September 22, 2014

Letter From Paris: The Complex Conundrum of Ukraine

The future of Ukraine remains uncertain and the problems multiple.

After three months of violence opposing the people of Kiev and the government of Viktor Yanukovich, the situation culminated in a bloody clash on February 19, leaving over 60 dead and hundreds wounded. Why did the confrontation last so long? The West holds part of the responsibility. Some voices from abroad were just throwing oil on the fire, such as an inflammatory piece of Bernard Henri Levy entitled “Vive l’Ukraine Libre” in the Huffington Post. Besides, the European Union’s position was unclear and some of its members made unattainable promises.

The EU may have been slow in acting but when it did, its stand was tough enough to force the Ukrainian government to back down. Brussels mandated the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland, Germany and France to act as mediators, then announced immediate sanctions -cancelling visas of government officials, freezing assets of Ukrainian oligarchs abroad. At the same time, Angela Merkel, the chief mediator, was on the phone with Putin, both of them conversing in Russian and German. As early as five days after the peak of the violence, a few signs of appeasement began to turn the situation around. US secretary of state John Kerry said what needed to be said: there should not be a partition of Ukraine; the Ukraine should not be put in a position to have to chose between Europe and Russia. Even more promising was the statement made by Sergei Lavrov , the Russian foreign minister: “We want Ukraine to be part of the European family in every sense of the word” .

The Yanukovich government collapsed overnight. In rapid succession, the mayor of Kiev, the minister of defense ,the whole police force of Lviv in Western Ukraine, the president of the parliament and 40 of its deputies defected. Calm returned to Maidan square. One thousand policemen were escorted peacefully out of the city by the insurgents. An interim coalition government was rapidly formed and general elections were to be held before the end of the year. As to president Yanukovich, he just vanished.

Ukraine is not an easy country to govern. The politicians’ class is rampant with corruption and can be violent. Since it acquired its independence in 1991, at the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been in a state of turmoil marked by the “orange revolution” of 2004. The government’s way to deal with the opposition has been either to poison its members ( every one saw on the television the pock-marked face of former president Viktor Yuchtchenko allegedly poisoned by dioxine) or throw them in prison (prime minister Yulia Timoshenko was condemned to seven years behind bars in 2011). Fights in the Rada (parliament) are not uncommon. Seats in that assembly are for sale to the price of one million dollars. Deputies may be offered a large amounts of money to change camp.

Therefore it is not surprising that the people, who put their lives on the line during the civil war, refused to trust their politicians. The reaction -or rather the lack of reaction- of the crowd when Yulia Timoshenko appeared in a wheel chair on Maidan square and made an emotional appeal, is very revealing.. One might have expected a wild clamor of support. Bu no, it is not what happened. The people stood, almost frozen, listened to her politically-clever words but did not seem to buy her message.

Many foreign pundits, apparently influenced by the continuous media coverage of the events on Maidan square, seem to forget the other half of the Ukrainian equation -the Russians. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the fact that Ukraine is part of the historical past of Russia and also of its culture. Therefore it is not only Putin who refuses any interference in the territorial integrity of Ukraine , it is also the Russian people.

Historically and culturally Ukraine is the cradle of Russia. The Russian nation started as a Kievan state. In the 10th century AD, Slavic prince Vladimir ruled over a huge territory including Novgorod, was baptized in 989 and absorbed the Byzantium culture. The magnificent mosaics and icons in St Sophia cathedral, completed in 1041, attest to those beginnings.

The cultural heritage of the Russians is also linked in many ways to the Crimea. The great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva joined other writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Andrei Bely. in the writers’ colony of Koktebel, in the eastern part of the Crimea. The short story “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov, which takes place in Yalta, is practically memorized by every Russian child in school. Based on a Pushkin’s poem, the ballet entitled The Fountain of Bakhshisarai (a town in central Crimea) is part of the permanent repertoire of the Bolshoi.

The violence which started in Simferopol only one week after the end of the uprising on Maidan square is a reminder that the situation remains explosive in the area.

What will be the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis ? A federation of autonomous republics, similar to the Crimea whose status was recognized by Russia in 1997 but only for a period of 10 years?

Another thought. Joseph Beuys, (1921-1986) is probably the best known artist in Germany to-day. As he was flying with the Wermacht in 1944, his plane was shot down over the Crimea and saved by a Tatar “shaman” . Beuys’ installations and other works are inspired from that unique experience. This is what Ukraine may need- a Tatar shaman .

Editor’s Note: This piece was written prior to the invasion of Crimea by the Russians.