Interview: Dr. Christian Noack

This month, our first time guest editor and colleague, Ms. Anna Duszczyk,  invited Dr. Christian Noack from the University of Amsterdam, for an in-depth interview on the current crisis in Ukraine. Dr. Noack is an expert on Eastern European History, Media Studies and Slavonic Studies. In this interview, he will discuss his views on the current political situation in Ukraine and the role of Russia and the European Union in the crisis.

Who rules which parts of Ukraine now?

Good question. Basically, Ukraine up to the present is, according to its constitution, a unitary state. That translates that those who are holding power centrally should also be controlling the provinces, as there is relatively little authority assigned, for example, to regional governors or municipalities. In reality, there has been for a considerable period now a significant split. The electorate either opted for nationalist or pro-Western parties in Western and Central Ukraine, on the one hand, and for the Party of Regions, with its strongholds in the South and East, on the other. The fact that pro-Western and nationalist forces could topple the Party of Regions president Yanukovych after the prolonged stand off on the streets of Kiev (and some western Ukrainian towns) in February 2014 does not mean that they could easily ‘take over’ in the East and South. In these regions, anti-government protests in many respect mimicked the strategies of the ‘Maydan’ initially, only to be backed up by paramilitary forces quickly, like on the Crimean peninsula or in the Donbas.

The latter can be related to another problem of ‘ruling Ukraine’ since those February days: bringing the confrontation between the Yanukovych government and the Maydan protesters to head meant that the Ukrainian state lost the monopoly of power. Without going much into details, it might suffice to point at the fact that the Ukrainian police and other security forces have been both discredited and shattered.  Many reports tell us that they are mere bystanders now when clashes on the streets, including violent ones, occur. Or they actively support anti-government forces. Thus the new government has little in the way off executive power – a stark contrast to the ‘Orange Revolution’ scenario of 2004-05, when large parts of the security apparatus changed sides and backed up the former opposition. 

Why is the current Ukrainian provisional government negatively perceived in Eastern Ukraine, especially in Luhansk and Donetsk?  Is it because of the underrepresentation of the eastern regions in the new provisional government? Or maybe that Svoboda, the ultra-nationalist party, received several key positions in the government? Are there any other factors that play a role?

Well, all these factors play a role. As I mentioned above, political preferences were quite polarized in Ukraine. At the same time, neither the pro-Western and nationalist camp, nor the pro-oligarchic and Soviet nostalgic Party of Regions – both characteristics are simplifications – were anytime close to win over the majority of the electorate in the whole of Ukraine. Those parliamentary majorities were ‘made’ by independent or opportunistic deputies in the parliament, who threw their lot with the actual reigning groups. Back to the question, it means that the third of the electorate behind Yanukovych in 2010 (the date of the presidential elections) or 2012 (the last parliamentary elections) were not too happy to see him ousted by the other camp taking the streets. And yes, indeed, the South and the East are hardly represented in the new government, while Russian media has not ceased to depict the ‘new’ government as an agent of ‘fascist’ and ‘Banderovtsy’, which is their terminology for rightist and nationalist forces in current Ukrainian policies. The unnecessary motion against minority rights put forward by the parliament – in which many deputies opportunistically changed sides again in 2014 – made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One more factor deserves mentioning here. Actually, we do not know pretty much about what people in the eastern regions of Ukraine ‘really’ think. That is due to the fact that there is a conscious intimidation of journalists. On the other hand, there seems to be little doubt that many people voted pro ‘independence’ in the East. But what does it mean? Looking back at the last round of referendums, during the late perestroika period, may be instructive. Then many former administrative-territorial units of the Soviet Union declared their sovereignty, without much immediate practical consequence. I have been a lot in Ukraine in 1990 and 1991, and when the population of the Ukrainian SSR, including those of the eastern regions, voted for independence in December 1991, it was a vote for ‘leaving a sinking ship’, then the USSR. Now, that expectation has been profoundly shaken in two decades of independence, yet the option of voting for Russia at the moment, on the Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, might be fuelled by very much of the same sentiment.

According to the Ukrainian provisional government, the separatists in the South and East of Ukraine are actually Russian Special Forces. To what extent do you think this is the case? Putin denies that there are any Russian troops on Ukrainian soil, which he also denied in Crimea, but admitted later.

