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Relations between Azerbaijan and the European Union

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The crises, revolutions, and wars of the first half of the 20th century led to serious geopolitical upheavals, economic crises, and serious violations of social justice. Formally formed after the end of World War II in 1945, liberal economic organizations such as the United Nations, GATT and the European Union focused on the formation of liberal internationalism in international relations and the transition to a global system of government (Dower & Williams, 2002). The failure of the liberal steps taken by the League of Nations in 1920 led to major economic crises in the second half of the 20th century. As a result of these economic crises, the end of socialism in international relations with the USSR in the 1990s, the emergence of independent states and liberal internationalism’s efforts to reach a global level reshaped both geopolitical positions in international relations and global economic forces and the system of international relations (Christopher S. Browning, 2013). After the degradation of the left ideology with the USSR, the emergence of independent states moving towards liberal values made the role of international organizations formed in the post-World War II period even more important. This article also provides information on the liberal relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan, which gained independence in the 1990s and the European Union.

General introduction to relations between Azerbaijan and European Union

The wave of democratization that began in 1974 began to radically change international relations. This democratization mainly covered the former USSR states; namely, the former communist states, geographically. After leaving the USSR, these states entered a very difficult process of democratization. Because for many years they lived in a totalitarian political system, as well as in a communist-planned economy. This directly prevented their transition to liberal multi-party democracy as well as to the “laissez faire” capitalist economy. Because, initially, the reforms were carried out with instructions from abroad. (namely, with instructions from global organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc.). Second, these countries did not have a strong economic base that would suddenly transition to market capitalism. Third, a culture of respect for individual freedoms was not ingrained in the policies of these states (Heywood, 2013). Therefore, after the collapse of the USSR, the newly independent states began to work closely with the European Union to accelerate the transition to globalization and democratization. Azerbaijan, one of these states, also became an active participant in international relations and international politics in 1991, building its relations with the West and the European Union on the principles of mutually beneficial cooperation, good neighborliness and peaceful coexistence.

The prospects of Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union were mainly based on internal and external factors. Unlike other countries in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union are mainly in support of economic and political reforms, the establishment of the East-West transport and communication corridor, infrastructure development, etc. (SAM, Main directions of Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 2017). Azerbaijan’s strategic transit position in the South Caucasus region, its location at the crossroads of land and air routes between Europe and Asia, and its role as a major distribution hub in Eurasia are of great importance to the European Union (Azerbaijan’s gas policy: challenges and dilemmas, 2009). One of the main tools for the European Union to interact with the countries of the South Caucasus was the European Neighborhood Policy. The inclusion of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the ENP program in 2004 enabled Azerbaijan to implement many of its economic, political, legal and administrative reforms within the ENP, and for this purpose Azerbaijan received financial and technical support from the European Union (SAM, Main directions of Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 2017). It should be noted that in addition to the European Neighborhood Policy program in its relations with the European Union, the Azerbaijani state joined the Eastern Partnership project at the 2009 summit in Prague. As the Eastern Partnership is an initiative of Poland and Sweden to improve relations with the CIS countries within the framework of the European Union’s neighborhood policy, it initially played a very important role in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy (EEAS – European External Action Service, 2018).

