Editor’s note. This article written by Ukrainian ambassador to Austria Alexander Shcherba and published by The Mirror Weekly on 30 March, 2018.
The victory of Ukraine in the current war is not the scenario that exists in the minds of many Europeans.
What counts most in the long haul of adult life is not brilliance or charisma or derring-do, but rather the quality the Romans called ‘gravitas’: patience, stamina & weight of judgment.(…). The prime virtue is courage, because it makes all other virtues possible.
The day after Jamala’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest I was talking with a representative of one of the European countries. She looked like a frightened bird: Ukraine won against Russia, and in such a dramatic final, and with such a “political” song – what will happen now, hasn’t Europe gone too far in its support of Ukraine? At that moment I was thinking: something is wrong with courage on our continent.
The victory of Ukraine in the current war is not the scenario that exists in the minds of many Europeans. Our battle of good and evil seems to them as an internal Ukrainian tragedy. It is easier to understand. It is more convenient. So it’s more comfortable. The illusion of the “civil war” implies that Europe should act as a mediator and peacemaker. The truth about external aggression means that European realities need to be radically revised. The truth will put Europe at the center of this war. Illusion puts it above the war. Is it still strange that many are “glad to be deceived”?
Many Europeans would have surrendered in our conditions. And it’s not because of Russia’s nuclear capabilities or its intoxication with power. And it’s not even because of Europe has been turning into a sort of supermarket where Gazprom is quietly walking and putting influential politicians one by one into a basket. All these factors are important, but in fact they reflect something more – the “spirit of the time” that makes Europe doubt itself.
History is the greatest hoaxer and at the same time the unmasker, Giordano Bruno and Giuseppe Cagliostro in one person. It raises generations on the barricades, and then laughs in their faces. On the ruins of the devastating war and the Berlin Wall, it created the “United Europe” – one of the greatest creations of human civilization, similar in scale to the Renaissance or the Age of Enlightenment, and then, during the life of the same generation, put it on the edge of an abyss. The “spirit of the time”, which 25 or even 10 years ago aspired for more freedom and democracy, suddenly ran like a clock in the Salvador Dali’s painting. The “pragmatism” has become the day motto, a pretty word behind which there is a principle of “freedom and democracy for us, but not necessarily for you”.
Probably nobody would admit it but now he interests of Europeans are pointed at establishing a new balance with Russia. This is at least. Even better to enter the huge Russian market, not being distracted by Putin’s wars or human rights violations. It was going in that direction until 2014. On the one hand, the European Union was forming beautifully, and on the other hand, there was, roughly speaking, a process of forming the Putin-led “Russian world” – a community of countries where freedom and democracy are not res omnium, but spoil of affluence for chosen. As Ostap Bender would say, “quasi una fantasia.”
Economic prospects were exciting: the project “United Europe” supposed to become a part of the EU-Russia-China Eurasian trade chain. Plans for a single Eurasian railway based on the Trans-Siberian Railway were being worked out. The Western Europe-Western China highway has already been drawn on the map. Vast sums of money were made on Sochi Olympics. An extensive network of shadow and especially profitable financial services of corrupted Russian, Ukrainian and other post-Soviet capitals had already grown in the West. The “Russian world” would have become a new growth space for Europe. Europe would have become a source of modern technologies and investments for the “Russian world”.
And then the 2014 has come. Everything fell down. Ukraine refused to be part of the Russian space. Russia stopped pretending to be Europe. Europe got divided by a crack, at first, thin as a hair on Putin’s bald head, then wider and deeper. Ideals were cracking under the pressure of selfish interests. European confidence in the future has staggered in a flow of Syrian, Libyan, Iraqi, and Afghan (but not Ukrainian!) refugees. The light went out. Dark times have come.
For Russians, we got in the way of restoring their imperial status. For some Europeans, we blocked their fabulous enrichment. Do I need to explain why one side hates us and another gloss over the problem? It’s not that it’s easy to understand Ukraine – we often don’t understand our country ourselves. But the fact that in 2013-2014 people went to Maydan with the same intentions as when East Germans crashed their wall in 1989, should have been met with respect. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case.
“It is obvious that Ukraine is the next step in creating of united Europe,” we tell ourselves. Yet, it is obvious for us, but not for Europe. In part, it can be explained by our ageless sins like corruption or chronically irresponsible political class. But the root of the problem is that we face much more difficulties than they did. East Germans went with the flow, while we are rowing against it. They were breaking the wall, which was already crumbling. We have to “beat the rock”, which is getting stronger. The time of the bridges, unfortunately, is over. The time of the walls is coming back, at least, in the nearest future.
The European Union, saying it nicely, is weakened, and the lack of a unity in reaction to the poisoning of Skripal is just another evidence of this. NATO is split, for what is the partnership worth of without of a mutual confidence in the partners? Russia is strong in its words, but its economy and society are seriously ill and does not show any interest in therapy. China is strong and economically omnipresent, but remains closed in itself. American news sometimes remind a surreal soap opera and nobody knows how long it is going to be.
Where is our place in this world of crumbling principles and illusory prospects? The answer is probably consists of two parts – internal and external. The internal place of Ukraine depends on the success or failure of reforms. Perhaps, it is hard to believe but in my opinion, we have never been so close to success as we are now. At least, the list of “problem issues” during the recent Austrian president visit to Ukraine was unprecedentedly short, and the list of potential investors into Ukraine was impressively long. Yes, a great many have not made a final decision about Ukraine yet. Why? Because of the war.
