As the Ukraine conflict enters (we hope) a state of disarmament and negotiation, four major issues can be identified:
The Ukraine crisis began as a conflict around economic integration, with implications for the country’s wider geopolitical orientation. One possibility was an association agreement with the European Union, with which Ukraine had already some treaty agreements. The refusal by the then-president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, to sign a more detailed plan of action with the EU was the reason (or a pretext) for the start of massive demonstrations in Kiev and the Maidan encampment.
The EU has been in a period of flux, and as a result, the agreement with Ukraine was not a high priority for its leadership—hence the slow EU reactions to events in Ukraine. Currently, the chief EU concern is the ongoing negotiations on a free-trade agreement with the United States. Although the nature of a free-trade agreement between the EU and the USA is not yet clear, it will have a world-wide impact.
The other economic integration possibility for Ukraine would be for closer relations with the Russian Federation and a possible “Eurasian Customs Union” that could include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and perhaps Moldova and Ukraine. Such a Eurasian association would probably develop into more than a common market, but the full structure and tasks of such a Eurasian association have not been discussed publicly.
The Eurasian association would logically tie into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The motor of the SCO is China, but it includes Russia and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union with Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as permanent observers.
Thus the choice of a Eurasian association for Ukraine would be a major “tilt” toward Asia and away from Europe. This orientation was highlighted by the state visit of President Putin to China to sign trade agreements at a hot moment of the Ukraine crisis.
The crisis in Ukraine highlighted (or created) a growing tension between the US and Russia to the extent that some commentators spoke of a “New Cold War.” Western writers have routinely accused Russia of conducting a “neo-imperialist” policy and of using the “energy weapon.”
The fears of Russian expansion were increased by the referendum and subsequent annexation of Crimea and the strengthening of ties with Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region. On the other hand, Russia fears that behind economic agreements with the EU there is an “Eastern march” of NATO. The Ukraine crisis has awakened the sleeping dogs of the Cold War, largely in an uneasy sleep since 1990 and the OSCE Summit in Paris, which put an official end to the European aspects of the Cold War.
Within Ukraine, tensions have highlighted constitutional issues involving questions about the balance of power between central and local government, the authority of the executive, legislative and judiciary, in particular the division of authority between the president and the parliament. There is also the issue of the role of the government in the economy, of money in politics, and the role of corruption. Ultimately, all conflicts can end only when there is an agreement about the shape of the government and the rules of law under which people agree to live.
For such constitutional forms to last, there must be a spirit of compromise and an effort to balance interests so that no protagonist is left completely out of the final agreement. Unfortunately, the current situation in Ukraine does not lend itself to calm considerations and compromises on constitutional structures, decentralization, and possible federal structures.
The constitutional debate leads to the fourth issue: the quality of political life and cooperation among groups in Ukraine. The conflict has brought to the fore questions of historic memories, of language, of the geographic bases of power, and of political ideologies. Seen from a distance, there seem to be few socio-cultural bridge-builders. The quality of future political life will depend both on the choices made concerning broad economic integration issues but also on the day-to-day relations among people, on their willingness to cooperate, and on reconciliation of historic divisions.
René Wadlow is President and Representative to the UN, Geneva, for the Association of World Citizens.
For a history of the creation and current status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia see: George Hewitt Discordant Neighbours: A Reassessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian Conflicts (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2013, 389pp.)