last Maidan created a lot of media coverage. Many French journalists and photographers visited Kyiv back then, and some of them settle down there. This is really something that made Ukraine part of the political landscape, also here in France. We can notice a similar effect for Belarus since a protest movement contested the fraudulent presidential election that took place in August 2020.

But was the French public only on the Maidan side?

In essence, the people who rallied in France including the Ukrainian diaspora were in favour of Maidan. This engagement has been visible, and it is hard to measure those who are not in support of Maidan. One can yet assume that the Ukrainian community in France is also ideologically diverse.

There are different associations or communities of support that have been set up. I remember attending, after Victor Yanukovych fled the country, the visit of Petro Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko in Paris in March 2014. It was organised in a cinema and there was a large part of the Ukrainian community. The attendees were clearly supportive. If there was any scepticism towards Maidan, it was not visible in the public space.

And how would you interpret France’s role in the so-called Normandy Format, that is the group aimed at solving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Does this engagement also reflect a certain change in France’s foreign policy and greater political interest in Eastern Europe?

The Normandy Format was a political initiative. Ukraine is a country with which France has had relations since the end of the USSR. There is better knowledge of Ukraine in France now (there even is a solidarity group in the French parliament), but in general, France’s foreign policy in regards to this state is less developed than that of Germany or the US. France’s is still more oriented on Russia. The Normandy Format has changed this pattern since France had to get involved in the negotiations process as a leading European state. However, besides December 9th 2019, when the last Normandy Format meeting was held in Paris, no other events were organised in France. Before his election, Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Emmanuel Macron on June 17th 2019 to see how things could be taken forward in the Normandy Format, which had not been held for several years.

At the same time, in the very summer of 2019, there were some concerns around Macron’s talks with Russia. Vladimir Putin came to visit him at the Brégançon Fort in August 2019: France’s relations with Russia had worsened and thus had to be reviewed with certain positive gestures. But the question is: how can we re-engage with Russia after the annexation of Crimea and with the war in eastern Ukraine still going? Some texts in the French press, authored by various specialists were criticizing this “reset” strategy although some other exerts and politicians were welcoming it. There are real political cleavages on Russia in France and it’s more complex that the left/right division.

In 2017, just after the French presidential election, there was an official visit by Putin to Paris followed by a press conference which was pretty tense since Macron criticized the Russian press and its methods as he was himself badly portrayed during his campaign in the Russian media. In 2019, the reset strategy was a turn that was badly received by the Ukrainians. The idea was to renew a dialogue and to move the lines since too few steps were taken in the framework of the Normandy Format.

We can still see it today, especially when we look at Ukraine’s prospects of NATO membership. Ukraine has strong supporters in NATO such as Poland and the Baltic states, which perceive Russia as a threat especially since the annexation of Crimea and are convinced they are protected as NATO members. France and Germany are manoeuvring in the Normandy Format, but their goal remains also to avoid offending Russia, which – in their view – still matters because there are other issues to deal with Russia on the international scene.

Alexandra Goujon is a French political scientist. She is a professor of political science at the University of Burgundy. She specialises in political conflict and regime change in Eastern Europe, particularly in The Ukraine and Belarus.

Clémence Lavialle is a student at Sciences Po Paris, at the Dijon campus specialising in Central and Eastern Europe. She has been an intern at New Eastern Europe.

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