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Ukraine Revisited

Mar 21, 2014, 10:24 AM | Article By: Lamin Saho

Following the recent dramatic political and social developments unfolding in Ukraine, I am constrained to share certain perspectives with a view to putting things in their proper context in terms of the geopolitical and political ramifications of this fast-unfolding crisis, which has caught the attention of people the world over.

Afterall, this is the country where I spent the best part of my formative years in pursuit of high education, and this is true for many a Gambian including certain iconic figures such as Dr Tamsir Mbowe, and a host of notable figures in both the public and private sectors.

The relationship with the Ukraine kicked off in the last decade of the last century, when I was offered scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the then Soviet Union, precisely in 1990. These were very interesting times, and the former Soviet Union was in the throes of perestroika and glasnost – a reform process that was to have significant ramifications for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and indeed the whole world.

Thanks to this process, which was unleashed by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Berlin wall came down and the iron curtain was unfolded, thus effectively ending the cold war, much to the delight of the East Europeans who were forced to live behind the iron curtain since the end of the Second World War.

Ukraine hosted Gambian and African students since the early 60s and my generation was one of the last batches, given that the Soviet Union collapsed under our very eyes and the newly-independent states, including Ukraine did not have the appetite to provide and sustain an army of foreign students in their countries.

Ukraine – a country of 46 million inhabitants is a much-endowed nation and used to be the bread basket of the former Soviet Union. The people are hugely-talented, educated, proud and the womenfolk extremely beautiful. The country is equally endowed with vast natural resources, including iron ore, coal and the soil is black as the country is located in the black earth zone of the world with rich and vast agriculturalfarms across the giant Steppe.

Bread and Irish potato (kartofel), the stable food, come in various forms, colours and shapes and are never in short supply, including juicy apples, succulent fruits and dairy products including ‘malako’ (milk), which is in abundance and in high demand.

Interms of culinary delights, Ukrainian food was exotic and my favorite delight was “borsh” – a soup-like stew mixed with cabbage, meat and tomato paste, and very nice when served hot with “churni kleb” (black bread), which is the favorite bread in Ukraine.

Given the harsh weather condition of the Ukraine with freezing temperatures during the harsh winter months, “Borsh” is usually very handy in the evenings.

And while I studied International Relations at the Taras Sevkhenko Kiev State University (1990 – 1996), I immersed in Ukrainian culture, studied the ancient history of Kievskaya Rus- the cradle of Ukrainian and Russian civilization, read the works of the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevkhenko and the exploits of Bogdan Khemilnitsky - the great Ukrainian leader who presided over the unification of Ukraine with Russia in the 17th century.

At the same time, I interacted with a vast array of Ukrainians including the talent pool of intellectuals such as Mr Gumenyuk, Mr Manshola – erudite professor of International Relations and foreign policy of Western Europe, Mr. Pashuk who later served as Ukrainian ambassador to Argentina, and Martinenko – the erudite professor of Political Science.

I also used the opportunity to visit and reconnect with my fellow Gambian students in other cities such as Odessa, Kharkiv, Donekts and Lviv to explore the scenic beauty of Ukraine, and interact with the charming locals.

During weekends, I undertook occasional forays to the Kreshatik at the centre of Kiev, where the crisis unfolded in the Maidan to window shop and just enjoy the ambience and the beautiful locals.

Our hostels, affectionately called “obshezitie”, located in the sprawling Lomonosova district in the outskirts of Kiev, were lively dwelling places of abode with a mix array of students from all corners of the globe including Arabs, Chinese, Latinos and Africans.

The lingua franca was Russian, and this facilitated interaction within the diverse student population from different continents and regions with different socio- cultural orientations.

The foreign students strove hard to overcome language barriers, and studied hard to meet the stringent requirements of the Ukrainian professors.

Apart from the occasional racial remarks, usually directed at African students by the xenophobic and unexposed locals, mostly young boys and drunken men, the harsh wintry conditions and the serious economic challenges faced by the foreign students, the Ukrainian experience was by and large very interesting and rewarding.

Despite the odds, we shouldered on and graduated in our chosen fields armed with the requisite knowledge and exposure to serve our countries.

