Connect with us

Eastern Europe

Abkhazia Is Not Crimea but Everything Is Set to Become It

Published

on

New suspicions over the status of Abkhazia emerge along with every political move of Russia. While the leadership of South Ossetia has been wholeheartedly obedient to Moscow and expressed its readiness to join the Russian Federation,  Abkhazia insists on retaining formal independence. The de facto foreign minister of Abkhazia declared, “The political status of the Republic of Abkhazia is not subject to revision and is irreversible”. Due to the willingness to be a “loyal ally” but not a part of Russia, Abkhazia never held a referendum on the matter.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has enhanced the geopolitical framework of the debate and after the event, many Abkhaz started to worry that the prospect of being “swallowed” by Russia may come to reality. Following recognition, assimilation steps have been met with ideological resistance. However, with Russia not only maintaining its position through friendly rhetoric but also with military and economic presence – all of the de facto republic’s economy depends on Russian aid –  the resistance may be the question of time. The weak organizational capability of the governing elite even strengthens the leverage of patronage. It is for clinging to the money received in aid that mainly directs internal political processes. Taking Russian influence and leverage into account, Abkhazia, along with South Ossetia, has every characteristic of a Russian protectorate. Growing economic, political, and social linkages reduce the legitimacy of the claim of the Abkhazian government.

This article explores the nature of Abkhazian sovereignty and the prospects of its complete integration with Russia. It puts the spotlight on the possible political shift in the region stemming from the strong dependence and the shift in generation mindset as well as geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation which can become a decisive factor in the future status of Abkhazia.

Breaking Away from Georgia

Following a de facto break away from Georgia, all motives behind the actions of Abkhazia have been about gaining recognition of its independence. In 2008, the recognition was received from Russia but what it means for the Kremlin and what Abkhazia wants it to be has nothing in common. It was more about separating from Georgia rather than freely conduct one’s own affairs.

After dismantling the bipolar structure, intensified ethnic conflicts in Europe fell under the geopolitical alteration zone, leading to their internationalization in nature. Today’s Russia sees post-Cold War state sovereignty as a by-product delivered from the power struggle (Russia and liberal West) in contrast to its representation in international legal documents. The speeches of Russian politicians often indicate that from Russia’s point of view, Ukraine is rather a territory combining a different group of people than a sovereign state.  The rhetoric, following the recognition of Kosovo, illustrated that Putin understood the idea of sovereignty as a mere subject of geopolitical manipulation. Georgian government in the period of pre-war of 2008 voiced the concerns that Russia still did not take Georgia as an independent state. After the recognition of Kosovo, the Kremlin started a proactive policy in order to exploit the idea of sovereignty and link the South Ossetian and Abkhazian case to it. Respectively, the war in 2008 was followed by Russia’s recognition of the independence of the break-away regions.

Getting on Truck with Russia

Since the recognition of independence of Abkhazia, the aid from Moscow amounts to half of the budget. Russia also provides additional funds for aid projects and infrastructure. It spent about 465 million to build and renovate military infrastructure, including the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus and a strategic naval base in the Black Sea.  In addition, Abkhazia uses Russian roubles as its main currency, it has adopted Russian technical and commercial standards, and almost all of its main infrastructure is owned and overseen by Russian companies. Most of the financial aid is in the form of loans that imposes a financial restraint over Abkhazia. Interestingly, in 2009-2011 when money was pouring in, people have been taking out loans from Russian banks but now they cannot repay them.

Financial incentives such as social benefits were introduced for people holding a Russian passport. Nowadays, a large majority of Abkhazians have Russian passports. This process, also known as “Passportisation”, in the long term, will create a perfect opportunity for Russia to invoke self-determination for Russian citizens as in the case of Crimea.

Right after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, two sides signed the agreement linking Abkhazia to the Russian Federation in the main areas of defense, border controls, customs, social issues, and public order. Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Russia obliges Abkhazia to coordinate foreign policy with the former and unite with Russian armed forces. This step was criticized as “de facto annexation”. After coming to power in 2014, Russia-backed de facto president Raul Khajimba has been actively demanding a closer bond with the Russian Federation.  It is why after the protests over rigged polls in 2020, Khajimba’s resignation has been positively taken by Tbilisi. He was succeeded by Aslan Bzhania, who expressed the willingness for dialogue and establishment of a bilateral channel with the Georgian side. Still, the toneless response of the Georgian government and the public views in Abkhazia showed again that no changes are to be expected any time soon. It has been Kremlin curators who contributed to removing Khajimba from the post, and Bzhania, the former employee of Federal Security Service in the Russian Federation, has the least to do with being the non-Russian political actor.

