Op-Ed Commentary by Chris Devonshire-Ellis – June 22nd, 2022
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been covered in immense detail, and I will not go into this in this editorial. However, there are potential problems that appear to be arising within the country that at least should be looked into, even amongst the overwhelming support. They concern the very nature of the Ukraine bid for EU membership and the apparent EU political stance that ‘the country shares the same values’. I’m not sure if that may be somewhat premature.
This is a very strong word to be using, however the term has been expanded in recent times to include cultural genocide and the eradication and suppression of ethnic cultural identity. The EU have been vociferous for example over China’s treatment of their ethnic Uyghurs. It is also relevant in Ukraine, as the Russian side have frequently expressed the phrase to describe what has been occurring in Donbass. That region, encompassing the two break-away republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, have been under de facto civil war for the past eight years. The Russians say they have supported the Donbass separatists because they want to return to Russia, and that they claim they have been subject to attacks.
Ukraine says ‘not an inch’ of Ukrainian territory will be removed. However, there are issues with the Ukrainian perspective. The current President Zelensky has stated that all ethnic Russians should depart Ukraine. That is an issue – most were born in Ukraine and are Ukrainian nationals. It appears to be factual that the Ukrainian military have shelled ethnic Russian Ukrainian’s in the Donbass, and if so this is a serious violation of the essence of the sovereign states responsibility to protect its own people. In Ukraine, the Kiev Government appears to be attacking its own nationals based on their cultural identity. If so, that is genocide. It appears that neither the EU or UN have had much desire to look into the issue. However as concerns the current conflict it is a key point in understanding Russian grievances. Without dealing with this issue, the violence will continue.
The Cancel Russian Culture Movement
The Russian perspective as concerns this issue is reenforced when one considers that the Kiev government passed two laws this week to ban Russian culture in the country. They are quite draconian: one forbids the printing of books by Russian citizens, unless they renounce their Russian passport and take Ukrainian citizenship. The same law also bans the commercial import of books printed in Russia, Belarus and occupied Ukrainian territory, while also requiring special permission for the import of books in Russian language from any other country. This means that passengers flying into Kiev with a copy of Tolstoy’s classic ‘War & Peace’ for example, or Solzhenitsyn’s expose of the worst of Soviet times in the “Gulag Archipelago” series could now face punishment.
The second targets Russian music, prohibiting the playing of Russian music by any Russian citizens in Ukraine born after 1991 on both media and on public transport, while also increasing quotas on Ukrainian-language speech and music content in TV and radio broadcasts. The Ukrainian parliament has stated that this “bars any Russian creative product on a physical level.” Kiev has effectively criminalized Tchaikovsky for anyone aged up to the age of 31. One wonders if this extends to the Russian Punk band ‘Pussy Riot’, whose songs are defiantly anti-Putin. And how to deal with the likes of Prokofiev, considered a Soviet composer, but born in Ukraine and who composed the communist lauding ‘Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution.’ Who gets to decide? Who can arbitrate? Is this banning of culture compatible with European values?
Banning Opposition Parties
Kiev has also issued legislation this week banning eleven opposing political groups, including the popular “For Life” party. The reasons given are due to these organisations being ‘too Russian’, however an estimated 20% of Ukrainians are ethnic Russian, and many ethnic Ukrainians share Russian sympathies. As all other political parties in Ukraine have very similar agendas, this move has effectively wiped out any real opposition, who were concentrated in the east and south of the country. That means that Ukrainian Russians have been deprived of a political voice within their own country. Again, the European Union needs to discuss the relevant standards of democracy currently being expressed from Kiev.
Kiev has put itself into a very stressed trade position, it has been formally cancelling trade and other related agreements with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) whose members also include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile it has been pushing itself forward as a candidate for European Union membership. That however is expected to take decades to accomplish leaving the country in a rather grey area for some time, although the EU does have a platform of other trade agreements it can share with Ukraine. Nonetheless, there remains a feeling within the CIS of a certain amount of rejection of their nations by Kiev, and that will impact the countries ability to trade with its ex-partners.
There is also the issue of Ukraine’s economy. Even before the conflict, it was the worst performing European nation in terms of GDP growth and per capita income, ranking even lower than Belarus. That will have sunk even lower and is likely to remain that way until the conflict finishes and infrastructure can be rebuilt. There is the issue of the 4.5 million Ukrainians who have already fled, many of them young professionals. It seems unlikely most would return, leaving the country short of skills for a generation at the very least.
In terms of corruption, Ukraine ranks even worse than Colombia, the drugs infested Latin American nation, while murder rates for 2021 are worse than Sudan, where ethnic groups regularly massacre each other (sound familiar?). In short – just a quick glance at the economics dictate that Ukraine is a basket-case. It may not be currently fashionable to say that, but it is undeniably true.
Who’s Fooling Who?
European Union politicians have been crowing about how ‘accepting Ukraine’s EU candidacy sends a strong signal to Russia’. That appears to mean that the EU stands alongside Ukraine and is prepared to invite it into the ‘European Family’ – another way at thumbing their nose at Putin, with the perception that he has lost the battle.
But there is another perspective. That suggests that Russia is fed up to the back teeth with Ukraine, and that in engaging in this conflict and siding with Kiev, the EU is swallowing a poison pill, and that Moscow encourages this because it knows the future damage a Ukrainian candidacy will impose on EU politics. Ukraine’s ‘fast track’ status has also upset several other candidate countries, whose applications to join the EU have been queue jumped by KIev. Not everyone in Europe is happy with the situation and this could lead to stresses with disgruntled EU partners in future.
Europeans need to discuss whether the current policies engaged by the Kiev government are really compatible with the values hoped for in an erstwhile European Union candidate country. It would appear not – the EU for example accused China of genocide in what appear not dissimilar claims against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Or is that somehow ‘different’?
But times are changing, and there is a wind of Far Rightism and Fascism creeping into Europe, where maybe the return of autocracy and censorship will become more tolerated. Such issues ought not to be swept under the carpet, and studying Ukraine properly instead of blindly following existing political rhetoric may be a more prudent place to start.
Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal commentary, belong solely to the contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Asia Briefing Limited or Dezan Shira & Associates.