Monday, 19 May 2014

Ukraine: An Explanatory Note

I was recently contacted by a dubious sounding pro-Russian magazine for an interview on Ukrainian oligarchy. Feeling I wasn't qualified to comment and not really understanding the magazine's editorial position or how my words might be used my initial decision was to ignore the request. Then I decided that it was worth restating my own view to be as clear as possible on the subject. Here's what I ended up sending by way of reply to numerous questions, among them one I found particularly worrying on "European Jewry" and its perceived relation to "new money" in the region. It was partly the whiff of anti-semitism in the question that provoked my reply. Anyway, here it is:


Ukraine - defined variously as a loose geographical unit; a linguistically self-contained national entity; or, as in its current form, a multi-ethnic sovereign nation-state - is a long-term victim of Great Power imperial politics. 

For a very long time the aspirations of its people have been subject in one way or another to geopolitical and territorial contests between competing imperial interests. One of the most pronounced ways Ukraine has been made subject to Great Russian, and later Soviet, interests has been through the deliberate fostering of "vertical" political and economic power relations. The centre in Moscow, both under autocratic rulers and Soviet ones, was historically able to win the allegiance of ethnic elites through their partial incorporation in a highly unequal, differentiated system of rule, awarding rights and privileges unevenly throughout the lands of the empire. Thus "vertical" relations of local elites to the emperor replaced "horizontal" relations between citizens.

If this selective favouritism was crucial politically to the Russian empire, it was more pronounced economically under the Soviet regime. Ukraine was economically divided under the the Soviet regime - with different economic centres such as as Kiev, Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk fulfilling different jobs within the wider Soviet economy. As such, territorial homogeneity proved elusive. Arbitrary reorganisation of territories was a regular staple of the Soviet regime - the awarding of the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic being one example. Though the Soviet regime consistently "promoted" national minorities within its territories, it did so as part of a policy of incorporation, pulling particularly promising members of national minorities into the Party's centralising orbit. This did not help foster local territorial and national integrity, but rather made sure all politics was mediated by the "imperial" centre. 

With the collapse of the USSR Ukraine took its place in the very different "imperial" imaginary of sovereign nation states and free trade, as managed by the USA. The US, with its tradition of skepticism towards both patrimonial and colonial empires and "systems of development," had long since advocated a world of nation states (after its own image) interacting in a space of formal equality, though all with close economic ties to the US. The expansion of NATO and the EU both, in their different ways, represent the growing institutional influence of the US-inspired vision of the world.   

Though apparently noble, the world of equally sovereign nation states envisioned by America is in essence an ideological weapon used to help reproduce American "imperial" hegemony. Territorial sovereignty based on linguistic unity and cultural affinity has always worked imperfectly and been applied inconsistently (the US and its allies reserving the right to impinge on the right of national self-determination as they felt fit). Ukraine is caught up in its own territorial contradictions between geographical regions, economic elites, and national ethnicities, fostered over centuries by its inclusion in various forms of Russian imperial rule; the contemporary geopolitical insecurities of Russia and its concern over the influence of NATO in its "own backyard"; and also the expansionary thrust of NATO and the socio-economic and political project of the EU, both of which can be reduced in Russian eyes to "US-backed institutions."  

As far as the future of Ukraine is concerned, it seems quite clear that, as you say, Ukraine's oligarchs stand to benefit a great deal politically even as the country's former territory is lost. This is indeed a worrying phenomenon. One result of the long historical weakness of Ukraine's territorial unity - with its division between competing economic power-bases and shifting borders - has been the emergence of multiple competing economic power blocs. Ukraine is thus carved up regionally between a few industrial barons. Among them, Viktor Pinchuk makes for an interesting example: something of a celebrity among western elites for his philanthropic endeavours (bank-rolling Tony Blair's Faith Foundation to the tune of $80 million), he is also experiencing problems financing the debt on his Interpipe company. Not only is he an example of the interweaving of political and business class interests in Ukraine (he was an MP between 1998 and 2005) but also the mutual support and self-congratulatory systems that cushion the rich globally (he is apparently close to Bill Clinton and Damien Hirst, and owns a house in Kensington). You mention Kolomoyskyi - fittingly given his recent elevation to governorship of the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast; his history of quasi-military mobilizations and his long-term influence as Ukraine's thrid richest individual. Your mention of his Jewish background - and his open celebration of Ukraine's Jewish heritage - seems misguided if not anti-semitic.

I categorically reject explanations of political and/or economic actions purely according to religious affiliation or particular racial characteristics. I find particularly worrying your mention of Kolomoyskyi's representation of the interests of "European Jewry." As far as I'm concerned, Kolomoyskyi has every right to celebrate the historical contribution of Jewish communities to Ukraine and Europe's history - a contribution cut brutally short by Nazi atrocities, many of which were committed on Ukrainian soil. Moreover, Ukraine's oligarchic politics is divided in many complex ways - regionally, economically, and in relation to wider geopolitical affinity. I find it highly unlikely that Jewishness (or for that matter any other religious affiliation) plays any role in dictating political coalitions (except in the eyes of the already prejudiced). In fact, the most worrying development in Ukrainian politics is the growing acceptance in the west of the country of extreme right wing groups (such as Praviy Sektor). It is possible that, owing to the historical division of the country and international power politics, the possibility for a pan-Ukrainian opposition to corruption has been lost. For that we should blame Putin and NATO as well as the fascists on the margins of politics in Kiev.