Talking about European values

Soviet Roots

The economic development model of the Soviet Union, with its shortcomings too numerous to count, was certainly one of the major causes of its fall.Yet there is one thing it succeeded in doing: the economies of the Soviet republics were built to be complementary and integrated.[1] One could not function in autarky. Parts built in one republic were assembled in another, in accordance with their resources and strength. To a degree, this created a sort of organic solidarity between the various components of the Soviet Union that survived the fall of communist rule in Moscow.

When the Maidan Revolution happened in 2013, around 80 per cent[2] of the Ukrainian military industry output was still heading for the Russian Federation – a remnant of the Soviet era when the guiding systems for Russian missiles, for example, were produced in Ukraine. Back then, they were among the finest one could find. Indeed, weaponry was one of the few sectors of Soviet industry that benefited from some real focus on R&D.[3]

This economic dependence is one of the factors that can explain how some former Soviet republics remained de facto peripheral regions of Russia, which the Putin’s Kremlin would soon be calling the Near Abroad.

The Map Trap

When the Euromaidan Revolution broke out, much like during the Orange Revolution in 2004, a series of similar-looking maps appeared throughout the Western media – maps showing a Ukraine perfectly split into two by a clean cut.[4] It is not the purpose of this article to analyse this split in depth. But it is clear this geographically essentialised and over-simplified separation has to be questioned, at the very least to do justice to the complexity of Ukrainian society. If there is a split, it is not only dictated by geography, language or the weight of an immortal soul but at least as much by social environment, family history, media exposure, education, socio-economic background, and economic integration. Indeed, there is a strong case to say that there has never been a split as clear as the one showcased in the media between a pro-western Ukraine in the west and a pro-Russian one in the east. However, it can be useful to analyse political and cultural affiliation by means of a spectrum with Western-orientedness at one end and Russian-orientedness at the other. Even at the extremes of this spectrum, it seems that economic drivers have more influence rather than ancestral or patriotic ties. For instance, a miner in Donetsk, whose opportunities and economic well-being depend on close ties with the Russian economy (many Russian oligarchs are amongst the main investors in Donbass) is more likely to opt for those ties remaining solid. On the other hand, a third-sector worker in Lviv may favour investments or tourists coming from EU countries.[5] Their allegiance is probably more economically-driven than driven by some ancestral patriotic call.

A Necessary Shift

The project that Victor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian President, promised Ukrainians seems to have been to try to reconcile both ends of the spectrum and to play both the Russian and the European cards, something that the peculiar position Ukraine holds might well have allowed. Yet, it was a precarious project from the start. At some point, he simply had to choose between the two. The two major international integration programs he was leaning towards, namely the EU’s Eastern Partnership and Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian customs union, were largely mutually exclusive. Ukraine could not simultaneously be part of both projects. Yet, Yanukovych decided to try his luck.

It is unlikely Yanukovych will be remembered as a sensible politician.[6]  The key result of his four year term of office was that for three months in a row, Ukrainians protested demanding that Ukraine should get closer to the European Union and above all, that it should rid itself of corruption in politics, the mafia-like repartition of power, autocracy, and widespread poverty.When Ukrainians finally managed to topple their corrupt president, Russia answered with annexation of Crimea and a covert invasion of parts of Eastern Ukraine.[7] Ukraine was now under attack. The spectrum was broken – with Russia no longer a conceptual reference point at one of its extremes, but an aggressor on Ukrainian national territory.

As a result, the other extreme of the spectrum became the sole one available. The narrative had to switch. Politicians, civil servants, and oligarchs alike now had to embrace western values whether they were previously in favour or not. Ukrainian oligarchs, who made their fortune by acquiring decaying parts of Soviet Ukrainian industry, which was intertwined with Russia’s, had to distance themselves from Russia, to which they held close ties, to show their allegiance to post-Yanukovych Ukraine – if they wanted to retain some sort of power.

The Revolution of Dignity, as it would be called, had ousted Yanukovych while waving European flags, Russia had attacked Crimea and Donbass, so it was now time for the powers that be that hadn’t yet professed their pro-western inclinations to do so. European values were en vogue and, in any case, the West was the only place to look for support against Russia. The Ukrainian elite’s new rally around so-called European values was a matter of necessity rather than preference.

