Monday, March 3, 2014


So, a good friend of mine was recently pestering me to write something about the situation in Ukraine given that it's literally right next door to Slovakia. It's a situation I've been following closely, in part because I've had a long-running fascination with the region, and also because it's happening close by. But I felt like I couldn't add any real meaningful insight that people couldn't already find elsewhere in the western media. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot.

First of all, I personally would love to see Ukraine extract itself from Russia's/Putin's orbit and come closer to the EU and the West. Ukraine has suffered for far too long as Russia's whipping boy (mass starvation, killing and repression in the 1930s under Stalin, to Chernobyl in the 80s, massive lingering Soviet-style corruption, and the list goes on and on), and many of Ukraine's post-Soviet problems have their roots in the country having spent so much time under Russia's thumb. For starters, Ukraine's government under Yanukovych was as obscenely corrupt as they come - they scored 144 out of 177 on the Transparency International 2013 corruption perception index (with 177 being the most corrupt), making them one of the most corrupt countries in all of Europe. I heard an expert on NPR the other day refer to Ukraine as a "mafia state" - controlled by a handful of oligarchs who have hoarded an unbelievably large percentage of the country's wealth and who came by a lot of their money through blatantly corrupt and unfair practices.

A section of the corruption ranking to show you the kind of company Ukraine is in. 

This is a deeply ingrained culture of corruption that Ukraine very much shares with/inherited from Russia. Poverty, painfully low wages, and unemployment are all rampant - those protesters had a damn good reason for pouring out into the streets and holding their ground until Yanukovych fled. When you have ordinary people who've reached that breaking point, where they are willing to literally give up their lives to better their country, that is a clear indicator that the situation they're living in is a seriously bleak one.

And I feel for the protesters. As the demonstrations unfolded, and as the blood started pouring, I had to admire how well-prepared, organized, resourceful, resilient, and efficient they remained throughout. And I feel for them even more so now when, at the time of writing this, Russia has essentially taken Crimea and doesn't appear interested in giving it back. Ukraine's military is no match for Russia's, so there's little Ukraine can really do about it. There also doesn't appear to be a helluva lot that the EU or the US can do either: they can impose sanctions on Russia, freeze assets, ban Russia from the G8, etc., but if Putin is determined enough to keep Ukraine in his orbit, these things aren't likely to stop him. (Besides, if things get really bad, Russia can always just turn off the gas and make life miserable for about half of Europe). And of course no one wants to go to war with Russia - the results would undoubtedly be catastrophic - so Ukraine may very well be screwed in the end.

Even if Ukraine didn't have to worry about Putin, they'd still have a monumental pile of feces to wade through in order to make a new system work. For starters, as many have mentioned, the protesters were made up of a volatile group of more forward-thinking pro-EU/pro-western types, and totally crazy rightwing extremist/nationalists. They both shared the common goal of removing Yanukovych, but beyond that, they have very different views for the future of their country. Then you have the Russian loyalists, most of whom live in Crimea and the eastern regions, who were, as strange as this sounds, content with the way things were. We have intense, deep ideological divisions in the US, and we somehow manage to clumsily lurch by, so I suppose there is hope that they can at least figure out how to do the same. Of course, if Ukraine were to move toward the EU and receive desperately-needed financial aid, they'd be forced to swallow the austerity pill, which is a truly painful form of medicine, and which many prominent economists say has questionable results at best.

But what do Slovaks make of all this? 

It's difficult to tell, as I find many Slovaks to be fairly apolitical and apathetic. I certainly can't speak for Slovaks, but I do get the sense that they generally sympathize with the protest movement to the extent that, firstly, they do not trust Russia/Putin (and especially older generations draw parallels to 1968, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies rolled into Czechoslovakia on tanks to quash the modest popular reforms of the Prague Spring), everybody knows how horribly corrupt and impoverished Ukraine is, and no one wants to see a country's police gun down its own citizens - but these are universal things. It's not like Slovaks are rushing over the border to help or send aid. Unless the conflict were to somehow spill into Slovakia's backyard, I don't see most Slovaks losing much sleep over the situation.

You also have to remember that Kiev is almost as far from Bratislava as Paris. Even though Slovakia shares its eastern border with Ukraine, the center of the action feels quite far away. At the height of the protests, there was some activity in Lviv, but that is closer to the Polish border, and even that feels distant because it's so damn difficult to get to from Bratislava. Hell, Ukraine still uses the wider Russian-gauge railroad tracks, which makes it feel even more removed from central and western Europe (and makes traveling into Ukraine by train a real headache, since the train wheels have to be adjusted).

What is the Slovak government's take on Ukraine?

Of course, when the demonstrations were reaching their violent peak, there was much talk by the government about what to do if Ukrainians start pouring over the Slovak border en masse. The government said it was fully prepared to take in a limited number of refugees and it put its border patrol "on alert," but had found no out-of-the-ordinary activity along the border. Nor has there been a spike in Ukrainians applying for Slovak visas. Yanukovych was ousted well before the violence got bad enough to prompt anyone to flee.

Yet, if Putin decides to move his army north of Crimea and deeper into Ukraine, that could very well change things. We'll have to wait and see.

