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Who understands Ukraine?

Jan 30,2014 - Last updated at Jan 30,2014

The Western press doesn’t understand Ukraine. That is clear after weeks of reporting the demonstrations.

We are given the absolutely minimal background on the history and culture of Ukraine. This is like writing about the sea waves only, not about the fish and rocks beneath.

Until relatively recently, the national consciousness of Ukrainians rarely surfaced. In the mid-19th century, when it was almost a totally peasant society, they were either subjects of Russia or Austria — and quiet ones.

Only gradually did a sense of being Ukrainian develop.

Even as part of the Soviet Union, nationalists were a small minority. Their best and brightest went to Moscow to study, write, sing, dance or work in government. This is what they wanted to do and the people back home were proud of them.

Nikita Khrushchev was Ukrainian and rose to be premier of the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1964. (He was responsible for building the Moscow metro and later denounced Stalin in a landmark speech.)

So most Ukrainians did not feel, politically, as outsiders.

But we can go further back than that. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The Roman Empire ceased to exist. After the fall of Constantinople, the centre of gravity of the Orthodox Church, which many consider to be the true church, shifted to Kiev and Moscow.

For a long time, the Ukrainian church was independent. Not until 1686 did it come under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate.

Moscow was considered to be the “Third Rome”, following the previous sites of the headquarters of the church in Rome and then Constantinople. The powerful and popular church in Ukraine owes allegiance to the Moscow patriarchate.

Ukraine’s industry and agriculture remains dependent on supplying Russia. Oil supply will long be an umbilical cord. Even if the country moved its centre of gravity westwards, these things would remain true.

Arts and culture have long had a significant Russian orientation. A number of Ukrainians wrote in Russian and are considered by Russia to be among the best: Nickolai Gogol, the playwright who satirised political corruption in the Russian Empire, Mikhail Bulgakov, the novelist, author of the enduring best-seller “The Master and Margarita”, and Anna Akhmatova, the greatest female poet in Europe, among others.

Fifty per cent of the population of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, speak Russian at home.

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not expect Ukraine to lose its present day independence. But he would like history to be recognised. The closeness is far more than Britain and France or Spain and Italy. It is more like Germany and Austria or Sweden and Norway.

From Moscow’s perspective it makes economic sense if Ukraine furthers its economic links by joining the new customs union that embraces many ex-Soviet states. It will also give Ukraine a powerful voice again in Moscow.

But this does not mean that Ukraine cannot get closer to Europe. Only, it must take it a step at a time, just like Turkey.

Ukraine is less economically developed than Turkey and is politically less democratic. There is no good reason, other than EU realpolitik, why Ukraine should jump over Turkey in the queue.

When in office, Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-president of the Soviet Union, used to talk about Russia as being part of the “European home”. Putin echoed that sentiment. But Europe has not reciprocated, even though Russia’s culture and arts are arguably the leaders of all Europe.

The US and Europe have broken the US promise not to expand NATO up to the Russian borders. Besides being militarily unnecessary, it is a profound provocation, putting Russia on the defensive and make it wonder what the EU is up to when it wants to embrace Ukraine so tightly.

Personally I favour Ukraine being at the front of the queue for entering the EU, just as I feel about Turkey, but the EU has not set about it in a sensitive enough way.

Perhaps there is a way for the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union to forge a treaty of cooperation.

The demonstrators have to straighten their ideas out. Too many of them appear to be allowing the violent militants (many from the far right) too much latitude.

Only if the majority of the crowd now occupying the city’s main square makes it clear to those using violence against the police that it must stop will a full dialogue with the government be possible.

Maybe a new election, as the opposition calls for, will break the impasse between the opposition and President Victor Yanukovych, especially if political prisoners, including Yulia Tymoshenko, are freed.

But whoever wins an election would have to acknowledge the importance of the Russian-speaking east and not try to steamroller it.

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