In Ukraine, a choice of civilizations

October 16, 2013

KIEV — In 1993, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” His theorythat the world was divided into potentially warring civilizations — and later, his book on the topic — have been denounced by legions of critics, mainly on the liberal side. But it had and has retained one group of unlikely fans: Russian nationalists.

They saw in his definition of “Slavic-Orthodox culture” (including much of the former Soviet Union and reaching deep into East-Central Europe) a confirmation, albeit from a surprising quarter, of their own view of the world. That is, that Russia is and must remain the central and organizing power of a collection of states that history, religion and culture had predisposed to unity, and to a distinctly separate identity from a West that would devour them behind a front of “spreading democracy.”

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is an ardent Huntington-ite. His much quoted view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century signaled a deeply felt loss of a world in which Russia ruled not so much by force but by cultural and political leadership. In such a view, the nations that comprise that civilization are less important than the civilization itself. For a Slavic-Orthodox state to shift to the West would not be a choice, but a betrayal of the bloc’s essence.

In a few weeks, the state that lives on the fault line between Huntington’s Western and Slavic civilizations will have to make what James Sherr, one of its foremost Western observers, calls “a civilizational choice.” Sherr writes that the European Union is about to offer Ukraine an Association Agreement and trade pact that will “provide tangible mechanisms of integration with the EU” — an open invitation to shift the core of Ukraine’s statehood to the West.

There is another offer on the table, from the east. Russia has constructed a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) that takes in Belarus to its west and Kazakhstan to its south. The ECU is said to be both rules-based and relatively efficient, “harmonized with international norms and the World Trade Organization regime.” Russia is not just inviting Ukraine to join the ECU — it is seeking to frighten it into it, instituting the beginnings of a trade embargo to show what might happen on a bigger scale if its offer were spurned, and threatening higher prices for the gas it supplies to its neighbor.

At a meeting in Yalta in the south of Ukraine last month, the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that “Ukraine is on the final lap (to associating with the EU)…we’ve done it, so can you.” But later, Sergei Glaziev, President Putin’s economic adviser, mocked both Ukraine and the EU’s move, asking its representatives if it really wanted to take a “nearly bankrupt country” under its already damaged wings.

Ukraine is surely in a poor state. Part of that is due to the Russian trade embargo, and part due to the slow motion closure or shrinkage of Soviet-era industrial behemoths that have pushed up unemployment. It’s also an issue that a regime, known as “The Family,” headed by President Viktor Yanukovych, has allied itself to a select group of oligarchs whose businesses are protected by the government. It preys upon the small and medium-sized enterprises that are made offers they cannot refuse — sell (at low prices) or be destroyed. In conversations with young Ukrainian journalists these past few days, I met a wall of cynicism about the future of a country so ill-governed. Mykhailo Minakov, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and president of the Foundation for Good Politics, told me that some 30,000 scholars and post-graduates were leaving the country each year — a huge number for a medium-sized (46 million-person) state.

Yanukovych, whose presidential bid was enthusiastically supported by Putin, has broken with his Russian counterpart and now presents himself as more and more of a Westerner. The EU deal could give him access to IMF and other funding that he will badly need, and would, at least publicly, treat him with greater courtesy than the evident contempt, or patronizing “friendship,” that he gets from the Russian leadership. The Association Agreement doesn’t give the EU rights to interfere in Ukraine’s governance, so “The Family” can remain, at least at first, largely undisturbed. The Ukrainian president is even said to be ready to bow to EU pressure to free Yulia Tymoshenko, his rival in the 2010 presidential election whom he jailed for “abuse of power” — so long as she leaves the country and doesn’t challenge him again.

But the “civilizational choice” will be a momentous one. It will likely prompt a furious response from Russia, who will see it not just as treachery but an intrusion of the West into its territory. It will force Ukraine’s economy to modernize — rapidly — so that its goods can meet technical and safety standards, which are constantly upgraded by international agreements. It will force a deep reconstruction of education in the country, which has since the collapse of the Soviet Union lost many of the better facets of its pedagogy — disciplined, if rote-like, study — and built too little of value to take its place. It will hasten the closure of the corporate behemoths and shine a harsher light on the activities of “The Family” and its allies.

