On the 17th of July this year an airplane departing from Amsterdam crashed, while it was flying over the Ukrainian province of Donetsk, which is currently beset by pro-Russian groups. The crash could be seen as a tragedy on itself, but it could also be seen as a part of a greater conflict.
As the occasionally violent protests in Ukraine show, lines have been drawn between a pro-European and a pro-Russian side. However, by using the words pro-Europe and pro-Russia, people give off the illusion that Russia is not a part of Europe, but rather Europe’s opposite. It also supposes that the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine wants their country to be the opposite of Europe or that the EU Association Agreement is a join-Europe-today signup sheet. When someone believes this to be true or believes Europe stands for benevolent democracies or Russia for a malevolent dictatorship, this person might suffer from a almost 2500-year-old bias that the East is evil.
In the 6th century B.C. Greek explorer Anaximander categorised the earth. He devised it to be surrounded by one large ocean and divided by three rivers, which flowed from the outer ocean to the eastern part of the Mediterranean, thus dividing the earth into three continents: Europe, Asia and Libya. (Side note: according to Anaximander’s map East-African countries like Kenya would be part of Asia)
After the Grecian victory in the 5th century B.C. Greco-Persian Wars, however, the Greeks, mainly the Athenians and their allies, conceived the divide between Asia, home of the Persians, and Europe, home of the Greeks, to be both a natural and cultural one. The East, according to the Athenians, was stained by despotism, decadence and debauchery, whereas the west was characterised by democracy, superiority and decency. This was partially, because they had recently become a democracy by overthrowing their dictator, Hippias, who fled to Ionia (nowadays the west coast of Turkey) and allied himself with the enemy Persian Empire. Victory over the Persians might at the time very well have been seen as victory of democracy against the old ways.
This biased worldview, however, especially for Europe turned out to be a fallacy, since Europe has had its fair share of autocrats in the past: Roman dictators such as Sulla and Caesar, Roman emperors such as Caligula, Claudius and Constantine, the self proclaimed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and kings such as Charles I of England, Frederick II of Prussia and, Louis XIV ‘the Sun King’ of France might come to mind. In the 21st century it is even hard to argue that concepts like chattel slavery or modern imperialism are indicators of either superiority or decency in the West.
While Russia could be considered to be less democratic than all of the other EU states or candidate members, it does not have to be categorised as a dictatorship or so much as an evil dictatorship. When someone reads about the conflict in Ukraine, western media often tend to view the Association Agreement, between the EU and the Ukrainian government in Kiev to be a ‘haha-in-your-face’ victory over Russia. This discourse, however, actually seems to be nothing but a cocktail of Cold War sentiments, infused with the ancient ‘East-is-evil’ bias. As a matter of fact, considering its elected house of representatives one could argue that Russia is more democratic than other states in the west of Europe such as Vatican City or Liechtenstein. Simply because it lies in the East, it does not mean that Russia or the Russian people instinctively despise either democracy or Europe. As the Anaximander’s map shows, the divide between Europe and Asia seems to be somewhere between arbitrary and non-existent.
Placing the aforementioned bias aside, there is, however, a political and economical divide in the border regions of Russia, which causes the conflict in Ukraine. With the signing of the Association Agreement on the 27th of June 2014 Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have agreed to implement a number of reforms aimed at improving democracy, the rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms, and at creating a well-functioning market economy and sustainable development in return for the creation of a framework to aid the enforcement of these reforms.
This Agreement, however, could have already been signed half a year ago by Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, were it not for the political and economic alliances that presently fuel the conflict in Ukraine. Yanukovych refused to do what Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko did, because of Ukraine’s shift from a non-associated economy to a politically charged one. In 2001 Ukraine had founded GUAM, an organisation to support democracy and economic development with its other members: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. One of the core principles of this organisation was that it was to be neutral, meaning not to the EU or to Russia aligned. However, between 2010 and 2013 Yanukovych not only considered Ukraine to become a member of the EU, but also to become part of the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. In response to this, both the EU and Russia declared that Ukraine could not become a member of both economic zones. Subsequently Yanukovych was persuaded by Russia not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and strengthen Ukraine’s ties with Russia instead. Immediately after this decision protests broke out in Kiev, prompting a regime change, a transfer of the Crimean peninsula to Russia and a civil insurgence in the East of the Ukraine supported by Russia in order to pursue its economic interests with Ukraine and on top of which a plane from Amsterdam crashed.
In short, by signing the Association Agreement the government in Kiev has agreed to aid in conforming Ukraine’s democratic norms as well as its trade and customs regulations to those of the EU and that much of the European market will open up to Ukrainian exports. With the signing of similar Agreements by Georgia and Moldova these countries will receive similar benefits. Furthermore, now three of the four members of GUAM have aligned themselves with the European Union through these Association Agreements, it might become interesting for Azerbaijan to ponder upon a pro-European course as well.
However, as the plane crash demonstrates, when two political bodies fight, in this case for the pursuit of economic interests, civilians die. The fighting continues every day in Ukraine and the Association Agreement is by no means an end to it. However, without bias at least it becomes visible that the insurgence is not a glorified conflict between Good and Evil, democracy against dictatorships or West versus East.
Written by Willem Laurentzen, AEGEE-Nijmegen