Love Against All Odds
Why most Ukranian nationalists also love Europe
by Tobias Wals
Nationalists vs. globalists – these are the two sides that will face each other in Europe’s 2017 elections. As political debates move from economic themes to questions of identity, the old left-right divide has become obsolete.
Globalists choose an open society, intensive international cooperation and a strong European Union. Populist nationalists like Le Pen, Wilders and Petry put national interests first and imagine a society with closed borders, strict immigration laws and economic protectionism. Their ultimate goal? The dismantling of the European Union.
In Ukraine, as elsewhere in Europe, nationalism is flourishing. But there’s something strange about Ukrainian nationalism: it is not at odds with Europeanism. On the contrary: in Ukraine, the most devoted nationalists are more often than not strong supporters of European integration. The dichotomy of nationalists vs Europeanists does not apply here. Indeed, when I ask my Ukrainian nationalist/pro-European friends why their convictions don’t clash, they don’t even understand what I’m talking about.
According to a poll conducted by Rating Group Ukraine last October, 51% of Ukrainians wants their country to join the EU. When asked about their general attitudes, 44% of respondents stated to be positive or very positive about the EU, another 40% remaining neutral. Out of twelve countries in the poll, only Poland and Belarus scored higher.
Russia came in last.
Pro-European Ukrainians can, by and large, be divided into three groups:
1. Idealists, who see (partial or full) European integration as a chance to reform Ukraine into an open society, with transparency and the rule of law
2. Opportunists, for whom Europe means higher living standards and visa-free travel
3. Nationalists, who seek recognition from Western Europe and support for their struggle against Russia.
Note that the lines between these three groups are blurred.
For the nationalists, being pro-European and being anti-Russian are two sides of the same coin. They see their shared past with Russia as an historic mistake that can only be corrected by joining the European community. In their eyes, Ukraine’s conflict with Russia is a civilizational war, in which Ukraine is Europe’s foremost outpost.
Russia: the great antagonist
The link between nationalism and Europeanism is most obvious in Western-Ukraine. This region used to be part of the Habsburg Empire and Poland. It only became part of the Soviet Union in 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Here you may find young men with mohawk-style Cossack haircuts and graffiti showing the controversial nationalist Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera. Here people will give you funny looks when you speak Russian to them. Here, too, 79% of respondents supported EU membership in the October poll (compared to 24% in Eastern-Ukraine).
Ukrainian nationalists show the same obsession with identity that is also taking hold of nationalistic politics in the West. Indeed, the way they blend folklorism and pseudo-history with a chauvinistic and even xenophobic discourse closely resembles the political style of Front National, UKIP and the FPÖ. But somewhere along the way, their nationalism aligned with pro-European ideas. All because of the great antagonist: Russia.
Still, if nationalism and Europeanism do not clash in Ukraine, then why do they elsewhere in Europe? Perhaps Ukrainian nationalists are naïve and don’t fully understand the consequences of European integration. After all, full membership of the EU would mean giving up a substantial chunk of sovereignty to Brussels. When push comes to shove, I wonder whether Ukrainian nationalists are really willing to do so? And will they willingly embrace Western-European values, such as feminism and gay-rights?
Look at Poland, which is also decidedly anti-Russian and until recently showed the same odd mix of national and European fervour. That is, until the ultraconservative PiS administration came to power and declared the liberal order of the EU to be anti-Polish. The same backlash might await Ukraine when (or if) it joins the EU.
But you can reason the other way around, too. Europe’s nationalists like to pretend that Europhilia is antithetical to love for one’s country and nation; perhaps the case of Ukraine shows they are wrong.
Populist nationalists in Western-Europe rebel against the establishment – which happens to be the EU. Ukrainian nationalists love the EU because it’s the opposite of Russia. Both motives are equally arbitrary. Ukraine teaches us that nation ≠ Europe is just a political frame.
With some big elections coming up and populist-nationalists leading in the polls almost everywhere, this is something to remember: if you love Europe and your country, too – there’s nothing wrong with you.
Tobias is a translator (Ukrainian and Russian) who lives in Kiev. His mission in life is to open up Ukrainian literature to Dutch readers