All these are enough to give Yanukovych’s hand pause if he is offered an agreement in a few weeks time. And not just his: the EU itself may balk at the last moment. Its members are not all delighted with the prospect of taking on a “bankrupt country” — Glaziev was harsh, but not wrong. Polish, Swedish and German diplomats have wooed Ukraine westwards; but the southern European states are less certain that they want to live with an even more hostile Russia than the one they have already.

Choices like this, which lay the technocratic details of trade on top of centuries of religious allegiances, wars, massacres and political turbulence, are dizzyingly hard to make. The effects are likely to be ambiguous for decades, as politicians and others seek to moderate and even deny the consequences of their actions. But if the relevant leaders’ pens scratch their signatures across the paper on which the treaties are set out, a major state will move into the West’s sphere of influence. Reduced to a zero-sum game of Europe’s favorite sport, the Westerners will have won against the Slavic-Orthodox, 1:0.

PHOTO: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013.  REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool


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Good article. On one hand I can’t imagine Ukraine ever culturally separating from mother Russia, but on the other, Russian bullying frightens them and an EU passport would be too hard for Ukrainians to resist. They’ll go west I think.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Whilst Kyiv, and not Moscow, is indeed the birthplace of Russian culture, one also needs to bear in mind that currently only 17% of the population are ethnic “Russian” and only 10% Russian (as opposed to Greek or Ukrainian) Orthodox. Kruschchev tried to create a mixed country with no real identity, and it’s because he did such a good job that Ukraine’s move towards the West since 1991 faltered a few years ago.

As for “in the next few weeks”, well, Ukraine has been walking this particular tightrope for over a decade now; no real hurry….

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

The whole notion of the EU wanting to better Ukraine is pure hyperbole the only reason the EU wants the Ukraine is because of the idea of Russia gaining a foothold. Ukraine is very much like Russia, Europe is much different to Ukraine. To think Ukraine could just be simply bolted onto the EU is pure stupidity. Their industrial fabric is very much in twinned with Russian industry, their industries are one of the same. If this is allowed to happen the East part of Ukraine and the Crimea will break free of this anti-Russian agenda. The Ukraine billionaires are scared of losing their billions. It’s not about the people it’s about elitist Ukrainians caring more about themselves than the country. If this sinister EU courtship is allowed then the breakup of Ukraine will be the outcome. Is that truly what these greedy elitist billionaires want. To ruin industry and just be another market for German made goods etc. It’s a one way street. Ukraine belongs with it’s close brother. Not an interloper.

Posted by Progressor | Report as abusive

The Eastern Ukraine is mainly populated by Russian-speaking people, as well as Crimea and Odessa. I strongly doubt that they will want to betray their national and cultural heritage and to become the residents of a European economic slave which Ukraine is bound to become.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd’s anti-Russian stance is quite usual. Casual, I would call it. Sure, I am a Russian, and I can be subjective.

The weakness of the argument: the reasons for Russia to keep Ukraine tied. Why? The only explanation suggested lies far beyond the economic and political interests of Russia. What exactly does the author refers to? Huntington; empire; cultural aspect; history of the Russian state.
All these arguments are not strong enough.
The fact is: Ukraine is not a Russian ally. And not the vital trade partner.
The quest of Ukraine in obtaining its national identity (which is absolutely normal) led to excessive unpredictability of Ukraine’s politics.

Some major things will change. The customs’ preferences; virtually unrestricted movement of people (these days every Russian and Ukranian can pass the border with national IDs only), etc.