While Georgian leadership is constantly afraid of making the mistake of totally losing the break-away regions by taking an actual step ahead, it only contributes to the status quo that is already the lost game. The extensive linkage does not automatically derive from foreign economic aid and soft power. When defining leverage, the organizational power of leadership is an important variable. When naming Abkhazia as a protectorate of Russia, the weak organizational power and limited administrative capabilities are also taken into account. On the forefront of bilateral agreements and declaration of independence, there is a strong one-sided dependence. Moreover, the recognition of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation has only enhanced the isolation and pushed it into the hands of Moscow. It matters little to the Kremlin who wins elections. There is no real force willing to counter Russian influence and even if there is any, the lack of outside support would undermine all its capabilities. As well said, “there is no opposition or coalition in Abkhazia; there are only politicians waiting for their turn”.

Abkhazia has no serious social links or civil society ties with other countries, especially with Western states. Another noteworthy trade partner remained Turkey, which accounts for the second-largest source of import due to the high number of Abkhazian diaspora there. But Russia’s intention rests on limiting any other actor which intervenes in its zone of interest. It proved to be true in 2016 when Abkhazia was pressured to impose sanctions on Turkey and give a major blow to one’s own economy while Abkhazia’s impact on Turkey’s economy had always been close to zero. Abkhazia later justified its actions under Article 4 of the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Russia that makes it align its foreign policy with Russia. The political risks and unpredictable environment reduced all the incentives for Turkish citizens to conduct business in Abkhazia and left alternative potential investors out. Apart from this, Russia reimposed the visa requirements for Turkish citizens that created problems for the diaspora, which tries to maintain ties with Abkhazia. They were made to travel from Turkey to Abkhazia through the airport in Sochi, which is part of Russia. These events clearly show that Russia stays unwilling to compromise creating other options for the region.

The lasting socio-political and economic crises, as well as lack of organizational order, questions the formally retained sovereignty of Abkhazia.  The ruling of the de facto parliament that Abkhazia will not consider unification with Georgia, neither with Russia nor will it hold the referendum on the matter, may be subject to revision when the past will not be enough to justify future decisions.

A Third Party

Although today Abkhazians are decisively against joining Russia, the view of the future generation leaders with a Russian mindset, who are educated in Russia and think in Russian finds solid ground. The majority of the older generation who remembers the war and justifies all the sacrifices by its independence will be substituted by a new cohort of young people. There have been active discussions about the third party which will replace the current leading figures on the political playground. The most prominent in this respect is Inal Ardzinba, currently chairman of the Inter-Religious Public Council for Youth Affairs, existing under the Patriarch of Russia Kirill and the former head of the department in the president’s administration. He is also famous for lobbying Donbass and Luhansk separatists and is considered to commit crimes against the state of Ukraine such as the shift of the border and undermining the constitutional order. Inal Ardzinba seems to be preparing for an ambitious political future that is well known to and supported by Putin’s closest circle such as Vladislav Surkov, the closest adviser and one referred to as an ideologist of Putinism. The frequent show up in media where he voices thoughts on emerging future Abkhazian political leaders serve this cause. Ardzinba announced the creation of the new party representing and empowering youth politicians around.

The Kremlin proved many times that it stays vigilantly on the watch to seize opportunities to engineer support of specific groups for its foreign policy goals. Obviously, it does not waste time to exploit its advantages in Abkhazia. It supports a new generation of politicians in Abkhazia who have the least to do with Georgia and, unlike the older generation of the Abkhazian political elite, are much more enthusiastic about integration in Russia. While Georgia has the image of an aggressor, Russia is seen as a friend and security guarantor. The above-mentioned development of processes could definitely build more barriers with Georgia, which is already left outside the processes.

