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Friday, November 29, 2013

Ukraine between a Rock and A Hard Place: East European Geopolitics 101

I am thinking about the ongoing pro-EU demonstrations in Kyiv. Implications for European geopolitics are enormous.

I shudder to imagine what the pro-Russia crowds could / would do once they get fired up in a similar way. (Note on November 30: I first wrote this entry before the outbreak of police violence in Kyiv.)

Just keep that in mind when thinking about Ukraine as a large and complex society, one that includes, horribile dictu, sizeable groups of people who are relatively less excited about the EU, given their social, historical, cultural, moral, familial, etc. ties to Russia, or simply because of their geographical locatedness close to the Russian border, relatively far from the EU. They, too, are citizens of Ukraine, with rights that need to be represented, respected and considered. No sane definition of democracy includes the provision that it can be suspended once we do not agree with our opponent. It is an interesting insight about the current world situation that the 'western' press feels so free to take one side in a deeply divisive issue.

A couple of tens of thousands of students and intellectuals in the street in the capital, no matter how attractive they may seem to us in the west (hint: very), do not a nation, or a political community, make. There seems to be something missing here.

What is seems not to be happening is a normal, cool-headed, balanced, and progressive conversation on the future of Ukraine as a state. Ukraine is, it is safe to say, under tremendous geopolitical pressures nowadays, coming from two sides, neither of which it can possibly disengage from. BTW, I wonder if any of the protestors actually understand that what Yanukovych didn't sign is NOT EU-membership but a deal that would have given more open access by west European capital to Ukraine's resources. Essentially, the geopolitical question at this moment is this:

 "Will west European capital or Russian capital gain the upper hand in dominating Ukraine?"

To put this in perspective, here are the global trajectories of Ukraine, Russia and the EU over the last almost-three decades:

Both suiters are significantly more powerful and richer than Ukraine. All three of them have suffered losses in global position, both in terms of global economic weight and as for wealth; for Ukraine and Russia, the drops were well-nigh catastrophic; Russia's fall was less deep, and it recovered more.

All other things equal, partial integration with the EU (i.e., provision of no-holds-barred access for west European capital to Ukraine) threatens to expose Ukraine to a major resource grab by west European interests. Integration with Russia will do the same, albeit possibly with different structural features, and benefiting Russian capital. A large part of the population of the east of Ukraine already relies on (mainly informal-sector) labor incomes from Russia, and there are no language barriers to speak of.

Based on these considerations, what kind of policy would a rational political elite pursue? I'm not quite sure--but it seems to me that a unilateral pledge of allegiance to the EU does not follow from this graph.

As for the "softer'--social, moral, cultural, etc.--aspects of membership, especially if we try to take a critical, unbiased look at the current EU, one really has to be seriously delusional to predict that Ukraine will attain full membership in the EU in our lifetime. Even Romania and Bulgaria (two ostensibly full members of the European Union) are repeatedly, and publicly, humiliated in British (and, not so brashly, but with equal consistency also in continental European) politics for the temerity of imagining that they might, possibly, maybe, who knows, perhaps, etc. . . . consider actually using their legal rights as EU citizens to seek protected, legal, equal-pay, equal-benefit, etc. work in Britain or the continental EU. Needless to say, proclamation of the free movement of labor is one thing that makes the EU exciting than an ambitious customs agreement with a free trade zone.

That people could actually think that there will be full EU-membership for Ukraine in the politically foreseeable future suggests that they have basically no idea how the EU works, what it is, etc. I don't blame them--I am sure there are deep structural reasons for that ignorance--but it is still that: ignorance, of colossal consequences.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Scheissausländer Forever

A British paper has recently carried an article (no link, not on my blog, sorry) that badmouths EU Commissioner László Andor and uses the expression "the Hungarian" as a xenophobic / EU-phobic slur to demean him. That brought back two memories for me.

I was on fieldwork for my dissertation (later: book) in Austria in 1989. At that time, the mainstream (!) newspapers there were full of stories of blunders, mistakes, faux-pas, etc., made by immigrants; part ridicule, part disdain, the usual soft fascism of the everyday. Say, somebody entered the Autobahn through an exit and drove against traffic for 2 km, stories of this kind. My point: The recurrent label of the perpetrator was: "Der Türke." This struck me as odd since, during my months in Vienna, I hardly interacted with an Austrian-Austrian: On the "street level," it appeared, everybody was a foreigner, except for one very distinguished looking gentleman who hissed "Scheissausländer" (a Viennese contribution to All-German culture, translating approximately as 'shit foreigner') at me when my backpack touched his elbow inside the hyper-romantic Tram 1 as it passed in front of Freud's favorite café.

Then came the 1989 Christmas shopping season. On November 7, 1989, the last time the day of the Russian revolution was a state holiday in Hungary, a huge proportion of Hungary's population was spending their hard-earned hard currencies in Austria, giving an unprecedented boost to the lower-third segment of the commercial world of Vienna. The star commodity at the time was a then-still-Yugoslavian-made deep freezer called Gorenje. (BTW, Gorenje freezers were also sold in Hungary, only at higher prices. Since purchases in Austria entitled Hungarians to the VAT refund while Hungary, for its part, implemented a breathtakingly stupid duty-free system for consumer imports, it was cheaper to squeeze the entire family in the family car, drive to Vienna, struggle through the lines, spend your last two years' hard-currency savings on a trivial household item, attach the newly bought freezer box on top of the family car, and drive back to Hungary than buying the same freezer in a store 5 minutes from your house in Hungary. Because of the size of the crowds and the sclerotic processing on the border, the bottleneck went from the Austro-Hungarian border to Vienna Airport--cca. 70 km.)

A large part of this commerce concentrated on one particular street, called Mariahilferstraße--re-baptized in the Viennese press, with a typically Austrian, winking-gemütlich lie, as Magyar-hilferstraße (i.e., the 'street that helps Hungarians'). Several stores had large, xeroxed signs, saying, in Hungarian:

"Magyar! Ne lopj!" ("Hungarian! Don't steal!")

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta