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Broadening the scope of the debate on the Ukrainian crisis

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Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

During an announcement that Manitoba would provide $25,000 of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine in the form of first aid and medical supplies, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger stated: "Manitobans stand in solidarity with our friends in Ukraine against the violence of this past week…We want the institutions of democracy and human rights to be respected in Ukraine and around the world."

While such a move is laudable, make no mistake: the crisis in Ukraine runs much deeper than violence and "human rights." It is at its root an economic crisis. Better yet, it is a crisis born of neoliberalism and the uncertain position of Ukraine in regional trade arrangements.

A news release on Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister's website dated February 24 reads as follows: "The Ukrainian people deserve a future where they enjoy the same freedoms and the same rights that we enjoy here in Manitoba. Due to their courage and determination, the Ukrainian people have that future within their grasp."

This statement misses a much larger concern. Ukrainians deserve a future in which their economic well-being is safeguarded. Moreover, they deserve that Manitobans look deeper to see what is at stake in and beyond the current crisis. Even if a political settlement is reached, which remains a big if, the economic situation of the majority of Ukrainians will remain precarious.  Furthermore, a de-escalation of tensions requires careful consideration of the envisioned place of Ukraine amongst both European and Russian actors.

One should scrutinize the claim that Europe, and the West in general, represent a golden path for Ukraine. Sadly, serious discussions of what gravitating towards the EU may mean for Ukrainian society are largely absent in popular accounts of the present crisis. One must seek other sources to broaden the picture.

In an interview that appeared in ROAR magazine on February 21, "Denis," a member of the Autonomous Workers' Union in Kyiv, reminds us that upon assuming office in 2010, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sought a series of unpopular economic reforms -- chief among them raising the pension age for women, passing a new "flexible" labour code, and introducing a natural gas tariff -- but eventually backed down due to popular pressure. Of all the epithets that have been hurled at Yanukovych in Western media since the beginning of the crisis, "failed neoliberal" is not one of them.

In the same interview, Denis said the following to his interviewer:

"You should understand that from the very beginning people had a very peculiar understanding of 'Europe.' They pictured a very utopian ideal -- society without corruption, with high wages, social security, rule of law, honest politicians, smiling faces, clean streets, etc. -- and called it 'EU.' And when one tried to tell them that actual EU has nothing to do with this pretty picture, that people there actually burn EU flags and protest against austerity etc. -- they retorted: 'So would you better live in Russia then?'"

Ukraine's deeper integration with the European Union should be understood beyond the false choice of Europe or Russia. One component of the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement, rejected by Yanukovych in late November, is the "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement" (DCFTA) between the EU and Ukraine, an initiative that has been considered by EU and Ukrainian officials since at least 2012.

The DCFTA provokes questions about the effects of free trade on Ukrainian workers and the very real possibility of Ukraine becoming a low-wage satellite for European capital.

Furthermore, any forthcoming "aid" package for the ravaged Ukrainian economy sponsored by the European Union and the IMF is likely to contain stringent guidelines necessitating Ukrainian austerity.

The prospect of further integration into the Russian sphere promises complex questions, too, but for reasons that are not frequently brought up in Western media.

For example, Vladimir Putin's third presidential term has been marked by his efforts towards establishing the Eurasian Union, a comprehensive economic and political union project first announced by Putin in October 2011.

The Eurasian Union has received scorn from Western scholars, commentators and politicians alike. In a December 2012 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ministerial conference in Dublin, then U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton suggested that Russian attempts to establish the Eurasian Union constituted an attempt to "re-Sovietize" Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Such sentiments are misguided. In pursuing the inclusion of Ukraine into regional trade agreements, Russian politicians and capitalists are scarcely different than their EU counterparts. While Ukraine's inclusion into the Eurasian Union invites questions, whether it signifies the reconstitution of the Soviet Union is not one of them.

It should be noted that "the other EU" is one of a longer line of Russian-led regional integration initiatives of which Ukraine is already a part.

It may be surprising for many that Ukraine already belongs to the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Agreement (CIS FTA), which was agreed upon by most members of the CIS, Russia included, in October 2011 and limits a member state's ability to discriminate between goods originating domestically or in the territory of other member states.

The Eurasian Union is partly an attempt to extend and deepen the customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which stipulates a common import duty on goods originating beyond the Union.  Establishing the preferential duty-free entry of European goods into Ukraine very much complicates the realization of the Eurasian Union.

One might speculate that for Ukraine, further economic integration with Russia would proceed along lines similar to those of integration with the EU -- the rationalization of the production of goods along regional, as opposed to national, lines, and corresponding pressure on Ukrainian industries (and their workers) to bear the costs of adjustment in order to create "efficiencies" and economies of scale.

The sobering reality is that during and after the current crisis, most Ukrainians will require a paycheque from somewhere. Perhaps a serious discussion of the current and future economic prospects of Ukrainian citizens is not sexy enough to find space in the Twitter-sphere when there is both physical violence and intrigue to be found. Nonetheless, should the dust settle in Ukraine, it will be the quality of such discussions that will determine the short- and long-term prospects for Ukrainian well-being.

Manitoba, with its long history of Ukrainian labour activism, should look past the misleading choice of Europe or Russia in the contemporary Ukrainian crisis and support Ukrainians like Denis who are seeking to protect the economic rights of Ukrainian workers, pensioners, and the marginalized against the further neoliberalization of the Ukrainian economy.

In addition to mourning those killed in the crisis, Manitobans should demonstrate sensitivity for those living in Ukraine, who still face the insidious threat of austerity, marginalization and pauperization.

Dr. Ray Silvius is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Winnipeg.

Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

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