Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: Scholar Says Ukraine's Greatest Achievement 'Survival'

President Viktor Yanukovych attends a ceremony to raise the state flag in Kyiv on August 23. Is he attempting to put Ukraine on a path toward a "Putin/Beijing" style of government?
President Viktor Yanukovych attends a ceremony to raise the state flag in Kyiv on August 23. Is he attempting to put Ukraine on a path toward a "Putin/Beijing" style of government?
As Ukraine marks its Independence Day on August 24, one analyst says Kyiv's greatest accomplishment since independence has been "survival." But he adds that survival is not good enough.

Andrew Wilson, the author of books like "The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation" and "Ukraine's Orange Revolution" and a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, talks to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Maryana Drach about the high and low points of the country's 19 years of statehood.

RFE/RL: According to the latest opinion surveys, 45 percent of Ukrainians have doubts about whether Ukraine is truly an independent state. What is your view?

Andrew Wilson:
In some ways, I might be one of them. I might agree that Ukraine has had a very mixed record both on state- and nation-building over the last 19 years. Its economy has actually been in trouble recently, and with so many sectors falling under Russian influence, there is a question mark about how economically independent Ukraine really is.

Though, on the other hand, it's interesting that Ukraine -- like a lot of countries in the region -- has developed a kind of neo-Titoist [eds: nonaligned] line in foreign policy. Ukraine doesn't act like the EU states of Central Europe who became member states in 2004-07. It's too independent-minded. It doesn't really fulfill the Copenhagen criteria as it should. And Russia also talks of states like Ukraine being difficult to influence or control.

Andrew Wilson (file photo)
So in some ways, Ukraine is too independent. In some ways, it's not independent enough.

RFE/RL: What is the biggest achievement by Ukraine during the last 19 years?

Survival. But I remember [former President] Leonid Kravchuk citing that in 1994. So one would have hoped for something more than mere survival by now. [It is an accomplishment that Ukraine has been] maintaining relative internal accord, given predictions that the state would break up or the Crimean succession might turn serious. Ukraine has certainly avoided the extreme problems of Georgia or even Moldova.

[But] there is still a lot to do. Ukraine should have done more. Given that, on any definition of adulthood, it should have achieved a lot more by now.

A Putin/Beijing Model

RFE/RL: In which direction do you think Ukraine is being taking by the new president, Viktor Yanukovych?

In terms of how people assess the Yanukovych presidency, two things are notable or worrying. One is political trends. Clearly, Yanukovych would like to establish some kind of Putin-like soft authoritarianism. The other is the kind of spread of the Beijing consensus. At the moment, regime officials talk about European choice, but also talk about order and learning from the Chinese model.

So there are some signals that that means soft authoritarianism could become a growing trend in the future. But in both cases, this will be a test of the long-standing academic theory that Ukraine is not Russia. We all remember the title of President [Leonid] Kuchma's famous book ["Ukraine Is Not Russia"].

But that has long been expanded into a kind of theory that Ukraine is culturally different, [that] it's more naturally pluralistic than Russia: regionally, economically, in terms of their linguistic identity, religion even. And for that and other reasons, it is therefore much more difficult to consolidate power in Ukraine. Over the next few years, we will see.

EU/Orange Failure

RFE/RL: You said that Ukraine could have achieved much more during the last 19 years. What is the European Union's responsibility for the fact that Ukraine hasn't done more?

At some specific historical periods, the EU could have done more. Most obviously, in the kind of short window of opportunity between the Orange Revolution and the defeat of the European constitution in the referendums in Holland and France in 2005, the EU could certainly have reacted more to the signals of change given by the Orange Revolution -- the hope for further change.

But the EU measures things by results. Ukraine's progress was extraordinarily bad under the Orange years most of that time, with some improvement toward the end under the second Tymoshenko premiership.

RFE/RL: How has the lack of progress on reforms after the Orange Revolution affected the way the European Union deals with Ukraine today?

What I would say is that because things were so bad under most of the Orange period, a lot of people in Europe seem prepared to accept Yanukovych's promise -- little more -- of order and stability above all. They are therefore rather too willing to accept his cutting of many corners and breaking of many democratic principles thought well-established by the Orange Revolution. So in that respect, the EU has a bit too blind an eye at the moment.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.