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Slawomir Sierakowski

Europe Needs Ukraine

Some time ago, our slightly crazy national hero, Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader from the 1980s, and a man always full of surprises, announced that Poland and Germany should unite into one country, under the nameEurope.” As Freud noted, gaffes can help us discern intentions hidden to us.

Mr. Walesa’s comments about Poland and Germany are a vivid illustration of just how much has changed in the minds of both nations, and of all Europeans. In 2011, Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, gave a speech expressing alarm not about an overly strong Germany, but about a Germany (Europe’s “indispensable nation,” he said) too timid and reluctant to take responsibility for the Continent. Who, in previous generations, could have imagined this?

I bring it up to challenge Europeans to expand their imagination again.

On Nov. 28, the European Union and Ukraine will hold a summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. On the table is an agreement under which Ukraine would move toward integration with the union. Many in Europe, in fact, doubt that full integration will occur, in the face of Russia’s jealousy over its borderlands and questions about the bare-knuckle quality of democracy in Ukraine, where President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s government has jailed a popular rival, the former prime minister Yulia V. Timoshenko, on political charges.

Ironically, the country that seems the least doubtful about the prospects for Ukrainian integration into Europe is Russia, as revealed by the embargo that it recently slapped on Ukrainian and Moldovan goods. It was a clumsy effort to cow those countries into favoring Russia’s nascent customs union, but it has only served to increase Ukrainian and Moldovan antipathy.

The real skeptic about Ukraine’s chances is the West. Brussels has pledged a mere billion euros in assistance under the proposed agreement. In essence, the European Union is not even reimbursing Ukraine’s travel expenses. It’s as if the European Union believed less in the chances of democracy in Ukraine than the United States did in Iraq.

The short-term costs of ratifying the agreement would likely be high for Ukraine. Moscow’s embargo has already reduced Ukrainian-Russian trade by 25 percent, and joining Europe’s free-trade zone would expose Ukraine’s industries to rivalry with more competitive companies. Brussels must prepare a plan for concrete assistance to Ukraine to pre-empt a backlash if the agreement moves forward.

If it falls through, on the other hand, Ukraine might find itself more dependent on Russia, and would likely be followed by other former Soviet republics — a triumph for Russia’s expanding customs union, which is intended to politically compete with the European Union.

Any sign of hesitation by the European Union may also tempt Russia to amplify its pressure on Ukraine. Through its leased military bases on the Crimean Sea and the activities of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Moscow could pursue a policy of provocation and coercion there.

Indeed, the West let Georgia down in a similar way. At the 2008 NATO summit meeting in Brussels, Western leaders could not decide whether to admit Georgia (and Ukraine) to NATO. A quick provocation and a war over the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia followed. Soon, Georgia began to distance itself from the alliance. Just last month, Ukraine, too, abandoned its long-term efforts to join NATO.


The European Union must not repeat that mistake. It must stop thinking that there are two Ukraines, one more Russian and only the other truly Ukrainian. Ukraine is one nation, and even those citizens who speak Russian want an independent Ukraine and identify themselves as Ukrainian. In a recent poll by the market research firm GfK, 45 percent of Ukrainians supported integration with Europe, while only 15 percent favored integration with Russia. Even Ukraine’s oligarchs support the association agreement, and they are taking in stride the current losses in trade with Russia.

But is the European Union sufficiently invested in the social and cultural integration of Ukraine?

In my country, Poland, Fulbright scholarships for the Communist elite in the 1970s and 1980s led to the transformation of party apparatchiks into ardent fans of the West after Communism fell in 1989.

The European Union should have long ago started doing everything possible to weave a similar network of contacts between Ukrainian society and the European Union, through partnerships between universities, scholars, young people, cultural institutions and, yes, political parties — such ties are especially important for parties that are not yet democratic.

It’s not too late. Thanks to Freud, we know that lapses in speech or memory can signal thoughts hiding in our subconscious. Boris Groys, a German cultural philosopher of Russian heritage, has translated this notion to geopolitics, writing: “Russia is the West’s subconscious.”

Before the Vilnius meeting, the West must accept a thought that it tries to repress: that the European Union was founded not, first, to ensure prosperity, or even democracy (though it wound up doing both). It was founded primarily to reverse the fatal logic of catastrophic wars. Today, everyone remembers the West’s good-will gestures to a defeated Germany. In my country, everyone remembers Germany’s determination, decades later, to help Poland join the European Union. Now, Poland has become the most active country in helping to integrate Ukraine.

The historian Timothy Snyder famously used the term “bloodlands” to describe the wide swath of Eastern Europe where some 14 million people died because of Hitler and Stalin. If the European Union is necessary anywhere, it is there.

Slawomir Sierakowski is a sociologist, a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. This article was translated by Maria Blackwood from the Polish.