Friday, January 31, 2014

EU-Ukraine: EU should act unilaterally on visas

  • The EU must reach out to citizens unilaterally on visas and travel, rather than engaging with Ukraine's incompetent and feckless officials.
After a distressing few weeks in Ukraine, the river Bug seems now to undoubtedly mark the boundary of free and unfree Europe. Somehow the visa free travel regime for EU and and other western visitors to come to Ukraine has survived up until now, but lawmakers are now looking at how to place restrictions on foreigners entering the country. They advocate a fee for entry (such as countries like Egypt currently operate) but, most scarily, a requirement that the person travelling can demonstrate funds of 400 Euros for each day of their stay, so a 10 day visit to Kiev would necessitate the traveller having a spare 4000 Euros idling away in the bank, clearly prohibitive to many potential visitors. Meanwhile, the EU-Ukraine visa dialogue still mumbles on about Ukraine and other EU eastern neighbours fulfiling 'conditions' and 'requiremements', when it's obvious that this doesn't achieve results.

The proposed restrictions are most likely aimed at disrupting small time activists, quite often ordinary westerners who are drawn to the protest movement and wish to offer moral support, evidenced by the various national flags which have shown up at Kiev's City Hall or on the famous Maidan tree. Many such people would be instantly priced out of coming to Ukraine. It would also be a kind of populist measure. Many Ukrainians would feel little sympathy for roeigners having to jump through hoops as they routinely have to do, but the reality of course is just people choosing not to come. It's already hardly a mecca for tourism, or on many people's bucket list. For Poles it could be quite traumatic, as even school study trips to 'Lwów' would be effectively thwarted. For Hungarians, links with relatives in Zakarpattia would suffer. The potential effect on families if implemented (and enforced of course) could be devastating. 

What's clear is that Ukraine's authrities have no interest whatsoever in their citizens, and in small (non-oligarchic) businesses. Casualties would be potential visitors to Lviv, touted in recent times as the next big tourism destination. It would deal a significant blow to other types of tourism too. The marriage agencies of Odesa or Yalta would be hit hard. It's also the authorities 'being clever' by trying not to untick any boxes in efforts for Ukrainians to gain visa free travel, but clealy it's not clever at all. It would do nothing to enhance trust and dialogue with the EU, already at rock bottom.  

The EU needs to fundamentally rethink the rules of doing business in this area. In my view, the problem is not necessarily visas, but the short duration of visas, the requirement to have different types of visa for different types of trips and the humiliating nature of gaining such visas. I would propose 5 year all-purpose, multi-entry visas, possibly biometric ones, a kind of 'Euro Visa' which could then be used in EU/EEA passport queues. This would effectively give most of the benefits of visa free travel, but would give states the option of withdrawing the privilege to those who overstay or work illegally. It is also something that the EU could do unilaterally, without waiting for some distant age where the Ukrainian authorities have suddenly become competent and started caring about their citizens. The same should be extended to all the EU's eastern neighbours, including Russia and Belarus, without consultation with their authorities. 

Travel is the single most powerful tool the EU has to change hearts and minds. The popularity of travel for Russian citizens form Kaliningrad to Poland, for example, will help in the long term to underme the societal myths of Eurasianism there. This is an important part of the EU staying relevant and exporting its values, at a time when it is more urgently needed than ever.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Europe's Tiananmen Must be Stopped

Some thoughts on the Ukraine crisis that I'm not hearing addressed elsewhere.

This is serious

  • The clearing of Maidan would be Europe's Tiananmen Square. Europe will bear responsibility for not preventing it.
The fall of Kiev's Lenin monument, just like the fall of Budapest's Stalin statue in 1956, may not be the harbinger of victory. The Tiananmen Square protests lasted 7 weeks, with students occupying the square as Kiev's activists do now. The appearance of military vehicles on Kiev's streets evoked memories of the man who famously blocked a tank in the protests. Tens of people died in the resulting crackdown. I don't think Europe realises that they might be about to watch something similar happening on their watch. Yanukovych has already shown he is willing to militarise the city with snipers, live bullets and combat vehicles. It's uncomfortable. We wish it weren't true, but it is. Europe regrets Yugoslavia. That conflict led to a sense of moral responsibility to bring the Western Balkans into the EU accession process, but the same moral responsibility did not extend to post Orange Revolution Ukraine. That now looks like a colossal mistake. Do we want 20 years on to create more regrets for ourselves?

