Sorting out the options
In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was approximately where Ukraine is today, and the bloody unrest that tore that Balkan confederation apart remains a threat to peace in Europe to this very day.
Marshal Josip Tito, who had held Yugoslavia’s various religious, ethnic and nationalist factions together from 1953 until his death in 1980, was a dictator and a communist (although not a Soviet puppet), but he was a popular figure at home and he kept the peace.
When the federation he had helped cobble together following World War II began to unravel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was nobody of his stature or power to prevent a bloody civil war.
Today’s situation in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, is eerily similar to that in Yugoslavia two decades ago.
There’s an understandable temptation to salute the Ukrainian protesters who, while hardly united in political philosophy, bravely banded together to drive out the corrupt regime that was leading the country into a dependency on Russia and a rejection of economic and cultural links to Europe.
But while a despised president and his political cronies may have been unseated and a window of opportunity opened for the west to strengthen its ties to Ukraine, the unavoidable fact is that there are deep and dangerous divisions among the people of that troubled land.
Perhaps the single most critical division separates those who speak Russian (mostly in the east and southeast) and those who speak Ukrainian. But keep in mind the protesters included radicals from the nation’s far right and from the far left. Their common goal has been achieved but presumably their conflicting post-protest priorities remain in place.
So the question arises: Will Ukraine find a road to lasting peace and prosperity, or will it be ripped apart the way Yugoslavia was? And what does this hold for the United States, which was drawn into the Balkans war and eventually helped to broker the peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio?
While Ukraine’s language and political differences will certainly have to be resolved if civil war is to be averted, economic issues present a huge challenge to the nation’s new leadership. And that’s where the United States and the European Union will make their cautious case for closer links to the west instead of to Moscow.
“Nobody wants to end up owning all the problems that Ukraine faces,” Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times the other day. “The country is bankrupt, it has a terrible, broken system of government and insane levels of corruption.”
But if the western powers don’t “own” all of Ukraine’s problems, Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Moscow is quite willing to take whatever steps it feels are necessary to bring Ukraine back into its economic, military and cultural sphere of influence, regardless of the hopes and dreams of many of the protesters.
So an international tug-of-war has begun and, as in the past, it is the east against the west.
“The United States view — and I believe this view is shared by our European allies and partners — is that the only viable route back to sustainable economic health for Ukraine goes through the International Monetary Fund,” an unidentified senior state department official told reporters in Washington Friday.
Sorting out the various options open to the new Ukrainian leadership may be a difficult challenge, but any option seems better than civil war.