For Ukraine and Russia last year proved out to be a year of relative stability, both in political and economical terms. But 2016 ended with a newly elected American president, who could turn this status-quo upside down. Nobody knows what to expect in 2017. But Russia will stay its course of expansionism and authoritarianism. And Ukraine will follow its current path to European integration and reforms.
For both Ukraine and Russia 2016 proved to be a year of relative stability, both in political and economical terms. The Ukraine/Russia-border, including the frontline between the Ukraine and Russia-controlled parts of Donbass, didnot change since the second Minsk agreements (February 2015). Nor have there been any serious changes in government (the nomination of a new prime-minister in Ukraine did not cause any serious political turbulence) or economic life (Russia’s economy is still slowly declining, Ukrainian economy has recovered after the serious breakdown in 2014-2015 and even shows some scarcely visible growth despite war and territorial loss). Against the backdrop of this relative stability, the population of both countries got a breathing space to reconsider and adjust to the new social realities after Ukrainian Maidan and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
However, the scope and direction of the changes in Russian and Ukrainian society are very different. The two countries are growing more and more apart. In both cases, there is a peculiar duality of social life and cultural orientation. But the difference is that Ukrainian duality is, and will be, an important factor of the ongoing social changes, whereas Russian duality basically stagnates, and, as we shall see, cannot lead to any political renovation.
New Ukraine vs. old Ukraine
The Ukrainian duality has been aptly described by George Soros as ‘new Ukraine’ vs. ‘old Ukraine’. ‘The old Ukraine had much in common with the old Greece that proved so difficult to reform: an economy that was dominated by oligarchs and a political class that exploited its position for private gain instead of serving the public,’ wrote Soros in October 2015. ‘The new Ukraine, by contrast, is inspired by the spirit of the Maidan revolution in February 2014 and seeks to radically reform the country.’
These ‘radical reforms’ , indeed, made their way through 2016 – slower than radical reformers would wish, but amazingly fast and broad as compared to all of the previous 24 years of Ukrainian independence.
Gaspipelines from Russia to Europe. Source: Wikipedia
This year for the first time Ukraine survived without any Russian gas purchased directly from Russia. For Ukraine Russian gas blackmail is a thing of the past, hopefully, forever.
Ukraine has started the long-expected reform of its judiciary system – so that in 2017 there is a chance to see a palpable renovation of Ukrainian courts, starting from the Supreme Court and all the way down. Contrary to many pessimistic expectations, Ukraine has launched an impressive set of anti-corruption measures and mechanisms (including obligatory internet publication of incomes of a wide range of government officials) that will slowly but steadily clean up the situation, working gradually upward. Reforms of local government, law enforcement system, taxation system and local printed media are all in progress. Last but not least – 2016 was the last year of state-owned broadcasting, whereas in 2017 a new Ukrainian public broadcasting system will kick-off, financed by the state but controlled by apublicly elected governing body.
International political upheaval raised fears in Ukraine as to whether the US and Russia in 2017 might strike a new deal (or, at least, find a new balance of power) at the expense of Ukraine, including its territorial integrity. Indeed, nobody, including Donald Trump himself, seems to know what the new president of the United States is about to do. Ukraine is one of the few world countries that is very dependent on Western support for its security. Without western support Russia would act much more aggressively, at the cost of considerably more Ukrainian lives and territories. However, discussions after Trumps election have shown that both the government and civil society have defined certain ‘red lines’ that Ukraine is willing to defend with diplomatic and military means.
In 2017 from Ukraine can be expected the reinforcement of ‘new Ukraine’. If no major international cataclysms take place, it will not allow the ‘old Ukraine’ any chances to drag the country into disorder or back to the pre-Maidan rapacious oligarchic order.
'Ukrainian selfie during Maydan': Cossacks answer the Sultan by Ilya Repin.
The situation in Russia is quite different. The Russian duality, that has long hypnotized the minds of many intellectuals both inside and outside of Russia, is that between Russian (high-spirited) cultural and (barbarian) political life.
In his book Entscheidung in Kiev: Ukrainische Lektionen (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2015) the German historian Karl Schlögel spoke about the choice between ‘Putin’s Russia and another Russia, which also exists despite all nationalistic and chauvinistic mobilization.' Indeed, there are ‘other Russians’ who have not given in to Putin and his current expansionist policy. The question is: do these ‘other Russians’ represent a kind of alternative political body, that is now oppressed but can prevail after Putin’s rule has become history? Karl Schlögel certainly thinks so. ‘Germans have a choice: either join Putin’s Russia, or preserve their loyalty to those who stand for the defense of Ukrainian integrity and the "Revolution of Dignity", as well as that Russia, that will come after Putin’.
I deeply respect Karl Schlögel’s efforts to reconsider, sincerely and painfully, a great number of his previous views on Russia and Ukraine. As many other sympathizers of Russian culture, he was shocked by the occupation of Crimea. He acknowledged that Ukraine is a country, and nation, in its own right, not just a Russian province. He had to overcome the post-1945 German ‘complex of Russia’ in order to admit that under Putin Russia became a predator and unjust aggressor. He is still trying to grasp what went wrong with Russia, given the fact that since 1990s Russia seemed to gradually become a ‘normal country’. His sincere love to the 'other Russia’ that he knows from his long personal experience finds shelter in the belief that sooner or later this alternative Russia will prevail not only in spiritual, but also in political terms.