Sideline the EU

  • Calling on the EU to help has exhausted itself. The focus needs to switch to governments of European countries instead.
Successive European treaties and treaty negotiations have long advocated greater powers, with Europe still haunted by its lack of capacity to act in Yugoslavia. Politicians spoke of European armies. These efforts finally culminated in the post of Foreign Policy Representative being created, the 'single telephone number' (in Ashton's case only until 8pm of course). The Ukraine crisis in fact shows that the EU had no business asking for greater competence in foreign policy at Lisbon. Although foreign policy competence of technically speaking ‘remains with member states’, even the pretention of EU foreign policy seems to be a pointless folly. In actual fact, it means people ‘calling on the EU’, which suits the interests of disinterested, toothless, or Russia-friendly governments, providing them with a screen for member states to hide behind. I'm beginning to think the EU should abandon its grand ambitions and revert to a looser trade pact (or be replaced by something else). Greater intergration seems to actually render it impotent altogether. And its not the fault of enlargement-some of the most vocal countries on the crisis are the newer members (e.g. Poland). It is only with a push from a Merkel, Hollande, or a Cameron that we might see the EU initiate sanctions, so it’s them that we should be holding to account for doing or not doing so.

Russian involvement
  • Claims of Russian Federation personnel on Kiev’s streets, if true, urgently need to be substantiated.

We seem to know very little indeed of Russia’s direct involvement in the events in Kiev. Publicly they ‘watch with concern’, and simultaneously speak to world media about the crisis whilst their own tv channels variously downplay or grossly twist the truth of what’s happening in Kiev. Knowing from the debacle in November that set this whole thing in motion that Russia-Ukraine relations are totally untransparent, and that Yanukovych is inevitably getting desperate, it’s inconceivable that Russia is not involved in it somewhere. It might be intelligence support, assistance with cyber attacks. Who knows? I am only speculating. Most worrying are suggestions that some of the ‘Berkut’ (‘special assignment’ police forces) on the streets of Kiev are in fact Russian Berkut in Ukraine uniforms. One estimate on twiiter claimed that 8000 had been counted, but that Ukraine’s total number of Berkut amounts to only around 4000. Much earlier on, observers pointed out that Russian-speaking Berkut struggled to communicate with Ukrainian-speaking activists, difficult to account for as even Russian speakers in Ukraine are exposed to Ukrainian on a daily basis. It's entirely fair to say that it's unlikely to be true. However, such reports, if true, need to be substantiated urgently, as it would have massive implications. If Euromaidan was to be cleared by 4000 in fact Russian Berkut, it’s tantamount to sending tanks into Kiev by stealth.
The Sochi Factor

  • Sochi 2014 gives Ukraine another 2 weeks’ grace
A window of opportunity exists now to solve the Ukraine crisis without direct Russian involvement, as Russia will never embark on a ‘Georgia 2008’ whilst its pet prestige project Sochi 2014, and associated global charm offensive, is taking place. It should be clear that Russia’s prisoner releases were, as Pussy Riot wasted no time in telling us, a publicity stunt. Many less high profile prisoners in Russia have been less fortunate, and perhaps the Russian authorities couldn’t quite hang on in letting on that Khodorkovsky will still need to be neutralized as a force, most likely unable to return. Once Sochi finishes, the gloves will be off once more. The last thing we want is Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in Ukraine. Time is short.


Monday, January 06, 2014

The Scots, the Catalans, the Ukrainians and the Normans

Russian thinking on Ukraine, and itself, is swimming against the tide

You're in a city where the signs are in one language, although many of the inhabitants speak another, the dominant but related language of a major power. One could be thinking of Catalan in Barcelona, or in fact Ukrainian in Kiev. I once really upset a lady from Western Ukraine by making this comparison. To her, Catalonia is only a region of a country, whereas Ukraine most certainly isn't, so the parallel seemed to her belittling. Some Catalans might well see the connection straight away however, as something approaching a majority there now talk of independence from their dominant 'neighbour'.