The number of reform laws that have been adopted, the number of new people in power, the will to change, the somewhat tamed bureaucracy, the level of freedom and creativity in the air are still far from our hopes of 100%, but it is already enough to move forward. From this jump we are separated only by one word: “war”. The enemy jumps out of skin, convincing us and itself that we are falling down, just because we are so close to success. The enemy do not hurry to finish this war, because only the war stands between us and success. And, nevertheless, I am sure that we can win this war.
As soon as the words “Ukraine” and “war” cease to sound in one sentence, serious European investments will come to us. This is precisely the case when Western “pragmatism” will work in our favor. Investors are interested in only two things – the readiness of Ukrainians to work honestly and the framework conditions for business. The first point has always been present in Ukraine. The second had appeared in recent years. The last thing remains: to do everything so that the curse of war does not hang over Ukraine.
Now, about the external answer. Obviously, you cannot stop being who you are. Russia will not stop being a wolf, which must be feared. Ukraine will not cease to be a bunch of nerves and will, running away from its own dirt and sin. And since it sees in Russia a reflection of its own dirt and sin (and in recent years, also unprovoked malice, lies, and aggression), then the direction of the Ukrainian movement will be away from Russia.
Away from Russia, but towards what? Europe, too, will not cease to be what it is. Namely, an idea that ignites the hearts and that got absorbed in the flesh and blood of the most European nations. The idea of freedom and democracy, through which you can achieve peace and prosperity. As long as the European idea does not depreciate, the European Union will not depreciate for us. Therefore, by the way, the Kremlin directs its main efforts against the European idea. Therefore, it is “gay-rope” and “toileria” are Russia’s main horror stories.
Yes, internally Europe strives for reconciliation with Moscow, and sooner or later, when the moment ripens, regardless of our emotions, it will go for such reconciliation. Yes, it is possible to predict with the same degree of probability the further rejection by Europe of any confrontation in the Russian direction. And yet, the conditions and circumstances of reconciliation between the EU and Russia will depend on discrediting or affirming the European idea. From this point of view, Ukraine is a historical test for the United Europe. Roughly speaking, if they give up on Ukraine, they will sell their soul. Therefore, no one would leave us alone completely. They will be looking for a compromise somewhere between the two extremes – capitulation and confrontation.
An obvious danger for Ukraine is the growth of nationalist tendencies in Europe. It is enough to glimpse at the European politics in recent years to understand that nationalism is not love, nationalism is selfishness. There are no stronger supporters of Putin in Europe than nationalist parties. There are those to whom our pain is not just indifferent, but a joy. The blinder we are, the sooner we burn in our fever, the faster we gnaw each other’s throats, then the easier it will be for them to say: this Europe is burned out, let’s build another.
For Putin it would be a historic opportunity to adjust the course of the European ship, to break the transatlantic link. It would automatically mean a way out of the paradigm of the United Europe and running up to the national apartments. Which, in turn, would raise Russia to the level of Gulliver in the country of the Lilliputians. This gloomy scenario also takes place, although its probability is not high – all for the same simple reason: unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has no idea that would unite around her anyone but its pocket politicians or nostalgic dictators. Russia has learned how to get into European minds and wallets, but it cannot ignite European hearts.
With all the diversity of political trends, today’s Europe can be divided into two camps: liberal and nationalist. European nationalism will frantically force us out of Europe and shove us into the “Russian world” – because they see us there. No EU enlargement is foreseen in their imagination. They have not yet fully reconciled with the membership of Romania and Bulgaria. On the turn – wringing hands about the Balkan countries affiliation to the EU. These tragic heroes will not think about Ukraine in Europe yet. It’s better not to scare them, but our place is in the United Europe. Those who cares about it gradually get used to this idea.
It is clear that liberal Europe alone is not enough for the world stability. America, with its upcoming parliamentary and then presidential elections, remains that unknown value in the equation on which a very important interim response for Ukraine depends. Richard N. Haas, the long-standing president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, recently published an article Farewell to the liberal world order. Among other things, he gave his diagnosis to Western countries: the loss of influence on the people by the elite. In other words, one of the most intelligent analysts in America states the situation: while in Russia the ruling elite is completely controls its people, the West risks turning into a walking bundle of nerves, whose head is not friendly with the body. It is an ideal environment for populism. A terrible and very untimely diagnosis. I hope, it’s hasty. At least at the end of the article, Haas gives a thin hope: the November elections will show whether the head and body will reconcile in America. If not – well, the world will become even darker.
What should Ukraine do? Count on yourself. Do not build unnecessary illusions about the West, but remember: “times are not chosen.” The heroic days are replaced by the cowardly times and vice versa, sometimes within a life of one generation. We are on a difficult but correct path. We already have two key instruments in relations with Europe: broad access to markets and a visa-free travel. Also (and it’s important!) the support and understanding of many decent, sincere, and courageous Europeans. What we have to do is to show through concrete deeds and ratings, own faith and goodwill that Ukraine is at least not worse than the “Russian world” for the economic growth of Europe. And then, God bless, the spirit of the times will change.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Austria’
Photo by Vasilij Artyushenko, ZN.UA
Translated by Maryna Lyutenko, edited by Svitlana Kemblowski