I have no doubts as to that Russia has its finger in the pie. But I think it can be a bit of too easy an explanation. Without a certain support of those locally concerned – I am not saying that it is a majority – there would have been little to exploit for Russia that way. That is sure for the Crimea, which indeed happened to be a part of Ukraine due to a voluntary decision by a Soviet leader, Khrushchev, in 1954. Thus there has been little in the way of ‘Ukrainianness’ on the peninsula then and not much has developed since. By contrast, Crimea has had a certain place in the imperial self-imagination of the Russian Empire, from Pushkin in the romantic period  through the Crimean War of the mid-1850s to the decision to rebuild Imperial Sevastopol’ after the WW II or to  promote the peninsula as the Soviet Mediterranean in popular culture and tourism. That said, the post-Soviet Russian Federation and the West guaranteed post-Soviet Ukraine’s identity in treaties like the Budapest accord of 1994.

On April 17, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin revived the term ‘Novorossiya’ during his annual call-in show as an attempt to reinforce the connections between this territory (which is located in the East and South of Ukraine) and the former Russian Empire. Can you tell us more about this concept and your views about the future of the geopolitical concept of ‘Novorossiya’?  Ukraine's UN representative Yurii Klymenko has said that Ukraine expects that Russia is on its way to unleash a military intervention in Ukraine's East and South.  Do you think that Russia is attempting to incorporate all of the former ‘Novorossiya’ territory into the Russian Federation?

Novorossiya is a historical designation indeed. Historically, much of the territory of contemporary southern and eastern Ukraine were Steppe territories roamed by nomadic tribes, that none of the neighboring European states like Muskovy or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were able to control. On the contrary, they employed Cossacks, armed peasants fleeing serfdom in those states, settling in the ‘Wild Field’, as it was known then, to fend of attacks by the nomads or the Tatar Khanate of the Crimea, a vassal of the Ottoman sultans. Only with the military revolutions of the late 17th century and the disposal of firearms, the Russian Empire, then stronger that its former Polish competitor, could expand into the steppes. During the late 18thand early 19th century, these territories were populated with colonists by the Russian Empire. These colonist were of different ethnic origin, and only a minority was Ukrainian. The newly populated and very fertile area was baptized ‘Novaya Rossiya’ at the time, which emphasized its character of being a part of the Empire (‘rossiysky’) as opposed of being ethnic Russian (‘russky’) at the time.

Now, Putin is certainly playing on that imperial note by employing the term, which his Soviet predecessors, by the way, carefully avoided to do. Whether Russia really wants to truncate Ukraine further by an annexation of all these territories up to former ‘Bessarabia’, that is current Moldova and its breakaway district of Transdnistria, I have my doubts. On the other hand, some minor figures in the Russian government have already warned Moldova of signing an Association Agreement with the EU, and, to be honest, I could not have imagined the annexation of Crimea if you’d asked me in January this year.

Russia said that new European Union and US sanctions will hinder efforts to solve the crisis in Ukraine and urged the West to persuade the provisional government in Kiev to discuss the country's future (federal) structure before the presidential election, scheduled on May 25.  Do you think a compromise can be reached between the EU/US on one side and Russia on the other side? Could the federalization of Ukraine be the answer as federalization would give some pro-Russian regions in Ukraine the right to block crucial decisions, for example further integration with the EU. Will this compromise be accepted by the provisional government in Kiev? What other options are there?

In my opinion, due to the factual loss of influence in Eastern Ukraine, any government in Kiev will have to consider a degree of federalization – or regionalization. There are not so many ethnic groups in Ukraine that it would require some degree of national autonomy. I think it is rather about balancing interests of differently structured regions. I do not think that regionalization would be a big stepping stone in further negotiations in Ukraine, as it would allow the established camps to entrench themselves further in the regions.

That is exactly the reason why I doubt that it would be the solution either. Look, as long as there would be a consensus that a change of political power is possible and even desirable that would be no problem. It looked as if that was the biggest difference between Russia and Ukraine after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05. But Yanukovych, defeated during the Orange Revolution and in power again since 2010, did everything to revoke constitutional arrangements enabling a regular change of governments in the wake of elections. Each side, at the moment, is depicting the possible political victory of another camp as a political catastrophe.

Against this backdrop, any EU policies that pursue normative aims in influencing Ukrainian developments are problematic. At the same time we need to acknowledge, that the EU’s choices are not simple either. The EU has been severely criticized for not offering Ukraine any accession perspectives after the Orange Revolution. Then again, the European Neighborhood Policy offered too little incentive for a European state like Ukraine, seemingly treated on par with North African states like Tunisia. The Association Agreement, for its part, offered little in terms of short term gains for Ukraine and its ruling elites, while being linked to the conditionality established with the Copenhagen Criteria in 1993. So what we face here, in my opinion, is a real dilemma of ‘soft power’, as opposed to Russian realpolitik: Russia seems to offer short term gains linked to political and economic dependence – the latter existing anyway through Ukrainian dependency on gas, whereas EU offers long-term advantages, at the cost of short and medium term hardships. Given the current economic situation in Ukraine, that does not sound too promising for many people, even if the normative orientation, coupled to the European advance, is attractive to many Ukrainians tired of the notorious corruption and inefficiency endemic to their political establishment. Against this backdrop, however, the choice at the forthcoming election, between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, two oligarchs entrenched in Ukrainian politics for more than a decade, does not forebode too well.