As in the case of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia actively uses soft power tools in Abkhazia as well as in South Ossetia. If in the former instances tools apply to the concept of Russkiy Mir to promote language and culture with ethnic Russians, in Abkhazia it is the geopolitical premises that make ideal ground for securitizing the political identity. Abstract ideas relating to nationalism and cultural characteristics remain highly volatile to be integrated into political discourse. And usually, Russia promotes traditional Russian culture and values as well as counters Western liberal influence through the Orthodox Church. It seems no accident that Inal Ardzinba works in the Youth Affairs Council which functions under the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. For informal or formal incorporation, the Kremlin has a perfect candidate backed by the majority of Abkhazian youth to serve Russia’s cause.

Crossing Another Red Line

Even though the de facto government of South Ossetia has expressed the willingness for succession to the Russian Federation, the latter has been unreluctant to accept the call. The leadership always preferred uniting “two Ossetias” over the claim of the state sovereignty. After Crimea, it is the most likely region to be annexed. So, why Russia does not cross another red line to unveil its power and hegemony over the region?

When information about annexation is spread, it is difficult to draw a line between individual statements and the strategic communication at the behest of the Kremlin. There are many factors unknown for us, particularly, when one needs to deal with Russia’s disinformation campaigns.  What we know is that considering the current circumstances,  the annexation of South Ossetia does not seem to have as many advantages for Russia to outbalance the possibility of maneuvering with Georgia. With the status quo, the Kremlin already poses effective leverage to have an extensive influence over the country.  For now, neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia may be on the agenda to be a target of Russia’s expansionist ambitions but all it matters for Russia is securing its spheres by all necessary means.

When talking about possible annexation, Russia’s geopolitical interests should be well analyzed. The location of Abkhazia at the Black Sea creates opportunities for connections with the outside world.  And although today Abkhazia is heavily dependent on Russian assistance, it has many other potentials to become a strategic point in the region. For Russia, the Black Sea has always been seen as “near abroad”, which has been instrumental for its projections as a great power. In response to the so-called Color Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s foreign policy became more assertive to secure its presence around the Black Sea. The most important event to reestablish its military presence has been the annexation of Crimea, making it a Russian “platform for power projection”. The event directed attention away from Abkhazia since Russia has already established a strategic military base in the sea. Yet, there is no guarantee when it will be up to cross one more red line to reimpose its dominance in the region. It will be largely defined by the willingness and readiness of the West and political forthcomings in the bordering countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova as well as Turkey.  In case Russia senses any possible encroachment on Abkhazia, there seems no way Moscow will allow to take a risk and let the status of Abkhazia play a positive role in developing the ties with external powers. Apart from the mentioned, regional energy dynamics can make the Black Sea a global arena of competition leading to assertive steps from the Russian side. If annexation will not be the logical end after the disappointment and exhaustion in Abkhazian society, then Russia’s decisive step can finalize the process overnight.

Conclusions

The means adopted by the Russian Federation leads to the legitimate doubt that they might be part of its strategy to annexation. For now, it does not provide many benefits to finalize the process but if the trend continues, whether to formalize the dependence as annexation or not will just be up to  Russia’s own will. The increasing gap between Georgia and Abkhazia does not leave many choices for Abkhazia. Unlike the post-Soviet countries, break-away Abkhazia remains isolated from the world and more exposed to Russian influence. Until what stand will it be possible to maintain vigilance towards the threat to self-identity and independence derives from multiple factors. However, the integration of Abkhazia into the Russian Federation is impending and all the factors work in favor of it. This trend does not seem to be disrupted until there is an unpredictable change falling under the wider geopolitical umbrella.

References

Tamar Tkemaladze is a senior student of International Relations at the Free University of Tbilisi. She has been engaged in research on anti-corruption, the rule of law, and election monitoring at Transparency International Georgia. Currently, Tamar works in UNDP Georgia. Her previous publications covered the AA/DCFTA of the EU with Georgia.

Continue Reading
Comments

Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

Published

on

Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.

Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”

On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”

So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.

Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.

Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.

As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.

Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.

Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Published

on

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art

Published

on

Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.  

Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.

My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.

Shaking away the Soviet legacy

There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.

It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times. 

Looking at the future

Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers. 

Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.

Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.

Global cultural promotion

In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend. 

As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.

Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending