UKRAINE : Ukrainian officials have repeatedly shown that Kyiv has no interest in dealing with the issue of ethnic Russians.
“The Commission recommends that the (EU) Council opens accession negotiations with Ukraine,” said the European Commission last week, thus giving the green light for European Union membership talks. This recommendation has taken Kyiv a step closer to becoming a member, as soon as the Eastern European country takes measures to meet the bloc’s remaining conditions, such as reducing levels of corruption, implementing a lobbying in line with EU standards (it currently has none) and enhancing national minority safeguards.
Europe Gives Green-Light to Ukraine Membership Talks, Turning a Blind-Eye to Minority Rights of Russians,
All of those are challenging, to say the least, but the latter is a particularly complicated one: at a press conference with the recently-appointed EU Ambassador to Ukraine Katarina Mathernová, Olga Stefanishyna (Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration), said that in the negotiations on ensuring the rights of minorities, the issue of protecting the “Russian minority” never even arises, because, in her words, such a thing does not even exist. According to her, the European Commission shares her views.
Stefanishyna acknowledged that the matter of guaranteeing minority rights in general will be an important one on Kyiv’s accession path, but tried to minimize it, by saying it has been so to other candidates. Regarding Russians particularly, she said: “There is no Russian minority in Ukraine. It does not exist! There is not a single legally registered community that identifies itself as a Russian minority. There are Ukrainians, some of whom speak Russian. I am from Odessa, I speak Ukrainian when I want to, and I speak Russian when I want to. And I do not need ‘Muscovites’ or the decision of the Venice Commission to do so.”
The European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, with a focus on the legal texts that are part of political agreements aiming at conflict resolution. Traditionally, this commission pays a lot of attention to ethno-political conflicts. It has played a role thusly in developing the constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, among others, and has also been involved in talks to settle conflicts pertaining to the status of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
According to the 2001 Ukraine’s census, which is to date its only census since its 1991 independence, ethnic Russians were 17.3% of the Ukrainian population – that is, over 8 million people in that country identified as such. It is historically a strongly bilingual country (both Russian and Ukrainian), with a high degree of intermarriage and some room for ambiguity: traditionally many people there could declare themselves as either “Russian” or “Ukrainian”, the two categories not being incompatible – particularly in Eastern Ukraine and the Donbass region, as all Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) polls show. The ultra-nationalist 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and the Donbass war which started that same year have changed that – in the eyes of top officials, at least.
The Venice Commision too in any case does refer to the “Russian Minority” in its recommendations to Kyiv, but the issue apparently is not to be mentioned in the country’s membership talks with the European Union. The day before Olga Stefanishyna’s remarks, the European Commission also stated it would not take into account the issue of “rights of Russian speakers”.
Such remarks coming from post-Maidan Ukrainian officials are hardly surprising. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky himself is on the record saying Donbass residents who consider themselves russkiy [ethnic Russians] should “go to Russia”. In a way, Kyiv’s wishful thinking discourse about there being no Russians in the Eastern European country is slowly becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as it has been alienating millions of such people, who formerly also considered themselves Ukrainians but more recently have found the new Ukraine does not welcome them.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly shown that Kyiv has no interest in dealing with the issue of ethnic Russians, or pro-Russian people. Volodymyr Ishchenko, who is a research associate at the Institute of East European Studies (Freie Universität Berlin) writes that “before 2014, there was a large camp in the nation’s politics calling for closer integration with Russia-led international institutions rather than with those in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, or even for Ukraine entering into a Union State with Russia and Belarus.” That, however, has been changing since the Maidan and, more recently, Kyiv banned all political parties deemed “pro-Russian”. All of the above is well known. What is more surprising, though, is the fact that European authorities have signaled they could be ready to whitewash these matters.
The European Commission recommendation pertaining to Ukraine accession is part of the so-called enlargement package, which includes recommendations to opening negotiations with Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus granting candidate status to Georgia. Interestingly, all of these states to some degree have relations with NATO already: the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Atlantic Alliance has been under negotiations since 2008, while Georgia also aspires to join it. Moldova in turn is part of the alliance’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council.
One should keep in mind that the Declaration issued at the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid acknowledges an “unprecedented level of cooperation with the European Union”, and vows to strengthen the “strategic partnership” with the bloc. Thus, the current European “enlargement”, which now officially includes talks with Ukraine, goes hand in hand with NATO’s seemingly unlimited appetite for expansion and should be seen as what it really is, namely, part of the enlargement of the US-led political West itself and its policies towards encircling Russia which have played a large role in bringing about the Russian-Ukraine conflict since 2014.
In order to pursue such geopolitical goals, the West seems to be ready to let go of any concerns with minority rights (with Neo-Mccarthyist being on the rise in Europe itself) and even to turn a blind eye to far-right nationalism and neo-Nazism, as we have more recently seen time and time again. Claiming this is all but “Russian propaganda” will not change the fact that Kyiv does have a problem with domestic political extremism and ethnic minorities. It is about time to acknowledge that.
By Uriel Irigaray Araujo
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