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Ukraine's Quest for Europe: History, Geography, Identity

"At least one of the ideological impulses that came out of the events of the Orange Revolution was the idea that Ukraine should be part of Europe" stated Serhii Plokhii, Professor of History, University of Alberta; Visiting Professor, Department of History, Harvard University; and former Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 15 December 2005 Kennan Institute lecture. Ukraine's quest for greater integration with Europe has been linked to politics, ideology, history and geography. Every country in Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, has viewed itself as a country between East and West. However, according to Plokhii, "Ukraine probably had more right than others to do that given its position on the civilization divide."

Plokhii explained that the issue of membership in the European Union (EU) has become pivotal in Ukrainian politics since the Orange Revolution. When Ukraine was granted market economy status during the ninth EU-Ukraine summit on December 1, 2005, it was considered a victory for Ukraine's President, Viktor Yushchenko, and a partial fulfillment of his 2004 campaign promise to integrate with Europe. However, Ukraine's relationship with the EU has been turbulent since the first years of its independence.

According to Plokhii, when the Baltic States received exclusive consideration for EU membership in 1993, "Ukraine's image was tarnished and it was debated whether Ukraine was a viable project." Some even speculated that Ukraine would simply split into smaller regions. The Agreement on Cooperation and Partnership signed between the EU and Ukraine in 1994 was not scheduled to come into force until 1998, demonstrating the EU's reluctance at the time to deal with Ukraine. Plokhii argued that although the EU has been generally supportive of the development of a pro-European orientation in Ukraine, it is also hesitant to provoke Russia, on which it depends for energy supplies. As a result, Ukraine finds itself in a kind of tug-of-war, where overtures towards Europe or Russia seem to come at the expense of the other.

According to Plokhii, explanations of Ukraine's place in Europe vary between Ukraine as a cultural bridge between East and West, to Ukraine as a quintessentially central European country. In the nineteenth century, history and geography increasingly became a basis for arguments between Ukrainian and Russian intellectuals about Ukraine's European identity. Russian Westernizers, like Vissarion Belinsky, argued that Ukrainian literature was a non-European phenomenon, and that Ukrainian elites would be better served by Russian literature, which Belinsky deemed was closest to Europe in a cultural sense.

Mykhailo Drahomanov, Ukraine's most influential political thinker of the second half of the nineteenth century, countered with the claim that early modern Ukraine, as the heir to Kyivan Rus', was a European nation until it was cut off from Europe by Muscovy in the seventeenth century. He also argued that Ukrainian Cossacks, accustomed to acting within the political and legal system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, brought ideas of democracy and European legal culture to Muscovy.

In the 1920s, Ukrainian writers like Mykola Khvyliovy argued that a socialist Ukraine must orient its culture toward the West, the true birthplace of Communism. This was countered by Joseph Stalin, who declared that by turning west, Ukraine would be "turning its back not on Russian culture, but on the capital of the world proletarian movement." It was Stalin's vision that was implemented in the USSR, separating Ukrainian culture from Europe for most of the twentieth century.

Plokhii emphasized the importance of continued debate over the European roots of Ukrainian identity, stating: "Europe from the very beginning was essential for the creation of the Ukrainian project." Ukrainian identity has been both denied and asserted with references to Europe, and that dynamic continues today. At the same time, the relationship between Ukraine and Europe cannot be understood without reference to Russia—from its inception, the Ukrainian idea used Europe as a counterbalance to the political and cultural dominance of Russia. In the Ukrainian case, the European idea always had and continues to have a tremendous potential for nation building. According to Plokhii, "There is a new emerging Ukrainian identity that has an idea of Europe at its core, and is inclusive enough to bring together the East and West of Ukraine." The EU is today much more popular in Ukraine than it is in some countries that have already joined, he contended.

According to Plokhii, the ultimate outcome of Ukraine's efforts to integrate into Europe will not depend so much on the timing of Ukraine's membership in the EU, but on the process by which it approaches membership. Evoking President Yushchenko's words, Plokhii remarked that Ukraine should not regard approaching Europe as following an arbitrary set of rules, but as a set of living standards and values. He concluded that the Ukrainians have already included Europe into the core concept of their national identity, and it is time now for Europe to create a vision of itself that includes a prosperous and democratic Ukraine.


About the Author

Renata Kosc-Harmatiy

Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more