Brussels-Moscow Proposes, Kiev Disposes

One could readily be swayed in the long labyrinth of economic and political interests which these days envelope Ukraine, as one’s geopolitical prejudices color our stance on whether this territorially largest nation in Europe should be holding hands with the EU or with the Russian Federation. At the end of the day, however, it’s not how people might feel here in the West that counts, but how the people who inhabit this region of Eurasia feel… not just about their present well-being, but their future as well.

No matter from what vantage point you look, economically, Ukraine is lock, stock, and barrel bankrupt; and that is something any government in Kiev must carefully consider if its true concern is for the people of that nation, and not the personal needs or desires of its politicians, as widely claimed to have happened after the dissolution of the USSR. Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, is but the latest in a series of mandatories that have preferred not to tell Ukrainians of its chronic economic dire straits… looking externally for solutions, the chimera of all short-term politicians. But neither the International Monetary Fund (IMF) nor the EU would consent by any stretch of the imagination to the millstone that Ukraine could represent for them.

Yanukovich’s request that the EU commit $160 billion over a 3-year period seemed way past absurd, particularly with Southern Europe still far from being economically viable. All Brussels had to do is look at the IMF’s intervention in 2008, during the recent global financial crisis, when it gave Tymoshenko’s government a loan for $16.5 billion; also approving a $15.5 billion stand-by program in 2010, this time Yanukovich’s government, which only had $3.5 billion disbursed as Ukraine failed to meet the conditions for the disbursement of the rest. Little wonder that Brussels has been looking at a possible $25 billion during the next 7 years as loans, meeting only 10 percent of Yanukovich’s sky-high expectations. Is it any wonder that, after the EU’s unwillingness to subsidize the government of Ukraine, Yanukovich became more receptive to a helping hand from its powerful East Slav sister-nation, Russia?

Truth be said, Yanukovich’s pursuit of integrating Ukraine with Europe is nonsensical. Culturally, historically and economically the near term future of Ukraine – and likely its far future as well, is tied to its neighbor to the east and north, Russia. Not only is there a very strong commonality between the two major ethnic groups, including intermarriage, but Russia’s population – three times that of Ukraine, and vast natural resources – 10 to 20 times those of Ukraine, make for a perfect geopolitical partnership, one where true synergy could be readily envisioned. So, why is there such disdain by many Ukrainians towards Russia, including that of Yanukovich not so long ago?

In most economic-political alliances, most often the weaker partners feel they aren’t being treated as equals… which at times may be true, while others is not. Not long ago, Viktor Yanukovich was loudly expressing his feelings that Russia wouldn’t consider Ukraine as an equal partner, but apparently he has been convinced otherwise, or the $25 billion deal would not have been inked three days ago. [$15 billion invested against the nation’s debt and a $10 billion subsidy (gift?), a one-third discount in the purchase of natural gas.] Of course, there is likely to be a quid-pro-quo to Russia’s magnanimity.

Vladimir Putin has demonstrated unequaled leadership since taking over the reins of government from Boris Yeltsin in 2000. He has brought order and stability to a nation that had gone through a decade of transition from a central, state economy to one of private enterprise, with corruption and chaos prevailing throughout the nation. Putin brought not only order, but a greatly improved standard of living for the 143-milion people in the Russian Federation. Now Putin is creating what he calls a “customs union of former Soviet states”… and that’s where the quid-pro-quo comes in for Ukraine. But, what would be wrong with that? Not a thing… for it’s likely to create an economic block able to compete, perhaps eventually surpass, the EU and the US. Putin is aiming high, but given both the natural and human resources that would be available in a Eurasian Union, one would do well betting on its success.

Much has been written in the Western Press about those nonviolent revolutions as the Soviet Union economically imploded in 1989; and those color revolutions advocating democracy, human rights and independence from the communist union. For Ukraine it was the Orange Revolution. One extremely important thing which never received much press in the West, however, was Russia’s politically gallant gesture with the sister republics when it took up the responsibility for settling ALL external debt of the USSR… while only comprising half of the USSR population. A singular “farewell Marshall Plan” for each and every republic which had been part of the Soviet Union!

In the summer of 1998 my spouse and I visited Ukraine for the first time during a cruise that would take us to several ports on the Black Sea, two of them in Ukraine: Odessa and Yalta. As the 2,000-passenger ship entered the harbor at Odessa, a decade after the USSR was no more; it seemed as a funereal entrance, myriad permanently-anchored ghost-ships welcoming us in their zombie rusty-best. It was eerie; yes, eerie and sad, as almost total silence had taken over what once had been a vibrant and busy port, busiest port in the Soviet Union. And, as we disembarked early that morning to spend the day touring the sights of Odessa, this city of over a million seemed to be empty as well, a statue of Major General José de Ribas, a Spaniard in the Russian Service, founder of the city two centuries before by order of Catherine the Great, the Russian Empress, seemed to be the only soul, inanimate at that, greeting us. Here we were, climbing the wide Potemkin Steps and walking the main street, Derybasivska (yes, honoring De Ribas, the city’s founder, with a Russian accent).

Discovering a Spanish city-founder in Eurasia was enough of a shock for us; but an even greater shock was the somberness we saw in most people’s faces that we would encounter in the sparse streets and shops. And that somberness, we knew, was not something innate in these people, but on the then current economic situation.

Yes, Ukraine could do much worse by not aligning itself, economically and politically, with the Russian Federation… much, much worse.