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Why Ukraine has no place in the EU

Ukraine likes to conjure up the magic word "Galicia" to create an identity of European belonging. Richard Wagner picks apart this myth-cum-trademark in an EU bid he believes is misplaced.

Ukraine is firmly anchored in the Eurasian region that traditionally answers to Moscow. The cultural-historical fusion with Russia reaches deep into the past to the Kievan Rus, the original formula of the East Slavic concept of state, as does the Byzantine-Orthodox hold on mentality and society. The majority of the population speaks Russian and geographically and geo-politically speaking, the country has a number of non-European coordinates that are indispensable to Russia: the Black Sea, Crimea, the Caucasus. The Ukrainian economy is tightly bound up with its Russian counterpart, it is reliant on Russian raw materials and energy resources, and is organised along the same lines. The same goes for the political structure of post-Soviet society which, in both countries relies on the Byzantine habitus and the survival skills of Homo sovieticus. Oligarchic interests and a bizarrely ad hoc party landscape define the political climate in both Russia and Ukraine and no end of bold "Orange" revolutionaries will be able to change this. They have defended their honour, but they don't hold the political reins.

A good many of the western proponents of the Ukrainian entry into EU and Nato are governed by imperial desires. These are either American strategies aimed at weakening Russia, or EU superpower fantasies. Yet it would be extremely hazardous to over-stretch the unconsolidated EU project. Precisely because Europe now has the unique historic opportunity to regulate its business, we should recall the Occidental idea at the heart of the project. This is something that was strongly emphasised by its founding fathers in the fifties, politicians like Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer.

The Occidental idea is incorporated into cultural and geo-political borders. And this brings us to the perma-highlight of the Ukrainian rationale which we have been hearing for years now, from the likes of Yuri Andrukhovych of Ivano-Frankivsk, the old Stanislau, or Jurko Prochasko of Lviv (Lemberg). The magic word is Galicia. Galicia as the bridge between Kiev and Central Europe. But what is or was Galicia?

You won't find it on any maps today. It has been replaced by Western Ukraine. The name Galicia was a Hapsburg invention for a territory which was annexed by the Hapsburgs after the division of Poland in 1772. Etymologically derived from a malapropism of the Medieval Polish regency name for Halych, it encompasses Western and Eastern Galicia and the Polish-influenced centres of Krakow and Lemberg. Like most thing that come under the Habsburg label, Galicia has been thoroughly mythologised from all sides. Why? Because the Habsburg "model of success" is invoked today as part of the Ukraine makeover campaign. In an attempt to generate an aura of belonging.

But the truth about historical Galicia lies elsewhere. For the most part the region was under Polish and Jewish sway. Although Ukrainians had demographic clout in the Eastern region, they had almost no hand in structuring modernisation. The Poles had urban cultural hegemony and the semi-urban small town milieu was dominated by the Jewish shtetl. In the provinces a de facto division of power existed between Vienna and the Polish regional majority.

Galicia was the Easternmost province of Austria. It was and remained on the periphery. "Half Asia" was the name Karl Emil Franzos coined for this Eastern landscape. The population of Galicia was largely dependent on subsidies from the centre of the empire. It was never a thriving landscape, but as a meeting point for cultural idiosyncrasies, it was highly creative. To say that this impoverished region was a breeding-ground for artists and writers is to put a certain spin on the myth. All number of famous names might have emerged from Galicia but they left soon thereafter to carve out careers in Central Europe. They were Jewish without exception and seeped in German or Polish culture.

Karl Emil Franzos, who went on to become Georg Büchner's publisher, was born in 1848 in Czorkow and left at the age of 18 to study in Vienna. The writer and "head Hapsburg nostalgist", Joseph Roth, born 1894, grew up in Brody, but lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris from 1918 onwards. The social psychologist and philosopher Manes Sperber, was born in Zablotow in 1905, but he too moved to Vienna with his family in 1916. The only one who stayed was Bruno Schulz, who was born in 1892 in Drohobycz and wrote in Polish. He was killed by the Gestapo in 1942.

For the Polish, Galicia was Eastern Poland and part of their own cultural region. With or without a state. It was also Poland which, after 1918, made a successful territorial claim on the region. Until 1939, until the Hitler-Stalin pact that is, Galicia remained Polish and authors from the region who wrote in Polish were naturally regarded as part of Polish literature. They still are today: Stanislaw Lem and Adam Zagajewski of Lemberg, Andrzej Kusniewicz of Sambor and Jozef Wittlin.

To all intents and purposes, Galicia and Ukraine had a separate history since the Middle Ages. Galicia's Ukrainians were officially referred to as Ruthenians. Through their own church, the Unified Church, they were linked to Rome and separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church. Under international law, the area has only belonged to Ukraine since the end of WWII. In other words, the entire Central-Eastern European identity, to which the region lays claim, is based on the separation from Ukraine. So what possible relevance could the Galician myth-cum-trademark have for Kiev's EU bid?

Even today's Western Ukraine is no longer the old East Galicia. The Jews were wiped out by the Nazis, the Poles were driven out by Stalin and resettled elsewhere. Both of these events served Ukrainian interests to some extent. Today's Western Ukraine is the result of the totalitarian land clearance project and is equipped with a healthy dose of Ukrainian assertiveness. It is here, in spite of the influx of immigrants from the East who are ignorant of tradition, that most un-Russified Ukrainians live today. And this is the historical home of Ukrainian nationalism, whose traditions have been cast into doubt, not least because of Nazi collaboration. Western Ukrainians offered themselves as auxiliary forces, even in the extermination of the Jews.

The Ukrainian national identity is shaped in the image of the victim. Since independence this has concentrated on the trauma of the famine in the early thirties, when the failure of Stalin's forced collectivisation programme, cost millions of lives. Ukraine declared this horrific event genocide. It is no coincidence that the name Holodomor so closely resembles the term Holocaust.

Lemberg's inner city might have the visual appeal of a "miniature Vienna", but does this mean the country belongs in the EU? When the old Austria is vaunted across East Central Europe today, we should not forget that all the peoples who invoke the name were instrumental in bringing down the Habsburg empire. Not least the Ukrainians of Galicia, its political and cultural elite. They blocked their own path to Europe with this act of destruction. The construction of the Ukrainian national state today has its real centre outside the EU project, beyond the Limes. This is not just something to think about, it should also be taken into account.


This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on June 3, 2008.
Born in 1952 in the Banat region of Romania, which historically had a large German population, Richard Wagner now lives in Berlin. His book "Der deutsche Horizont. Vom Schicksal eines guten Landes" ("The German horizon: On the Fate of a Good Country") was published by Aufbau in 2006.

Translation: lp - let's talk european