Otherwise, the Slovak government's position during the demonstrations ranged from perfunctorily denouncing the violence, to the foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, suggesting sanctions, like freezing the accounts of Yanukovych and others in his government, or banning them from travel. Slovakia is ultimately echoing whatever the EU says it will do or won't do. Poland's foreign minister seemed to have a much more hands-on role in communicating with both the old and new/interim governments as things have developed. Perhaps that makes sense as the border Poland shares with Ukraine is much bigger, and hell, a big chunk of western Ukraine used to belong to Poland until the end of WWII (a smaller chunk of Slovakia went to Ukraine after WWII as well, including the city of Uzhhorod, which is literally just over the border).

The most baffling perspective in Slovakia was offered by the rightwing extremist and Nazi-sympathizing governor of Slovakia's Banska Bystrica region, Marian Kotleba. He was elected last fall over the incumbent governor in a major upset (I'll do a separate post on him soon), and like most rightwing fascists/nationalists, he is vehemently anti-EU. These rightwing nuts think the EU strips countries of their autonomy, that it bleeds them dry and diminishes their culture, and people like Kotleba get a kick out of saying things like "NATO is a terrorist organization." These views are especially crazy given how reliant poor countries like Slovakia are on EU funding. Anyway, the point here is that during the demonstrations, Kotleba wrote a letter to Yanukovych before he was ousted, imploring him to stand his ground and resist the pro-EU "terrorists" who were trying to bring him down. Literally no other elected Slovak official said anything like that in public. Kotleba really is a bat-shit crazy loon operating on the fringe, but his perspective nevertheless had to leave many people bemused, and it's one which I don't believe many Slovaks truly share.

Slovak Prime Minster Robert Fico also offered a strange perspective. In early December, a few weeks after the demonstrations erupted over Yanukovych walking away from a deal with the EU and opting to take a loan from Putin instead, Fico said, "The EU is so in love with itself that it is convinced there is no better alternative to it in the world ... EU membership is not a religious rule for countries and each country can freely decided whether or not it will join." He added that one must look at the offers that are on the table, such as the lowering of gas prices or other projects offered to Ukraine. He later backtracked a bit, saying that the media had distorted his words, explaining that while he regretted that Ukraine backed out of the EU deal, "Ukraine simply decided to go another way and I will not judge them now - it is [their] internal affair."

Kind of a flippant and tone-deaf thing to say, if you ask me. But that's par for the course.

Fico more recently made an interesting statement on Slovak relations with Ukraine, saying that normal relations have never been established.

Slovak Foreign Minster Lajčák clarified this comment, saying that "the political system in Ukraine differs from the standard political systems that we're used to in European Union countries ... It [the system in Ukraine] is marked by lower transparency; in other words - internal political developments aren't as clear as with our other neighbors.”

Fortunately, Slovakia seems to be, along with the rest of the EU and the US, in communication with Ukraine's new interim government and treating it as legitimate. Slovakia has even sent €12,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, mostly in the form of medical supplies. The foreign ministry appears to be stepping up its involvement with Ukraine, along with the foreign ministers of the other Visegard Four countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), all of whom flew to Kiev on February 28.

However, a group of Slovak foreign policy experts recently said that Slovakia needs to be clearer and more unambiguous in its support for Ukrainian sovereignty and in condemning Russia's military intervention. We'll see if that happens. Apart from some statements made by Slovakia's foreign minister, Fico and his Smer party have seemed a little cautious or tepid in their stance on the issue so far, for the most part.

I think Slovakia sees as its biggest practical concern the disruption that an escalation in the conflict could cause to the flow of gas and other natural resources from Ukraine into Slovakia. It was recently stated that Slovakia has enough gas in its reserves to last four months if the pipeline were cut off.

In conclusion?

At the end of the day, I suspect most Slovaks are probably glad that there is a pretty thick band of countries separating them from Russia. I know I am! Simple geography really allowed the central European countries to re-orient themselves westward away from Russia's tentacles and join the EU. For people like Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow, and Russia has done a pretty effective job of keeping its next-door neighbors under its influence, and it hasn't shied away from resorting to all out violence to keep it that way, as we've seen in Chechnya and Georgia. And of course with the exception of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), which did manage to pull away somewhat, the rest of the former Soviet states are ruled by dictators in sham democracies and have bewildering levels of corruption and rampant poverty.

If things get to the point where Ukrainian refugees do start seeking refuge here, I don't think most Slovaks would mind at all. Besides, Ukraine is statistically one of the countries with the highest number of migrants seeking residence in Slovakia. When I was dealing with my residence at the Foreign Police in Bratislava, I saw an awful lot of people with Ukrainian passports. Things have been so bad in Ukraine that even Slovakia seems to hold better prospects for these people (although for some, Slovakia is just a way to get a foot in the door before they go to other EU countries with more opportunities).

At this point, with Russia doubling down in Crimea, things aren't looking so hot for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. I just hope the parties involved can come to a peaceful and diplomatic resolution. I wonder if that will mean Ukraine would eventually be split in two? For now we'll have to wait and see.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post. Quite interesting to see how Ukraine stacks up with other corrupt countries in the world. I would have guessed it was much less corrupt!

    I really like your point about how Americans "clumsily lurch by" despite deep ideological divisions, and how there is hope that Ukraine could do the same. It's good to keep in mind that major protest and revolution doesn't necessarily have to end in war and suffering. I wonder if splitting Ukraine could work.

    It was interesting to read not only Slovakia's take on the conflict in Ukraine, but yours as well.