Such analogies are never perfect, but that hasn't stopped Russia making them publicly in its pursuit of Ukraine. The Russian Ambassador to France sat them down and patiently explained that Ukraine to Russia is like Normandy is to France-essentially inseparable. This analogy is facile though (and even if accepted, it doesn't begin to explain Russia's similar attitude to Georgia, Armenia or Moldova). I would suggest two more suitable ones, and in fact 2014 looks like being an important year for those nations in the shadow of their bigger relative, and the comparisons show just how far off the pace the Russian view is.

For the record, I personally feel more English than British (St. George's should be a public holiday and Anglo-Saxon history taught in schools), but I also feel European (EU freedom of movement is a good thing all round, including Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians), so I don't know whose agenda I'm serving here as neither UKIP nor the liberals would want me I expect. I'm also suspicious of countries that were artificial constructs-they never seem to last. Take Yugoslavia, Czechoslvakia or the USSR. Maybe even the UK? Unlike many academics, I don't consider the nations of Western and Eastern Europe to be intrinsically different. I'm sure, as I'm not from Russia I don't know much, but correct me if any of the dates are wrong. 

Scotland & Britain

The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 took place just two years before Mazepa's last stand against the Russians at Poltava in 1709, so the England-Scotland and Russia-Ukraine unions have both basically existed for 300 years. As the Russians talk about 'Little Russia', the British establishment (which included Scots too by the way) promoted the idea that England would now be 'South Britain', Scotland 'North Britain' and (perhaps most optimistically) Ireland 'West Britain', although needless to say it didn't stick.

Scotland can claim two native languages. One, Gaelic, is enjoying a notable revival, now as visible on 'Welcome to Scotland' signs as "Croeso i Cymru' is in Wales. The other however, Scots, a close relative to English, is perhaps more pertinent to our loose analogy. Like Ukrainian, it has often been dismissed as a dialect of its dominant neighbour, but linguistic experts consider it a language; It has vocabulary which, in some instances, is more recognisible to, say, Norwegians than English (it also, like Ukrainian, once spread deeper into its neighbour's territory). Scots is somehow less prominent though. Like, say, Swiss German, it is rarely visible in its written form.

It used to be said that only around 25% of Scots favoured full independence, and discussion tended to revolve around North Sea oil revenues. Then came devolution, including tax raising powers, and then a Scottish National Party minority government, culminating in next September's 2014 referendum on independence. Support for breaking away is now put at a third of the population and there is a big difference between being asked a theoretical question and a real question.

Of course there is a strategy, official or otherwise, in London to try to keep the Scottish on board. Slightly echoing the situation with Ukraine, pessimism is the tool of choice here too, that Scotland variously 'wouldn't survive' and 'needs Britain'. One of the failures so far of the 'yes' campaign is to move the debate out of these narrow economic arguments which are basically about short term considerations and often based on assumptions. The debate should surely be about how Scottish people view themselves and their future, and the emotive aspect, that of cultural identity and what Scottish people feel that they are is at least as important as hospital prescriptions.

Nonetheless, you can't fault London in the sense that the issue will be decided by a referendum to the people in Scotland. Once upon a time there was a referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR, in fact in 1990, in which each region voted for Ukraine's independence, even the Donbas and Crimea. So if the Scots vote yes in 2014, following Russia's example, a bit of arm twisting in 20 years' time should put to rights any aberration in the Scottish vote. 

Catalonia & Spain

Iberia was overrun by the Moors while Kievan Rus was ransacked by Mongol hordes (the Arab cultural influence on Castillians is as true as the Asian influence on the Russians, but, unlike the Russian 'Eurasians', the Spanish are Europeans, and don't claim to be 'Eurafricans', 'Eurarabs' or any such nonsense). One country to emerge from the reconquista was Catalonia. Its incorporation into Spain (and France) again takes place during the 17th-18th centuries with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 coming just five years after Bohdan Khmelnytsky gave the Russians the car keys at Pereyeslav in 1654 (rather like Yanukovych has just done). Portugal could conceivably have ended up in exacty the same position (one school of thought is that Catalonia moved first, allowing Portugal to break free).