However, neither the European Neighborhood Policy nor the Eastern Partnership promised security guarantees for Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in the next stages of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, so Azerbaijan did not sign the Association Agreement and began negotiations with the EU for a new comprehensive agreement such as the Strategic Partnership Agreement (Shahin Abbasov, Jan18, 2011). Because in the foreign policy of Azerbaijan, there were economic and political reasons for not signing the Association Agreement of the European Union. Initially, the Association Agreement was not successful on the example of Azerbaijan. Because both sides had different requirements and needs. Secondly, this agreement was of no economic or political benefit to official Baku. However, Azerbaijan has been pursuing numerous projects with the European Union since the 1990s in many areas (energy, transport, education, culture, agriculture, regional development, economic, political and institutional reforms). As oil and gas from the Caspian Basin play an important role in ensuring the EU’s energy security, the European Union itself understands the geopolitical realities of Azerbaijan and acts accordingly (Elkhan Suleymanov. EU-Azerbaijan relations, 2011). Azerbaijan has existed with the European Union not only in the energy and economic spheres, but also in the social and political spheres. However, the relations within this framework have gradually weakened and lost their value. Although the European Union has taken an open position on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, IDPs, Armenia’s occupation policy and existing UN resolutions, and has even adopted declarations, these principles have subsequently weakened. The first reason is that since both Azerbaijan and Armenia are parties to the Eastern Partnership, the European Union’s inaction in the conflict has affected the activities of the Eastern Partnership. In addition, although Azerbaijan itself is a modern and secular country, it often faced double standards of the European Union.

Historical and legal basis of Azerbaijan-EU relations

After gaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan began to take an active part in building relations with Western countries and in international politics on the basis of the protection of statehood and national interests, as well as the principles of mutually beneficial cooperation, good neighborliness and peaceful coexistence. The fundamental requirements of state-building after the collapse of the USSR created a good basis for building relations between Azerbaijan and the European Union member states at both bilateral and multilateral levels. Due to its geographical proximity, important geostrategic location, availability of significant energy resources, Azerbaijanis a country of traditional interest to European countries (Sadigov R. The South Caucasus factor in the Eastern policy of the European Union. Politicale.ü.fddissertation, Baku, 2011, p.52). In general, in the first years of independence, the prospects of Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union were based on internal and external factors. Internal factors included the continuation of reforms in the political, economic and social life of Azerbaijan to achieve the standards of the European Union, the full liberalization of the domestic market, production and services, and the completion of the country’s democratic transformation. External factors included the settlement of the conflicts in the South Caucasus, including the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, joint cooperation between the countries of the region, security cooperation, the formation of a unified legislative, executive and judicial authorities in all three countries (Mammadov N, p.285). In general, the Republic of Azerbaijan declared in 1993 that Azerbaijan was interested in establishing relations with the EU. By signing the “Partnership and Cooperation Agreement” with the European Union, Azerbaijan began official relations with the EU. The European Union sent its first representative to Azerbaijan in 1998, and in 2000 the Permanent Mission of Azerbaijan to the EU was opened in Brussels. The Representation of the EU Commission in the Republic of Azerbaijan has been operating in Baku since February 4, 2008. This body was later renamed the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Azerbaijan. The appointment of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus on 7 July 2003 was a step towards increasing the organization’s activity in the region (Ahmadov E, p. 227).

The European Union has developed a “Technical Assistance to the CIS” program to provide financial assistance to countries belonging to the new group of democracies, such as Azerbaijan, to implement democratic reforms, create a market economy, develop interstate trade and transport relations and improve the customs system. In 1992-2006, more than 414 million euros in humanitarian, technical and food assistance was provided to Azerbaijan within the framework of the EU’s TACIS and other assistance programs (E. Ahmadov, 241). In addition, serious steps have been taken between Azerbaijan and the European Union in the field of human rights and politics. The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Azerbaijan was signed in Luxembourg on 22 April 1993, providing for cooperation in trade, investment, economy, legislation, culture, immigration and the prevention of illicit trade and laying the legal basis for bilateral relations. This agreement can be considered as one of the most successful pages in foreign policy, as it is the legal basis for expanding relations between Azerbaijan and EU institutions. The EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement entered into force in 1999 after ratification by the Azerbaijani Parliament.