The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and neighboring Luhansk agreed to unite a day after declaring independence. How many people really support the separatist movement? Referenda pointed out that nearly 90% of voters in Donetsk voted for self-rule, in Luhansk 96% voted for independence. But isn’t it the case that many pro-Ukraine activists have left the region after threats, some have been kidnapped, and most of those who disagree chose to boycott the referendum rather than vote no. Are these referenda an accurate representation of the views of its population?

Good question again. As I have pointed out earlier, we do not know really enough about what ‘people really think’ and at least that is partly a result of conscious intimidation of investigative journalism. At the same time, there is no doubt that a significant share of the population in the eastern regions of Ukraine, are willing to throw their lot with the people who are dominating the media coverage, that is, the ‘separatists’. But even if their agenda might be less of an enigma to the local population than to the Western observers (which I doubt it is), then it is still a question of whether they would wholeheartedly support a union with Russia, or whether they simply opted for more independence from Kiev.

Do the people exactly know what they are voting for in these referenda? The leaders of the eastern regions have been sending mixed messages. Sometimes they say it is merely a vote for more autonomy within Ukraine, at other times they say the yes vote is a vote for a new state incorporating Russian-speaking East Ukraine. Others suggested that Eastern Ukraine could join Russia, as was the case with Crimea that joined Russia after a controversial referendum.

As I mentioned earlier, ‘leaving a sinking ship’, given the palpable difference in economic performance between Ukraine and Russia in the border regions, might be enough of a motive to vote against Kiev. A Kiev that is supposedly ‘lost’ to fascist and ultranationalists, as Russian media would have it. And Russian media is quite important in regions, as is the suppression of alternative channels of information, illustrated by attacks on TV stations and journalists recently.

There has been a lot of speculation, indeed, on the role of the local economic elites, in other words, the oligarchs, in supporting centrifugal forces in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Allegedly, some of the oligarchs, above all Rinat Akhmetov, are suspected to have a hand in the emergence of ‘self-defense’ forces in Eastern Ukraine. According to that interpretation, the militias are basically operating to create obstacles for the ostensibly ‘anti-corruption’ government emerging from the Maydan protests in Kiev. It is very difficult to foresee, at the moment, whether the ‘self-defense forces’ are indeed in their majority favoring an annexation of the Donbas by Russia, even if the latest statements of the self-declared leaders of the insurgents point in this direction.

What can the European Union do in this situation?

Well, I think that the Europeans stumbled into a situation that they have not really foreseen. In Europe, the confidence in the persuasiveness of European norms and values is unbroken, and that was confirmed by the EURO-Maydan. Yet, the Association Agreement with its strings attached in terms of the conditionality would have brought Ukraine into a difficult situation in that it implied a political choice between East and West. A successful Ukrainian development along those lines would have laid bare all the defects of Putin’s Russia, and that is probably why he reacted with so much determination. Well, building up Ukraine as a sort of ‘better’ Russia has been on the radar of many American politicians after the Orange Revolution, but I doubt that this was the declared intention of the EU negotiators when preparing the Association Agreement. Indeed, the European reactions to what enrolls before our eyes suggest rather that we Europeans do not have a concept of what Ukraine is to us. But unless we know what kind of Ukraine we want and which price we are willing to pay for it, we cannot develop a credible policy towards it. So we need to come to terms with that question first. I am afraid, however, that the answer will not be very satisfactory for those in Ukraine who threw their lot with Europe.


About Dr. Christian Noack

Dr. Christian Noack has studied Eastern European History, Media Studies and Slavonic Studies at the University of Cologne. His PhD thesis (2000) was devoted to “National Movement and Nation-Building among the Muslims of the Russian Empire.” He taught Eastern European History at the University of Bielefeld, Germany (2000-2007) and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (2007-2011). Currently he is an associate professor for Eastern European Studies at the University of  Amsterdam.

His research is focused on the past and present of Muslims and other Minorities in Russia and Central Asia, the cultural and social history of the late Soviet period and the representations of history and collective memories across Europe. He has edited a book where the role of historical experiences of hunger and deprivation within the emerging national identities and national historical narratives of Ireland and Ukraine are researched named Holodomor and Gorta Mor: Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland.

Interview by Anna Katarzyna Duszczyk.

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