Is Ukraine committing suicide? That’s the path that writer Andriy Bondar fears his country is taking. In a heart-wrenching piece in the inaugural issue of New Eastern Europe, he writes, “Twenty years after regaining independence we have embarked on a programme of voluntary self-destruction.”

What is the nature of this self-destruction? It lies in the division between one class of people who have used the apparatus of state, natural resources, and international trade to turn their country into a giant cash register and another who literally did not know which way was forward.

Over the last 20 years, no one has been serious about reforming the country if reform meant changing the old order or undermining the Soviet principles of existence. No one has given real thought to integration with European institutions or modernizing the country. … Even a slight modernization of the state, associated membership in the European Union or NATO would mean one thing to the Ukrainian elite: total destruction.

And during this time, society has behaved in quite a peculiar way. It has been unable to decide between the will to change and the fear of reforms, and eventually reached an unwritten agreement with the politicians – vote for them and they leave you alone.

The de-linking of governing with concern for the common good, the personalization of power, and the political stalemate have created a situation that resembles “a patient in a coma,” whom life support measures, such as international loans, will not resuscitate, Bondar writes. As long as “those who control gas and other industry” decide what happens in Ukraine, nothing will change. The only options are surgery or “taking the patient off the respirator.”

I don’t know what that second course would mean – the idealistic (European) part of the international community wiping its hands of Ukraine? Cutting off those international loans? Maybe, ironically, it’s Russia that has entered the hospital room first, as it inaugurates a gas pipeline that will circumvent Ukraine and cut into the transit fees that go from Moscow to Kyiv.

I can’t help wondering, then, about the visa and trade talks going on between Kyiv and Brussels, and President Victor Yanukovych’s insistence that he seeks closer European integration for his country. That would seem to contradict the idea that Ukraine’s elite wish to keep Brussels on the other end of a long stick.

I don’t know enough about how oligarchs protect their interests to know if adopting – and abiding by – EU standards would mean “total destruction” of the Ukrainian elite or if the expanded trade opportunities would be a boon to them.

Most of us have heard the idea that perestroika was really the initiative of Soviet barons who wanted to send their children to Western universities, buy expensive (Western) vacation houses, invest their money in safer (Western) companies, etc. So that “opening up” made its own cynical sense. But those things are available now, more or less, to Ukraine’s wealthiest citizens. How much do they need this agreement? It could be that expanded trade and visa-free travel really do reach a group of people who have enjoyed none of the spoils of independence.

On the other hand, when I try to imagine Ukraine in several years’ time, its trade balance with the EU deep in the black, its citizens free to cross the EU’s borders without visas, I’m afraid I still can’t see a patient waking from a coma. Instead, I see an idealistic young doctor who can’t understand why his heroic measures seem to have so little effect.

This leaves me curious. You Ukraine watchers: what’s in it for the oligarchs in these EU talks, with all their attendant obligations? And is Ukraine committing a kind of suicide?

Photo of EU Enlargement Chief Stefan Fule and Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych from the president’s website.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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