European Neighborhood Policy

One of the main tools for the European Union to interact with the countries of the South Caucasus was the European Neighborhood Policy. In 2004, the Republic of Azerbaijan was included in the ENP program. The central element of the ENP is the Action Plan agreed between the EU and each partner country, which sets out a number of short- and medium-term priorities for the country. The “Azerbaijan-EU Action Plan” was adopted at the meeting of the Azerbaijan-EU Cooperation Council held on November 14, 2006 in Brussels (E. Ahmadov, p. 240). The action plan identifies a number of priority areas of cooperation between the European Union and Azerbaijan. These are: mainly the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; strengthening democracy; strengthening the protection of the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms; improving the business and investment climate; improving the work of the customs service; support for balanced and sustainable economic development; improvement of economic legislation and administrative practice; Deepening energy and transport cooperation between the European Union and Azerbaijan; strengthening cooperation in the fields of justice, freedom and security, including border issues; strengthening regional cooperation (Mammadov N. Foreign policy: realities and vision for the future. Baku: QANUN, 2013, p.212).The cooperation carried out within the ENP allows Azerbaijan to establish economic relations with EU countries, establish preferential trade and credit regimes, labor, market relations and migration, fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, promote investment, attract new financial sources, etc. opened up opportunities such as (N. Mammadov, p. 287).

Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership initiative was launched by Poland and Sweden at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 26 May 2008. The initiative covers Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. A joint declaration was adopted at the EaP Summit in Prague on May 7, 2009, and the EaP officially began operations. The EaP intends to raise relations between the European Union and the member countries of the program to a higher level, to continue and expand existing cooperation in bilateral and multilateral formats. Azerbaijan also joined the Eastern Partnership program at the 2009 summit in Prague. The EaP program was a different framework from the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Thus, in order to establish closer ties with each partner country within the EU, the signing of new association agreements instead of existing partnership and cooperation agreements within the bilateral format, the establishment of a Deep and Detailed Free Trade Zone with a partner country in the WTO, as well as gradual visa requirements. liberalization, deeper cooperation to strengthen the energy security of partner countries and the EU, etc. planned. In other words, the EaP program did not promise the prospect of EU membership, but only a free trade agreement and associative political cooperation with this body, which provided for deep economic integration. However, neither the ENP nor the EaP did not sign the Association Agreement and began negotiations with the EU for a new comprehensive agreement, such as the Strategic Partnership Agreement, as Azerbaijan did not promise EU membership or any security guarantees. Because both the ENP and the EaP were programs that reflected the interests of the EU and the political and economic interests of the partner countries. On the other hand, the signing of the Association Agreement was not economically attractive for Azerbaijan. Because Azerbaijanis not a member of the World Trade Organization, which is one of the main requirements for signing the “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement”. On the other hand, the Association Agreement would not give a significant vote to Azerbaijan within the EU Customs Union. In addition, membership in the association would not reduce the share of oil and gas exports, which account for more than 90% of Azerbaijan’s exports, in the short and medium term. In general, Azerbaijan views the entry into any customs zone from three perspectives: political independence, economic efficiency and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In addition, the European Union must accept that both sides have different requirements and needs. Therefore, before the EA Summit in Riga in 2015, Azerbaijan submitted a proposed document on the Strategic Partnership Agreement to the EU. Azerbaijan, like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, did not sign the Association Agreement, so it preferred to sign an agreement that has a separate legal force and reflects the national interests of the country. On 14 November 2016, the EU Council of Ministers mandated the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to begin negotiations on behalf of the EU member states on the signing of an agreement between the EU and Azerbaijan. It should be noted that the new agreement will replace the 1999 TES and will be a new large-scale agreement with a legal obligation. Unlike other framework documents, the STS will address the common problems and goals facing Azerbaijan and the EU and will create a new basis for mutually beneficial cooperation and political dialogue between the two sides. The STS is a practical example of the “difference” approach outlined in the context of pursuing Azerbaijan’s interests in relations with the EU and in the updated version of the ENP (SAM, Main Directions of Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, pp. 324-326, 2017).

I am a 3rd year student at Khazar University in Azerbaijan. My specialty is political science. My main areas of focus are South Caucasus politics and Asian studies.

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Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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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

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Eastern Europe

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

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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

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art

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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.

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