In order to explain why this belief is futile, I must briefly refer to some basics of Russian history. Moscow 'Rus’, that became the nucleus of the future Russian Empire, adopted a Western type of spiritual culture (religion and theology, arts, elements of intellectual life). However, when this Russian state eventually threw off the dominance of the Tatar-Mongol Golden Horde and rapidly expanded over huge territories, the only available model of political infrastructure it could adopt to control the newly acquired lands was that of the Golden Horde – not that of the already disappeared Byzantium. So it happened that the newborn Russian Empire combined a double and contradictory cultural heritage: its spiritual culture basically came from the West, whereas its political and legal culture basically came from the despotic East.
This mixture proved to be amazingly stable. In fact, it survived throughout the lifespan of the Russian Empire proper and its renewed version known as the Soviet Union. Now it is still visible in its biggest successor state, the Russian Federation.
Of course, there were numerous calls and attempts to incorporate western principles into Russian political life: in theory, since the mid-18th century, in practice, since the mid-19th century. However, all practical steps in this direction led immediately either to serious internal political fights between different social strata, or straight away to disintegration of the imperial political structure.
Alexander II, named ‘Tsar-Liberator’ for his sweeping program of liberal reforms, was killed in 1881 by Russian terrorists after having survived five other attempts at his life (more than any other Russian emperor). No wonder that his son Alexander III instantly stopped the last liberal initiative of his deceased father (thus postponing the convocation of the first Russian parliament from 1881 until 1906) and tried to reverse other liberal reforms as much as possible.
Pyotr Stolypin, the liberal-minded reformist Russian Prime Minister, was assassinated in Kyiv in 1911. At the same time, his pro-European reforms, especially the agrarian one, imposed despite numerous protests (including that of Leo Tolstoy), shook the imperial social structure so deeply that it greatly facilitated the rapid disintegration of the Russian Empire in 1917-1918.
Most of the imperial territories, however, were quickly reassembled by the Bolsheviks, who used a renewed version of despotic authoritarian power and successfully suppressed political turbulence via a radical simplification of the imperial social structure (by totally eliminating the Russian nobility). However, subsequent attempts to liberalize the political and economical life in the Soviet Union produced the same results: the political unrest after Khrushchev's Thaw was rapidly suppressed and the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable after Gorbachev’s Perestroika.
There is nothing mystical, however, about all these regularities. They simply show that vast empires like the Russian encompass so many different people and territories that they can be held together and inculcated with the feeling of unity only by a harsh, inherently illiberal, authoritarian superstructure.
From this angle, the shift from Yeltsin to Putin and the subsequent course of events in Putin’s Russia mainly prove that the Russian Federation is still too big and internally heterogeneous to afford any further liberalization without immediate danger of further disintegration.
No spiritual culture in politics
That is why I think all attempts – still very popular among Western intellectuals and politicians – to assess Russia as a political body through the prism of its spiritual culture utterly naive. Russian culture is, indeed, quasi-Western, or expresses itself in a cultural language, that is partly understandable, and thus mysteriously alluring, to a Western educated public. However, in Russia itself this cultural layer was and still is the product of an insignificant minority, with zero political influence; moreover, it is consumed by the Russian public only privately, not as an expression of a common political life, but rather the opposite: as a common escape from it.
Against this bitter political and social reality (the inescapable duality of ‘two Russias’ that meet only to collide and harm each other), it sounds like a grotesque joke that many Westerners dream about a future Russia after Putin as a country, within the same borders, ruled by a successful heir of the Russian liberal intelligentsia.
In fact, some of them do not even wait for the end of Putin’s rule. ‘An average Italian,’ reported one Ukrainian journalist in December 2016, ‘thinks and acts as if there is no Putin in the Kremlin, but Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Italian politicians act accordingly’. Alas, it seems that politicians and the educated public in other European countries generally fare not much better. Even sincere and now honestly pro-Ukrainian Karl Schlögel expects one day to see the current heirs of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in the Kremlin.
This is not going to happen. And if it will, by any chance, will immediately put an end to the current Russian Federation, no less drastic than the end of Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union.
Unsolvable dilemma for liberal Russians
To put it simpler and make it more visible, let’s imagine that some liberal-minded Russian politician enters the Kremlin and takes the full weight of political responsibility for Russia the next day after Putin went out of office.
One of the first questions this lucky politician has to answer is whether Crimea rightfully belongs to Ukraine or Russia. If he says ‘Russia’, he goes back straight to Putin’s track with only cosmetic changes. Is his answer ‘Ukraine’, he immediately faces an explosion of political centrifugal movements (starting, most probably, from Chechnya in the Caucasus and then upstream the Volga-river) that was Putin’s main fear when he became president in 2000.
That is why Russia in 2017 will stick to its course of expansionism and authoritarianism as surely as Ukraine will follow its course of European integration and liberal reforms. Luckily, Ukraine seems homogeneous enough to afford them and preserve its integrity, notwithstanding all internal cultural differences.
‘New Ukraine’ and ‘Putin’s Russia’ will politically survive in 2017 as they did in 2016: the first is running away from the historical paths of the Russian Empire; the second continues its historical vicious circle.