This we did with distinction and I rose through the ranks to serve the country in various capacities, including as director of marketing, GTA. As I write this piece, I continue to grapple with a very mysterious ailment that has defied all attempts at a cure, and this reality has constrained my ability to further serve this country.

Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that this beautiful country called the Ukraine has been cursed by geography, given its location on the fringes of Europe next to a giant eastern neighbor - Russia - thus the name U-kraina which in Russian roughly translates as people in the periphery or region.

In fact, in every sense, Ukraine is just like Russia in miniature ranging from a common ancestry, similar Slavic identity, linguistic affinities, and family and blood ties. Hardly is there a Russian without a family in Ukraine and verse versa. Ukraine is the cradle of Russian cultural and religious civilization.

Invariably, since early times, but more pronounced after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been this push and pull between the vast half, consisting mainly of ethnic Russians in the east, and the western part as to which way to face - East or west.

The western part is resolutely turned towards the European Union, and advocates for a liberal market economy. Its majority Christian, Catholic and well-educated population speaks Ukrainian and are fervently nationalistic and invariably supports opposition groups and opposed the former president.

On the other hand, the population in the East is majority Orthodox Christian, speaks Russian and looks confidently towards Moscow for stability and economic security.

However, the vast majority of Ukrainians believe that Europe is the natural home for the Ukraine, and I remember one of my Ukrainian course mates used to remark that Ukrainians are as white as snow, geographically located in Europe, endowed with beautiful and friendly people and, as such, her membership of the European family of nations should not be questioned.

I concur entirely with this sentiment, as Ukraine, though is located in the periphery of Europe, and shared historical and cultural ties with Russia, her European identity is beyond doubt.

As such, the country should be gradually integrated with Europe, but at the same time should maintain close ties with Russia given the close cultural and economic ties that condemn them to share space and interact at various levels.

Apparently, on the surface it might seem that clamour for membership of the EU is the driving force of the current turmoil, but in reality the current revolution dubbed Euro Maidan has its roots in the way and manner Ukraine has been governed and reengineered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

As remarked by the last leader of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, “there has been very little perestroika (restructuring/reform) in Ukraine, as the ruling elite and successive presidents ranging from Kravchuk- the first post-Soviet president, to Leonid Kuchma presided over “a corrupt and moribund system of government”, “fearful that reforms and the accompanying adjustments will bite hard and could result in social backlash”.

Accordingly, a leading scholar on Eastern Europe further observed that, “this situation has stifled the potential of this beautiful country, and the resultant economic stagnation paved the way for social tension”.

Therefore, the revolution and the accompanying social revolt which unfolded in Kiev and other cities was justifiable for obvious reasons, as the Ukrainians crave for a better future within the European comity of nations and clamour for a complete overhaul of the economic, social, legal and political dynamics in line with their European neighbours such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

But given the peculiarities of their country, they must do so with caution and “make haste slowly”, which would require them to balance the interest of their various constituents at the level of the regions, particularly in the hotspot of the Crimea.

Crafting an all-inclusive government, strong enough to tackle corruption and initiate the right constitutional reforms are some of the challenges confronting the new Ukraine.

However, in these turbulent times, the country is facing serious challenges in terms of economic and social tension, and also the role of Russia should be balanced in the equation, as this giant neighbour has every reason to be concerned given the close economic and cultural ties with Ukraine, not to mention the fact that nearly half of the Ukrainians are either ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking.

For geopolitical and geostrategic reasons, Russia will feel vulnerable in the event that Ukraine tilts closer to Europe as this could open the doors for NATO expansion to its door-steps.

The Russian leadership understood the implications of this move and will employ everything within their means to thwart this move.

The onus lies on the new leadership and their powerful backers in Europe and America to prove beyond words that this is not a zero sum game, and it is in Russia’s interest to let Ukrainians go.

Otherwise Ukraine faces the prospects of severe political crises and even a split into two, which is not in the interest of Europe neither Russia.

Ukraine relies entirely on Russia for energy supplies, and besides most of the gas pipes to Europe from Russia pass through Ukraine, not to mention the economic links. It is, therefore, in their mutual interest to maintain cordial ties.

In conclusion, it is evident that what is at stake in Kiev has ramifications in the field of energy security in Europe, regional integration and the international balance of power.