The Other End of the Spectrum?

Actually, the main thing Russia managed to accomplish, apart from disrupting Ukraine’s development, was to strengthen Ukrainian nationalism[8], pushing the country to the other end of the spectrum of its political identity. What is to be found at this end of the spectrum? Perhaps most importantly, has this wave of nationalism fully embraced the narrative about the European values of Ukrainian society? The phrase European values is now a kind of buzzword repeated again and again. But what do Ukrainians mean by European values exactly? It does not seem to be referring to the French emphasis on workers’ rights and solidarity, neither to German principles of responsibility, transparency, and accountability, nor Scandinavia’s advanced social democracy, nor women’s nor LGBT rights. There does not seem to be a consensus. Yet, this is hardly surprising given that the European Union has not managed to establish clearly what European values exactly are.

When protesters on the Maidan waved European flags, it may have meant several things at once: for instance a demand that living conditions of the Ukrainians start to resemble more those of EU citizens, or a stern rejection of the corruption that keeps state institutions in its tight grip, or a desire for a more open society. However, with the exception of the fight against corruption, the reforms that have since been put into motion do not seem to address head on all these and other desires. Take, for instance, President Poroshenko’s flagship reform on decentralisation[9] focused on granting more autonomy and power to the governors of oblasts[10] – sometimes oligarchs themselves.[11] When Ukrainian elites talk about European values, they often refer to the free market economy and neo-liberal thinking. Whilst they had to reluctantly abandon the Russian end of the spectrum for the Western one, they have made sure to adopt a Western ideology that allows them to retain some economic and political power.

Moreover, when it comes to reforms, the model to which Ukrainian lawmakers tend to refer to the most is not a European one. It is the United States model they prefer, a system that allows big money to play a prominent role in the political arena, through what would be considered plain bribery on the European continent – a system that can accomodate better that porosity between the corporate and the political sphere the Ukrainian elite is trying to preserve.

Ukrainians are not necessarily to blame for that. As Europe was unable to find a common position on Ukraine, the United States was training its troops, and USAID was overlooking its reforms. When looking at the newly reformed National Police of Ukraine, which replaced the disgraced soviet heritage that was the Militsiya,[12] one can possibly mistake them for some of their American colleagues. It is particularly uncanny. Once again, the United States is making a difference where Europe fails to leave a clear mark.[13] It is logical Ukraine would grow closer to the US in that peculiar situation.

There is one point in which Ukraine’s newfound set of values may coincide with Europe’s: it seems easier to define them by what they are not. They are seen as a counterweight to what Russia embodies as the perceived continuator of Soviet power. Like other former Soviet republics or satellites, Ukraine seems to be rushing as far away as possible from its Soviet past into what it perceives as its opposite: the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal model – the one hidden under the buzzword that is European values.

Perhaps the demands of the protesters at Maidan Nezalezhnosti were closer to what the European public liked about the Union: improvement of living conditions, better protection of their rights, freedom of movement, liability and accountability of their leaders, and peace. Those achievements of the European project have always been more popular than competition rules and the customs union to the average European citizen.

Could it be that Maidan was a missed opportunity for the European Union? An opportunity to assess those values the Ukrainian demonstrators chanted for? Not just the mindless liberalism Russia mocks the West for. European values have never been only about that.

[1] For more on this point, see METCALF Lee Kendall, The (Re)Emergence of Regional Economic Integration in the Former Soviet Union in Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 529-549.

[2] An estimation given by Mr Ihor Dolhov, Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine for European Integration.

[3] For instance, one of the most famous of those ballistic missile and rocket manufacturers ithe state-owned company Yuzhmash in Dnipro, where future president Kuchma was chief manager from 1986 to 1992.




[7] Though it may have been uncertain at the time, it is now largely admitted that Putin’s Russia was behind the secession of Crimea, and the Donbass War.



[10] Main territorial administrative subdivisions of the Ukrainian territory.

[11] In 2014, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, one of the most prominents of Ukraine’s oligarchs, manage to fend off separatists groups in the Dnipropetrovsk region. He was later appointed Governor of the oblast, up until the next year.



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