As the majority of Russians, I can say: it is up to the Ukranian people to make their choice. We will accept the choice.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Choice or clash of civilization ?, well Ukrainian choices are in fact much less spectacular and more difficult, but not less interesting power play occurs here.
At first reveal all the foreign actors: Russia (and its customs union members), UE and … China as usual.
Ukraine is walking the tightrope of balancing Western and Russian influence since at least 2000, just to survive!
Most important is reliance on natural gas imports from Russia in the amount of about 25-30 bcm/year at present. Ukraine was actively modernizing its industry to make it less dependent on Russian natural gas and trying to increase domestic output. But a lot of natural gas (about 20 bcm) is used by population (residential heating)and it is heavily subsidized. Change from natural gas to coal is nearly impossible in medium term as it would require significant investments. Russia was gradually increasing prices of natural gas for Ukraine since 2004, and at present they are equal to UE. So Russian leverage over Ukraine decreased significantly, but it can still nearly bankrupt the country by means of trade embargo. 5 years ago task of bankrupting Ukraine was of course very easy by Russia, just to suddenly increase natural gas prices and implement trade embargo on Ukrainian exports and its economy is completely bankrupt and destroyed in about two winters. Russia currently has virtually no more leverage firepower left, it used everything. Yanukovych is a smart authoritarian, they need such a guy at present transformation, even if he sends political opponents to lagers.
UE is afraid of Ukrainian agriculture, industry and skilled labour force. Ukraine is not welcomed in UE by “southern states” just because with good management its agricultural output will be higher than: France, Italy and Spain combined. Its heavy industry is a direct competitor of Germany, Italy and Eastern European countries.
So probably a watered down agreement with UE will be signed, but it will not be called association agreement to not anger Russia, and of course not before the end of this winter (Q2 2014 a good timing).
Meanwhile here comes China. It already provided Ukraine with billions of soft loans for agriculture development and Ukrainian 2013 grain exports already quadrupled. China needs Ukrainian most precious resource: its soil. With a good management Ukrainian agriculture can feed 45 milion Ukrainians and … 200 milion Chinese.
China-Ukraine tandem plays here subtle game to not anger Russia much. So probably no investment in Ukrainian natural gas sector by China (5 years and 30 billion USD and Ukraine is self sufficient). But in agriculture they will have card blanche. There were press rumours concerning 3 milion hectares prospective land lease by China. Ukraine has 30 milion hectares of best arable land, multiplied by 60q (6 tons) of grain on average it could be another granary for China (besides Argentina, Brazil, Kazachstan etc.). There are of course issues that would prevent any China-Ukraine free trade agreement (heavy industry major obstacle) in near future.
But in all Ukrainian perspectives are really bright if it plays well this game of triangle (Russia-UE-China).

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive


You know that ukranians boasted they’ll become second France even before dissolution of USSR? But so far as old wisdom goes – “To bad dancer even his own testicles is obstacle”…
Terms of Ukraine’s association with EU can be called much more bluntly – “capitulation”.
Basically Ukraine will open it’s markets for EUs goods (with especial requirement of allowing EU’s second-hand goods), abandon all old soviet technological standarts (ie will need tons of money to restructure,retool, retrain and recertify it’s already near-dead hi-tech industry – and ukrs have no money for that while neither EU won’t be a donor nor Russia or PRC) etc etc for basically fever dream of someday becoming part of EU (and really there’s nothing of that kind in terms).

As for EU bein’ afraid of Ukraine…lol, at these terms UKRAINIAN industry or agriculture soon will become thing of past. Not to mention that in inevitable new trade war between Tax Union and Ukraine ukrainian busynesses will lose big time – most of their agricultural and industrial exports are to Russia and rest of exUSSR, not to EU while their heavy industry is still dependent on our energy.

As Ukraine is already on the brink of defaulting on it’s international debts, they’re grasping on the straws – renting agricultural lands to PRC is last of those – but while it will get them SOME money, it won’t compensate their losses.

Thinking that PRC will be interested in upgrade and development of Ukr. science and industry is also wishful thinking. So far there were technological transfers from Ukraine to PRC and not the other way around – and chinese loved ukrs ‘cos ukrs sold them knowledge and know-hows cheaply.
Not to mention that PRC is in de facto alliance with RF and Ukraine is too small a prize when goal of game is world domination.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

For all the chit-chat about the “Slavic-Orthodox” world, we all know the Russian ELITE made it’s civilizational choice long ago. They have their property, bank accounts, schools for their children, and medical care for their families in the West, and not in “Eurasia.” And while many Ukrainians speak Russian, the only language that counts is that of money. As for southern EU members being hesitant about Ukraine, they’re always whining even though they’ve had decades of support from EU funds and what have they done with it? The much newer members of the EU from Eastern Europe such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltics etc. have gotten much less money but have held their own in the recent financial crisis and are slowly but steadily advancing.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

In 1917 in old Empire there were almighty elites too…two years later most of ’em were either dead or paupers in west.
So don’t overestimate importance of “elites”.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Analysis in the comments are actually more interesting than an article itself.
Somebody should mention how many times Ukrainian borders have been redrawn just in the last 100 years…

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive

“It will force Ukraine’s economy to modernize — rapidly —”
“It will force a deep reconstruction of education”

I would never bet on this horse. The history proved many times that it does not work (even in case of Eastern Germany where people still vote for red or by feet).

