Community News

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine

Window on Eurasia: Tensions between Russia and Ukraine Reflect Different Attitudes to History, State and Individual, Kyiv’s Ambassador to Moscow Says

Paul Goble

Bloomsburg, November 10 – Tensions between the Russian and Ukrainian governments are “not an argument between colonizers and the enslaved” but rather a dispute between those who see the state and its continuity as more important than the individual and liberals who put their faith in individuals and society, according to Ukraine’s ambassador in Moscow.

That division, Konstantin Grishchenko argues in the current issue of “Zerkalo Nedeli,” falls “not along the line of state borders,” of course, “but within both Ukrainian and Russian society. [The two countries are] not so dissimilar in that, [but] they are different “in the proportion of supporters of the first and second sets of values” (

“Rational” people, the Ukrainian diplomat says, “cannot but be surprised that such questions of a humanitarian nature and not problems of economics and security define the tonality and content of Ukrainian-Russian dialogue.” But the reason is that since 1991, the two countries “have become very different.”

For Ukrainians, he continues, the entire Podrabinek case appears “extremely strange,” but a careful examination of it shows that over the last 18 years, Ukrainians and Russians, “while preserving a multitude of common interests have begun to set themselves apart both by models of societal development and by their worldviews.”

For the Russian “establishment, Grishchenko suggests, “the state is considered an important super-values, which forms around itself a system of firm values and priorities.” And equally, the Russian elite has accepted the “idea of the uninterrupted quality of the process of state construction.”

What that means, the ambassador says, is that “any power which has been able to achieve a strong position in Russia and to obtain legitimacy in the eyes of its own citizens will become an inalienable part of the historical fate of Russia and ‘the Russian path.’” Thus, 1991 does not represent a moment of discontinuity for Russians the way it does for Ukrainians.

Many Russians as a result do not know what the Day of Russia on June 12th means because “the Russian political leadership avoids any reference to the events of August 1991 as ‘a democratic revolution.’” For both, “contemporary Russia didn’t break out of ‘the prison house of peoples’ but only appeared in place of a system which did not withstand the test of history.”

This attitude does not mean that the current Russian powers that be want to restore what was, but rather it suggests that “for the Russian elite, the underlying idea remains the unbroken quality of the state forming process and an orientation on the greatness of Russia as the key goal” of the current leaders.

“In Ukraine,” he says, “the historical process is not conceived of as integral. On the contrary, the period in which Ukrainian lands were within the Russian Empire and the USSR are viewed primarily as stages of national historical development which had for the most part negative consequences.”

Such a “lack of correspondence” in the assessment of the past “naturally leads to conflicts and contradictions between Ukraine and Russia concerning the interpretation” of any particular event. But in saying that, Grishchenko goes on, “it is important to correctly understand the internal essence of these discussions.”

They are “not so much an argument between colonizers and the enslaved as a dispute between those who focus on the state as the most important thing and liberals.” Thus, for the former, Stalin’s industrialization and the great terror “exist as it were in parallel worlds,” but for the latter, the two can never be divorced one from the other.

These differences in worldview, in turn, affect politics. On the one hand, Ukraine and Russia have a very different political system. In the former, voters are unwilling to give any part an overwhelming majority and thus have contributed to political instability, while in the latter, the electorate has been prepared to do just that and helped erect the power vertical.

And on the other, the two countries dealt with the greatest crises since 1991 in very different ways: In 1993, Moscow used force to resolve the conflict between the president and the parliament; in 2003-2004, Ukrainians dealt with their political problems in a very different and far more peaceful way.

Such differences, Grishchenko argues, reflect “deeply held predispositions in the consciousness of the government elites of the two related peoples,” not only concerning the goals that are the most important but equally significant between the methods that each views as appropriate to achieve its aims.

The elites in each country must recognize these differences if they are to be able to live and work together as they should. “Ukrainians,” their ambassador says, “are seeking to live with Russians as good neighbors in a well-ordered little village where people listen to advice from one another but do not seek to instruct or give orders.”

If one thinks about this, Grishchenko continues, “we are like adult brothers who after the age of 18 left their common home, sincerely love one another, but conduct their affairs independently, talk with one another, but resolve all questions on their own” rather than acting as they did when they were children.
Unfortunately, “it is sometimes suggested that we should again live in a single communal apartment where one of the residents controls the gas and the knobs in the common kitchen,” but the ambassador says, “I am convinced that ‘the times of communal apartments’ have passed away together with the Soviet Union.”

Moreover, he concludes, “Ukraine and Russian in their relations will inevitably move further and form new bases for cooperation and friendship if they acknowledge that we are not the same but that in our interrelationships, we can be strong and successful in the contemporary world.”

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