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Hijacking Galicia

Sonja Margolina continues the debate, started by Richard Wagner, about Ukraine's place in the EU

Read Richard Wagner's polemic "Why Ukraine has no place in the EU" here and Martin Pollack's answer here.

Four years ago Ukraine was a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet region. Now it is struggling to stay afloat in the political battle of power and self-interest. The struggle of everyone against everyone else, in which populist fury Yulia Tymoshenko is trying to seize power from President Viktor Yushchenko has, for the time being, buried the prospect of stabilisation and a 'Europeanisation' of the country's political culture. Per se, the hope that the prospect of EU accession would stem political and economic egotisms and unite the elites, is not just wishful thinking. It would be merely following in the footsteps of other Central and East European states who have already taken this path. Mobilising society for the purpose of accession has actually led to fundamental state reforms in those countries with a well-developed political culture. Poland and the Baltic states came out of the accession process as stable democracies; in Bulgaria and Romania, however, the state reform was undermined by post-communist insider deals and they are still some way short of a functioning constitutional state. Even more questionable appear the prospects of those potential accession candidates in the Balkans where, under the patronage of the EU, corruption and organised crime are flourishing like poppies in Afghanistan.

The unease at the prospect that Ukraine might one day find itself in the EU together with the difficult southern European partners has rekindled the smouldering cultural discourse in the West. Thus writer Richard Wagner, born in the Romanian Banat region, spoke out against accepting Ukraine in the EU earlier this year, stating that due to its "orthodox-Byzantine imprint and its political culture of a post-Soviet society", the country doesn't culturally belong to Europe. As he would have it, it remains historically and culturally part of Russia with its Byzantine habitus and the survival techniques of Homo sovieticus. Wagner has no time for the "Galicia myth" which was fabricated by Western intellectuals and West-Ukrainians. This peripheral territory of the Dual Monarchy, he argues, was never Ukrainian, not at the start and not when the Jews were exterminated and the Poles displaced during the Second World War. Its East-Central European identity is based on the historical division of Ukraine. West Ukraine, he maintains, stands for virulent west-Ukrainian nationalism which distinguished itself not least in the persecution of the Jews.

Wagner argues that Ukraine is in a phase of nation building, which is being frantically pursued by politically weakened and populist elites in the absence of genuine political modernisation. Correspondingly, there is an attempt to portray Ukraine as a victim by invoking the famines inflicted by Stalin, which were defined as genocide, and sever the ties with Russia. International recognition of Ukraine as a victim of communist totalitarianism would enforce its Western orientation, and its acceptance into NATO and the EU would be a way of making amends for the injustices suffered.

However riddled with complications, Ukrainian political history does not fall outside the Central and Eastern European remit. A few exceptions notwithstanding, all the states of the former Eastern Bloc attach great importance to being recognised as victims of both totalitarian regimes. The myth of Galicia in Ukraine is also only a continuation of the process of discovery and mental mapping of all Central Eastern European memorial sites which, as early as the beginning of the 1980s, were wrested from oblivion by German intellectuals: Lviv, Czernowitz, Wilno and other cities which were robbed of their Jewish and Polish populations. Cities with unmistakably Habsburgian architecture emerged as part of a sunken continent of a unified Europe – as a multi-ethnic, dynamic and intellectually inexhaustible reservoir of European modernism.

The discovery of Atlantis under the name of Central Europe was, so to speak, the most convincing argument connecting the states behind the Iron Curtain to a united Europe. In the wake of the discoverers came historians, journalists, and travel agencies, who described the continent to the European public. Eastern European writers such as Andrzej Stasiuk and Yuri Andrukhovych became the ingenious escorts of Western Europeans curious to discover the "original" Eastern Europe. Burgeoning numbers of American Jews and Israelis set off for the abandoned graves of their forefathers. The question of "authentic" or mythologised no longer reared its head. Nostalgic kitsch created identity and boosted the economy. As the easternmost link in this chain, Ukraine now stood at the end of an imaginary appropriation of those areas which had been ethnically cleansed by those forefathers, and not always against their will. That all the sacred sites of this Central and Eastern European Atlantis were desecrated by binge-drinking British tourists, who were mostly oblivious to their surroundings, lent the process a globalised touch.

Which is why the "truth" about Galicia is no argument against Ukraine joining the EU. The sociological construct of the homo sovieticus and the infamous Orthodox-Byzantine influence – as if the Greeks and the Bulgarians were any different – even the unpleasant nationalism - are problematic as objections. A more pressing argument is that the Ukrainian elite seems to want sidestep having to carry out institutional modernisation on its own back by joining Nato and playing the "European perspective" card. But even this is not enough to eliminate them from the running. Plenty of other countries became fully-fledged EU members without fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. In the reality of the expansion process, high standards are watered down by political expediency. European values are eroded with every wobbly candidate who grows in power once under the protective umbrella of Nato and the EU and develops a culture that is a throwback to communist times. Strengthening them, could therefore promote the two-speed Europe which Jürgen Habermas is so keen to promote. Ralf Dahrendorf calls it the "coalition of the willing". But the "willing" are thin on the ground in old Europe.

The EU - by now this sounds banal - is a stage for globalisation. For all its obsession with control, it has shown itself to be incapable of putting a stop to the incessant creep of the non-European world. The more inaccessible the fortress, the less protected it becomes. Because the influence of foreign global players like China and Russia looks poised to become more powerful than the weight of individual EU states with their veto rights. To a certain extent Russia is on the brink of "entering" the EU without becoming a member. An "entry" of this kind would relativise the shortcomings of EU hopefuls. If Russian energy policies have a Russian-Othordox stamp on them, why should we take offence at the Ukrainian homo sovieticus? The EU's problem is its own crisis, not one state which wants to solve its problems through accession. We will get over Ukraine kidnapping Galicia, but the prospect of old Europe being kidnapped makes us shake in our shoes.


Sonja Margolina was born 1951 in Moscow and studied biology and ecology. Since 1986, she has been based in Berlin, where she works as a freelance journalist. She has published the books "Russland verstehen" (Understanding Russia), Rowohlt, 1991; "Das Ende der Lügen. Russland und die Juden im 20. Jahrhundert" (The end of the lies. Russia and the jews in the 20th century), Siedler, 1992; "Die Fesseln der Vergangenheit: russisches Denken nach der Perestroika" (The ties of the past: Russian thinking after perestroika), edited bei Margolina, Fischer, 1993; "Russland. Die nichtzivile Gesellschaft" (Russia: the not-civil society), Rowohlt, 1994; "Die gemütliche Apokalypse: Unbotmässiges zu Klimahysterie und Einwanderungsdebatte in Deutschland" (The cosy apocalypse. Insubordinate thoughts on global clima change hysteria and immigration debate in Germany), Siedler, 1995; "Wodka: Trinken und Macht in Russland" (Vodka: Drinking and power in Russia) Vontobel-Stiftung; Berlin: wjs, 2004.

Translation: Nick Treuherz and lp

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