Ukraine: What Prize for Freedom?

by Marlene Prinz

On the 16th of March the International Institute for Peace organized a panel discussion on the topic “Ukraine: what prize for freedom?”. The IIP was very happy to welcome the Ukrainian ambassador to Austria Olexandr Scherba and Hannes Swoboda, former member of the European parliament and president of the IIP.

After displaying the current situation in Ukraine, Stephanie Fenkart, Director of the IIP, opens the panel asking how the country can become politically stable and economically successful and what kind of role Russia plays, who still is important economically?

Ambassador Olexander Scherba observes a positive balance as he sees the economy in Ukraine positively evolving. The civil society, even though it is principally very critical, also sees Ukraine’s current economic status as a glass half full and not half empty.

Hannes Swoboda continues with the position of Europe within this conflict and what its approach for a peaceful solution is. For Europe it is very difficult to contribute crucially and positively on the current situation in Eastern Ukraine due to its own problems such as the Brexit, the situation in Catalonia, the poison attack in Salisbury but also the attitude of several Eastern European states. He doesn’t really see any opportunity for the EU to change Russia’s position at the moment. Russia on the other side has its area of influence more in the Middle East, in countries such as Israel, Syria and Iran because it officiates here as a dialogue partner. The EU should support Ukraine but also maintain a critical point of view. Clearly its support also depends on the upcoming elections in 2019, because current political forces don’t have much backing in the society. After the elections it will be possible to continue with the status quo and not endanger more people. Swoboda sees this as the real task of the new government and the EU. For the achievement of such goals the tensions between Russia and the EU should come to an end – both having the real mission, which is peace, in mind. 

Ambassador Scherba considers that the solution of the conflict, although it is far away, lies in moving in little steps. The next step would be to stop the bloodletting. But also sovereignty is a big issue to guarantee peace. Scherba remarks the importance of a real solution and not just an armed truce. He sees the essential question in the handling of the situation in Crimea. The only opportunity for ambassador Scherba is Russia moving away from Crimea, which does not seem to be realistically at the moment. Moreover, he acknowledges some deficiencies of the Minsk agreement while clearly asserting his support it. Ambassador Scherba draws out the importance of further little steps, such as including ideas that are missing in the Minsk agreement.

Swoboda comments on how important the acceptance of sovereignty of a state is. According to the Minsk agreement he mentions on how decentralisation wouldn’t work because there is no leading force within Ukraine. It is essential that there are actions made through politics, such as opening the market to allow more competition and to create a bigger room of manoeuvre for international investors and companies. This is how a modern Ukraine could evolve. Another crucial element is fighting against corruption, impunity and offering transparency.

Scherba notes that it is very important to distinguish between the corruption issue in Ukraine and the situation in Crimea. It doesn’t matter how corrupt and oligarchic a state is, it can never be a legitimation on attacking a country.

Coming to the topic of Ukraine’s youth, Fenkart mentions a survey where 71% of young Ukrainians have a positive perspective on the future, whereas in the east of Ukraine it’s only 54 % *. As the youth in Ukraine describes itself as conservative and apolitical she wants to know what ambassador Scherbas wish for young people according to the future is.

Scherba acknowledges these facts as indicators that the atmosphere of departure hasn’t really captured Ukrainian’s youth. His main wish for the future is better opportunities to practice and learn English in Ukraine. Language becomes here the key element. He is seeing this as crucial for a better cooperation and connection with Europe. On the tendencies of nationalism and patriotism Scherba comments that there has been confusions between this terms in Ukraine. The term nationalist is used far more in a positive way than in Central Europe. The terms “nationalism” and “love for your country” are being used as equivalent, which is very problematic. He mentions a quote by Theodor Herzl that “It takes a great enemy to create a great nation”. Swoboda following Scherbas statement by mentioning that although Ukraine had to face tough political problems it still led to a strong creation of an Ukranian national identitiy. He also mentions that it is very ironic how the aggressive attitude of Russia really formed the Ukrainian identity and unified the whole country. It is a big mistake of Putin to think power in terms of hierarchy instead of cooperation.

Scherba also sees a big contribution to the Ukrainian identity according to the new law to favour the Ukrainian language in education. It was always clear that Russian would get replaced in future times. He still recognizes Russia as the enemy and right now the solution is only at the expense of one side, which is Ukraine. Swoboda sees in this approach no solution because communication is crucial. Not getting into a dialogue with Russia because it’s demonized as “the enemy” is a non-solution at the expense of citizens.