Ukraine’s Global Meaning: Four Theses
Ukraine stands at a crossroads. Let us hope Ukrainians seize the day for good.
Let us pray for all those who died or were wounded when a major part of the Ukrainian people rose to overthrow a corrupt autocracy. The situation remains fraught with grave risk. But the Ukrainian revolution carries new hope for the country with its particularly sad history – and it carries lessons for Europe and beyond.
1. Europe’s soft power
The soft power of Europe is well and alive. The protests erupted in Kyiv when the now-deposed Ukrainian president turned his back on an association agreement with the EU to team up with Russia instead. In the end, a joint mission by the Polish, German and French foreign ministers, with US backing, helped to pave the way for a breakthrough.
Despite the occasional bureaucratic follies in Brussels and elsewhere, the European Union and the idea of “Europe” still stand for the promise of peace and prosperity, of democracy and the rule of law and for the freedom to work and live how and where people want.
2. Threat vs. model
Ruthless autocrats can try to outwit the rather clumsy 28-member EU any time. But they cannot create what their own people yearn for: freedom and prosperity.
For many Ukrainians, including apparently some of the Eastern oligarchs, Russia is a threat rather than a model. A mismanaged and fragile economy dependent on the price of oil (Russia) is no match for the attraction of a vast and prosperous partner.
Offering access and setting the terms of such access are the most powerful tools which the EU has to shape events in its neighborhood.
3. The idea of Europe
The idea of Europe goes far beyond that of a mere common market. In countries such as the UK and the US, the political power of the European idea can be difficult to grasp. But on the continent, the ideas of peace, prosperity and Europe often go hand in hand.
For example, failing to understand the political glue of Europe was the major mistake many outside observers made when they predicted the demise of the euro one or two years ago.
In the EU, the backlash against painful austerity and reforms will show up in a serious anti-EU protest vote at the EU parliamentary elections this May. But that will likely fade again somewhat when the positive results of the painful reforms at the euro periphery become visible over time.
4. The Putin slide
Despite the glitter of Sochi, the events in Ukraine cast a shadow on the outlook for a Russia a la Putin. Rising commodity prices and ultra-cheap global liquidity had helped the rulers of some emerging markets to hide the costs of corruption and mismanagement for a while.
But with stable commodity prices and a return of capital to the developed world, those emerging markets that neglected to build their non-commodity export base need to adjust.
Instability in those emerging markets that have been mismanaged economically and/or politically could well remain one of the hallmarks of 2014.
Fortunately, many other emerging markets look sound. And the developed world has recovered enough from its own recent crises to be able to cope with some economic problems in emerging markets. And as the events in Ukraine show, crises can be the handmaidens of a change that carries the promise of a better future.