@bluepanther: Latvia received 3 billion emergency help from the EU with its population of 2Mio. Hungary got 4 billion. Austrian banks invested a lot in Eastern Europe, so the risk is all theirs.

Posted by behave | Report as abusive

I tend to believe that the only meaningful reason explaining Ukraine’s current move toward association with Europe is Yanukovich’s desire to legitimize himself in Ukraine, or at the very least buy a place in safe heaven. Since his regime is genuinely hated in Ukraine, he believes this “achievement” may help at the presidential elections in 2015. However, chances are he is going to be defeated in a bitterly contested fight. He and his chums need a safe place to enjoy their ill-gotten riches, and the West is a far better place to do so than Russia, just ask Rinat Akhmetov who happily buys mining companies in USA, regardless of his past (van Zon, Hans; The Rise of Conglomerates in Ukraine: The Donetsk Case. New York: Taylor & Francis. p. 387. ISBN 978-0-415-41268-1).

Posted by Tyshkevich | Report as abusive

Many Russian commenters here. The choice of Ukraine: UE or Russia, only at first glance is anything like a choice.
The problem is that Russia in long term, I mean more than 10 years perspective has nothing to offer Ukraine. At present we still perceive Soviet Union legacy dependence of Ukrainian economy on imported Russian natural gas and reliance of Ukrainian industry on Russian markets. But it gradually changes.
A few words about Russia. Largest mineral deposits of hydrocarbons plus nearly anything you can spot on Mendeleyev table plus a lot of fertile soils. Labour force with skills surpassed by noboby bar a few developed nations. And why Russia is not the richest and most developed country on Earth ? Why life expectancy at birth is on Bangladesh and Nepal level of 69-70 years ?
The answer is simple: Russia is authoritharian some would say even totalitarian military oligarchy. And nothing will change in about 100 years, poor perspective, isn’t it ?
And because there are 140 million Russians there is not enough hydrocarbons in comparison to number of citizens to flood everybody with money and free public goods like in Quatar, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
But there are enough hydrocarbons for at least 100 years to finance 10 million people privileged caste (police, army, generally federal and local government etc.) that prevents the rest from gaininig of any civil liberties. And because developing world is really hungry for hydrocarbons its prices will only increase, sorry guys.
In fact there is nothing more to say. Russia is not going to take care of own citizens, never did (I do not known well Russian history before 1750 so a little disclaimer here), why would you expect to take care of Ukrainians ?

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

The future may just surprise us all.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

There are many Russian comments here (including my own,) because while talking about Ukraine, the author’s agenda is Russia.

Again, the majority of Russians and the Russian elites don’t have long-term interests in Ukraine and not particularly involved with the discussion.

Any comments about Russia and our future I read here – are simply preposterous.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Clash of civilizations? Hardly! The author conveniently forgets Russia’s long interest in and assimilation of all things Western, starting with Peter the Great in the 17th century. If he bothered to read a few Russian newspapers the author would find that a fourth of the words are derived from German, French and English. It should also be pointed out that Huntington, regardless of his old academic position as a sacred cow in the Harvard School of Government, has been ” accused of misusing mathematics and engaging in pseudo-science, as well as distorting the historical record…. a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance.” untington

To use a Harvard don’s shaky theories to give Yanukovych a false “civilizational” choice is a fanciful flight of xenophobia likely stemming from the general disdain Anglo-American writers have for all other social mores except their own which they like to call “Western Civilization”. The French might have a mot or two about that.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

Clash of civilizations? Hardly! The author conveniently forgets Russia’s long interest in and assimilation of all things Western, starting with Peter the Great in the 17th century. If he bothered to read a few Russian newspapers the author would find that a fourth of the words are derived from German, French and English. It should also be pointed out that Huntington, regardless of his old academic position as a sacred cow in the Harvard School of Government, has been ” accused of misusing mathematics and engaging in pseudo-science, as well as distorting the historical record…. a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance.” untington

To use a Harvard don’s shaky theories to give Yanukovych a false “civilizational” choice is a fanciful flight of xenophobia likely stemming from the general disdain Anglo-American writers have for all other social mores except their own which they like to call “Western Civilization”. The French might have a mot or two about that.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