The comparison to be made between Catalan/Spanish and Ukrainian/Russian seems to me a striking one. Both languages punch below their weight; Ukrainian is Europe's 8th most spoken language while Catalan has more speakers than many of the EU's member states. The Russification of Ukraine in the Russian Empire/USSR and imposition of Castillian by Franco, changing Catalan names and place names to Spanish ones, is a familiar story for Ukrainians and Catalans alike. That strange feeling of seeing one language written on the city's street signs but hearing another more commonly spoken on the streets is common both to Kiev and Barcelona. The temptation to mix with a language that is closely related is also acute; in Ukraine that is the 'surzhik' of Russian and Ukrainian and in Catalonia the tendency to come out with Spanish words in a Catalan way rather than pure Catalan (Ukrainians might think of Prime Minister Azarov here).

In terms of an aim of independence, Catalonia on one level seems to have the furthest to go here. Madrid simply says a referendum on independence is 'illegal' but how long does an argument of that sort sit with the basics of democratic legitimacy? It's interesting to observe Catalonia's politicians appealing to the EU on this issue. As with Ukraine, the EU may not have the will or tools to assist meaningfully there either. Spain fears losing a prosperous province and the re-emergence of the Basque problem, but if Scotland and Catalonia show something that Northern Ireland and the Basque Country don't, it's that democratic means can slowly but surely nudge you closer towards your aims.

Catalans, whatever the situation, are, unlike Ukrainians and Russians, completely free to protest and express their views. Catalonia also continues to enjoy real autonomy. Had such autonomy been given to Ukraine in a hypothetical democratising 1980s USSR, perhaps Russia and Ukraine would have stayed together after all, but it's too late, Russia too autocratic, to hope to achieve this kind of outcome now. 2014 won't yield a referendum there but the zeitgeist may mean Catalonia moving closer in that direction, and it's difficult to ignore the zeitgeist.

France & Normandy?

Just to be charitable, I will entertain the Russian Ambassador's analogy a little longer. Normandy was incorporated into France in 1204 (about half a century after the founding of Moscow). The country of France itself had come into being barely 300 years earlier.

Linguistically, Normandy speaks French, and spoke French even as an independent kingdom. Norman French was even the language of royalty and administration in England for hundreds of years follwing the Norman Conquest. So where is the 19th century Norman equivalent of Taras Shevchenko writing his poems in the Norman language? Where is the national awakening? Most crucially, where is the independence movement? Need I go on?

For a better analogy however, France offers several. Look at Corsica, incorporated in 1768, and still restive. The supposedly irrefutable Russian claim to Crimea goes back to its annexation by Russia around the same time, in 1783. Western Savoy was first conquered by Napoleon in 1792, and finally cemented as a part of France in 1860. A Russian contemporary of Nice might be Sochi, founded by Russian imperial expansion in 1838 (but, unlike Nice, consolidated by the ethnic cleansing of the local Circassian population in the mid 19th century).

France in fact has 8 histrical linguistic minorities (Alsatian, Flemish, Breton, Walloon, Corsican, Catalan, Basque and Occitan) as well as numerous dialects and patois. A really interesting case would be the southern third of France, the Occitan territory. This historically spoke the 'langue d'Oc', a language more akin to Catalan. Had history developed differently, who knows if that would have become France's Ukraine?

The Russian Ambassador might have been on safer ground talking about Kievan Rus and the continuity of 'Rasiya' from 'Rus', but then you'd have to ask why France doesn't claim Franconia in Southern Germany? Best keep it simple I suppose. Imagine France bullying Belgium into accepting a role as its vassal state, installing a Francophone government with scant regard for the rights of Dutch speakers, maybe even a Flemish-hating education minister and you're somewhere closer to the mark. After all, the coal mines and steel mills of the industrial south are where the wealth is, and that's the future, surely? Sounds like the 19th century though, right?