“Where’s Kiev?”

A cautionary tale

“… nothing threatens Ukraine’s capacity to survive as an independent nation alongside Russia quite so much as pretending – contrary to geographical and cultural realities – that the country faces west.”

By Gary Scarrabelotti*

Passing through yet another line of airport security, this time at Heathrow, London, I was pondering distractedly how I had come earlier that day in another country to lose my last $US100 note.

There was this ethnic kaleidoscope of the new Britain manning the post, and in the midst of it a sole Anglo specimen – fat, female and surly.

“Got any liquids there?”

“No,” I replied, in a far-off tone, as I struggled to recall the events of the afternoon and to figure out how that Yankee note had disappeared.

And, then, sliding back to the here and now, I became aware of a stony silence and head-shakings, of necks being retracted and shoulders being dropped and rounded.

There was, in fact, liquid in the calico bag that I’d dumped into the mouth of the X-ray monster that lay across my path: that blasted Eau de Cologne I had bought a few hours back way out beyond the fringe of Europe.

“Well, I’d forgotten …”

“Lied, more like it, Guv”, or so the looks replied.

I was ordered aside, as a suspect terrorist, into a queue of similarly shame-faced passengers to explain myself while an unlovely Brit rummaged through my bag.

“So what’s this?” she demanded with a sudden transformation of the face. In what had been plump and featureless, tiny, red, watery eyes and an upturned snout appeared.

“Well, it’s duty free: the plastic bag’s sealed and labelled. I bought it just before I departed Kiev.”

The pudgy hands wrenched at the plastic and stretched it; and the little, blazing, liquid eyes peered at it and its contents as if trying to see through them to some mystery beyond. There was a frown. The beast swayed back on its stiff, splayed legs and a perplexed and angry face thrust itself up at mine.

“Where’s Kiev?”

“Ukraine,” I replied.

The porcine features dissolved and the original pudding quality returned; the colour faded to off-white. The creature had drawn a blank.

Cold reality

After a few days back home from a visit to Ukraine, I began to ponder my Heathrow collision with reality. It ought to send a chill down the spine of every Ukrainian nationalist: an insight into the way things are to add to the sobering failures of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

These days a lot of Ukranians are seriously tempted to despair of politics. With their one-time nationalist heroes now fallen idols and the allies of Russia back in power, a good many Ukrainians are retreating to the fortress of private life.

Viktor Yushchenko, star of those exhilarating by-gone days, was obliterated by a 5.4 per cent vote in the first round presidential elections held in January this year.

“He gave us history and museums, but no work,” a former supporter now dismisses him with contempt.

And, as for his one-time ally-cum-bệte noire, Yulia Timoshenko, she too went down in the February second round elections to the pro-Russian, Viktor Yanukovich, with 45.5 per cent of the vote to his 49.

Timoshenko’s was a respectable result. But it was a shattering blow for the Orange revolutionaries who had put such hopes in her. A striking beauty and highly intelligent, she exhibited an imperious spirit, a stormy temper, and a propensity for non-stop psychological warfare – and this directed, as Yushchencko could bitterly attest, as much against her allies as against the enemies of the Orange Revolution, Moscow’s Ukrainian placemen.

Perhaps Timoshenko was a glorious exemplar of certain Ukrainian female type. But her glory became too much for a crucial 3-5 per cent of Ukrainian voters who could bear it no longer.

The Timoshenko vote was overwhelmingly a west Ukraine and Kiev phenomenon. This is where Ukrainian nationalism is strongest and where the allure of Western Europe, of the EU and NATO is felt most keenly.

Yushchenko was a guileless Europhile. Timoshenko, however, who was born in Dnipropetrovsk and grew up speaking Russian, seems to have had a sharper sense of geo-strategic realities. Despite her taste for anti-Russian rhetoric, she appears not to have shared the wilder infatuations of her pro-Western supporters, something well understood in Moscow where Putin had marked Timoshenko as someone he could deal with.

“Maybe we need a Tsar,” a charming lawyer from Donets’k mused during the Presidential campaigns.

Tsar Vlad could only have agreed. But since he could not then oblige, the Tsarina Yulia option was not without its appeal in Moscow.

The pity of Timoshenko’s defeat is that from the presidential office she could have held in check the wilder Europhile passions of the nationalist camp. But now, as a mere party secretary without a seat in the parliament, her capacity to temper enthusiasms is diminished, while the temptation to stoke them could prove all too appealing to her fiery spirit.

It’s a great danger, as nothing threatens Ukraine’s capacity to survive as an independent nation alongside Russia quite so much as pretending – contrary to geographical and cultural realities – that the country faces west.

Perhaps my silly encounter at that Heathrow security check point might work as a cautionary tale against imprudent “Occidentalism”. There are Europeans who don’t even know that Ukraine exists.

Then there are those who do, but rather wish it didn’t. Consider, for example, how EU visa policy keeps Ukrainians – a highly educated and skilled people – penned behind their borders. Most Ukrainians, therefore, would have no inkling of how often Europeans, in private conversations, love to bitch about their cultural kinfolk, the Christian Slavs, while courageously preserving a strict silence about the Islamic immigration that one day will bury Europe.

Of course, there are those who, when it suits them, do recognise the existence of Ukraine and try to cultivate it: the higher-echelon gnomes of Brussels and the elite officialdom of Europe’s foreign ministries. But their purposes don’t converge with Ukraine’s survival imperative. Europe’s interest boils down to this: to use Ukraine against Russia to limit its strategic reach and to muddle and complicate its influence along its vast periphery. This is a dangerous game to get sucked into, as the experience of Georgia testifies. Timoshenko understood this; but too few, alas, of her supporters do.

Here’s a sobering consideration. What happens when the play goes wrong and the great bear turns hot and nasty?

Europe will send after the event – as it did to Georgia – unarmed observers to note down how an arm had been bitten off here, and a leg torn off there. Cries from the Dnipro will go unheard.

“Where’s Kiev?”

* Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of Aequum: Political & Business Consulting. This is an edited version of an article originally published on HenryThornton.com .

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