The direction for Ukraine does not have to be portrayed in very stark choice of zero sum game outcome. Ukrainians are perfectly able to select between two carrots dangled in front of them. The EU can assist Ukrainians in democratic institutions development, infrastructure, reduction of corruption, dynamic economy by moving away from oligarchs dominated arrangement and eventually full membership status without depriving the population of Eastern European, Russian orthodox and Catholics living in that country sense of cultural identity heritage preservation. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of Russians, Ukrainians are either atheists, agnostic or superficially religious. People care about the ability to hire and fire politicians by voting, economy growth, employment prospects, inflation, freedom to travel, education, healthcare, standards of living much more than “traditional legacy, the courtesy of corrupt Orthodox Church and kremlin definition of it to invoke and exploit for control. Unique national attributes can be perfectly preserved intact because culture and traditions are not incompatible in that society with the EU which is already very diverse in cultures existing at national levels. This is why it appears very puzzling to perceive any reorientation away from Russian influence and legacy as the abandonment of heritage results in consequences. Have there been any calls to abolish Ukrainian or Russian languages or prohibit religious practices as the condition of the EU acceptance? No! There you go about Western imperialism. Cultures are the choice to keep or modify as the population see it fit for themselves. No theological dogma based on religion has the right to proclaim arrogantly that the sense of identity belongs to such institutions blindly and unconditionally. It is a self serving agenda to distort culture and religious practices as if by “God” bestowed privilege kind of brain washing monopoly, never dare to question propagation of mentality. Totally incompatible with self determination and liberty concepts. Does Russian orthodox church have the right to equate that institution with an absolute mind control to preserve Ukrainians sense of who they are while kremlin nobilities are laughing at peasants foolishness hysterically? Religion is not synonymous with culture, merely influenced its development in the past by shaping some attributes.

Having said that, Ukrainians do need to be cognizant about the damage to economic and political ties with Russians who are absolutely towering in trade relations relatively to the EU exports from that country. Do Western Europeans genuinely wish to develop Ukraine and into the EU integrate or merely use as the proxy to use for foreign policy new card acquisition in order to “influence” Russians while treating Ukrainians in the same manner as Turkey that has been disillusioned for over a decade and now develops remarkably well in GDP better than any EU member country without obsessing about EU admission.

Russian federation definitely has the stick in addition to carrots and are willing to exercise the hand while bashing Ukraine with the club. That is how they are! No secret about it. Maneuvering for geopolitical influence has always been dirty business. The irony tends to be that had Russians developed an attractive government model to replicate and tackled awful corruption domestically, then Ukrainians would have naturally gravitated toward it. Right now unlike RU as dysfunctional as Ukraine has been politically, the system is very different from Russia because it is no longer revolving around any dominant, tsar kind of leader at the helm. Good tsar, bad tsar hardly inspires the desire to be at the mercy of such partner, neighbor. So the Ukrainians are probably inclined to “flee” from RU sphere of dominance in spite of real risks to endure the wrath of Kremlin, imposing heavy hit on their economy. Should it occur then Ukrainians will look as victimized for practicing sovereign state affairs and Russians as the bullies, harboring delusional propensity to cling toward rotten Soviet Union legacy of imperial boundaries restoration without the existence of an attractive domestic government model in operation to serve as anchor of a stable large ship, free of tyrannical tendencies remnants which could have drawn smaller boats to revolve around it without fears of subordination, degenerating to servitude kind of model integration risk. The EU model absolutely does offer a genuine model of self determination (assuming Ukraine can ever get there). For Russians Ukrainians are brothers in blood and vassals, must be subordinated to kremlin, historical legacy preservation mentality alive and well. How can Ukrainians be expected to cling to RU? Look up the numbers for statistics about under 40s urban dwellers that wish to leave RU by immigrating to the EU or North America.

PS The language is an ultimate mechanism for transmitting any culture. As long as Ukrainians choose to keep it, their vibrant culture remains, obscuring the issue by framing the EU-RU geopolitical maneuvers as an epic struggle between traditional Russian sense of identity preservation that is supposed to be defined by Moscow domination or else Ukrainians become robbed of who those people are as individuals is flimsy and unconvincing intellectually. The author of that article had his BS published and here is mine alternative.-:)

Posted by ViatcheslavISo | Report as abusive