As you try to grasp what is happening in Ukraine, you may well be asking yourself: what does Ukraine mean anyway?
And, needless to say, views differ. There is a root word kraj in Slav languages which has all sorts of nuanced meanings in different Slavonic languages, linked to the idea of land, or borders of land, or land on or around the borders of a country/territory.
Remember the Krajina Serbs, who attempted to set up a Serbian territory separate from Croatia until Croatian forces crushed their resistance and most Serbs fled to Serbia?
Or indeed Momcilo Krajisnik? Another unhappy Slav with the kraj root in his name.
So Ukraine suggests either a ‘border’ territory, or a ‘separate’ principality or territory in its own right, depending on who’s talking.
Ukraine’s voters accordingly seem to face two eternal choices. Either to be somehow part of the Russian psychological space, on the frontiers of Russia’s western lands. Or to be a separate territory, defined in their own terms, and looking at least as much to Europe as to Russia.
Which explains why any person elected President needs to be a magic knight:
The conclusion to be drawn from all this is not a particularly happy one: the majority of Ukrainians don’t want a head of state with clearly formulated ideological priorities, with the experience and attitudes of a radical political fighter, with an explicit geopolitical orientation, and with an economic-reform program that can be hard on their wallets. That may explain why different groups of Ukrainians have such widely diverging views of their country’s past and future…
… the voting habits of the majority of Ukrainians could still enable a politician to become head of state who is capable both of winning the support of the majority of voters and of implementing genuine modernization.
That politician would simply have to have enough human virtues, combined with managerial ability, to overcome all possible objections on the part of either the east or the west of the country, and both the right and the left.
That may sound like a fantasy, but then the whole of Ukrainian history for the past 20 years has resembled a fantastic saga of wandering in circles locked in time, waiting for a knight to break the spell.
Elections there tend to be close-run things these days. Western Ukraine, predominantly Ukrainian-speaking, looks mainly West towards Brussels. Eastern Ukraine, predominantly Russian-speaking, looks mainly East towards Moscow.
Viktor Yanukovych is seen as East, Yulia Tymoshenko as West. It looks as if this time round East has edged home in front.
A triumph for Moscow over the West/Europe?
Maybe. But not a huge one.
There is now a lively and tough political space in Ukraine, and whoever runs the place has no real choice but to manage relations with both Moscow and the EU carefully.
Ukraine’s main problem is that it is the subject of an existential tug-of-war between a Westernising trend in Slavic thinking and a more traditional Moscow/Eastern trend.
Alas for Ukraine, the Russians weigh less but pull harder on their end of the rope than the EU does.
Some Europeans are more European than others. Too many EU capitals in general (and Paris in particular) are quite happy for that part of Europe to be seen as ‘not quite European enough’, and to stay mainly outside European processes. Why annoy the Russians for the sake of all that empty space and complicated people?
Some Russians hanker after reabsorbing Ukraine somehow, although the grisly case of Belarus and wider failed attempts at CIS integration show that even under what appear to be optimal conditions it is not possible to put chunks of the Soviet Union back together again.
So Moscow contents itself with making sure that if Russia can’t have Ukraine, the West won’t have it either.
We can expect Yanukovych (if confirmed as President) to talk a lot about Europe, safe in the knowledge that the EU doesn’t know what to do about Ukraine other than send in lots of consultants and bureaucratic experts, some of whom do some useful work now and then. Nothing much will happen on Ukraine/NATO.
Which is not to say that Ukraine will stagnate (necessarily). As someone has wittily put it:
On the one side we have neo-imperialistic Russian instincts, and lucrative energy pipeline intrigues.
On the other, a slow but inexorable tide of the porridge of EU process – and all sorts of transparent modern investment opportunity – edging eastwards across Ukraine on a scale far exceeding what Russia can ever offer.