Murari Sharma: Lessons from Ukraine for Small Countries

Early this month, Russia annexed Crimea. The local government in Crimea hastily organized a referendum, in which among those who voted, 93 percent supported the annexure. History has repeated itself once again reminding small countries of its profound but disturbing lessons.

But before I go into that, let me give you the background if you have not been following recent developments in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been torn between its pro-west and pro-Russia ruling elites since it became independent from the Soviet Union. In the latest episode, pro-west forces launched protests against the pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich in November 2013 when he refused to sign the association treaty with the European Union in favor of joining the Eurasian Union sponsored by Russia. To resolve the crisis, the two sides agreed on February 21, 2014 to end the protests and hold fresh presidential elections. But western countries did not like the agreement. The protests continued and Yanukovich fled Kiev.

The pro-west elite formed a new government in Kiev. The parliament quickly passed a bill to outlaw the Russian language and shut down Russian television programs, only prevented by the presidential veto from becoming law. There was sporadic violence against the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Alarmed by all this, the Crimeans, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, decided to hold the referendum and join Russia.

Crimea was part of Russia until the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian himself, transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Russia had retained its Black Sea  naval base there under a lease agreement after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Western countries have taken several steps against Russia arguing that the Russian military encouraged Crimeans to secede from Ukraine. They have booted Russia out of G-8 and imposed travel bans on more than 30 senior Russian officials. The EU has hastily signed the association treaty with Ukraine. Western countries have also pushed through a resolution by 100 votes in the 193-member UN General Assembly.

But the crisis is far from over. The Russian minority in eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial heartland, has been agitating against the Kiev government and demanding a referendum like in Crimea. Russia has amassed a huge force on the Ukrainian boarder.  Ukraine has also mobilized its military on the Russian border.

To prevent a military confrontation, western countries have threatened Russia with additional sanctions should it intervene in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia has no intention to march into the troubled region but he has made it clear that it would try to protect the Russian minority there if they were attacked.

The EU, which has 28 members, is divided on further sanctions. Russia supplies almost 30 percent of gas the EU members consume. Russia-EU annual trade is worth more than 340 million US dollars. London is home to Russian oligarchs and money. So each EU member views additional sanctions against Moscow from its own angle.

For instance, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, etc. want strong measures because they have little to lose. Bulgaria and Romania have a soft corner for Russia on which their economies largely dependent. Britain speaks tough but does not want to lose Russian oligarchs and money. Germany and France do not want to lose Russian gas supply and their exports to Russia.

The US is more aggressive than Europeans because it has very little to lose. Its annual trade with Russia is worth around 24 billion. Among leaders, Republicans like John McCain, the senator from Arizona, sound more hawkish than President Barak Obama, a Democrat. But none of the two parties has the appetite for military engagement with the nuclear Russia in the near abroad.

Besides this political crisis, Ukraine is also in a deep economic crisis. Its growth is slow and it will default on its debt repayment soon if external financial support is not available. Part of the reason Yanukovich had decided to join the Eurasian Union was because Moscow was providing subsidized energy and 15 billion dollars in soft loan while the EU was asking for a series of austerity measures before it was ready sign the association treaty and provide financial assistance.

The economic crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. Russia has asked Ukraine to pay back 3 billion dollars it has already provided, canceled the remaining 12 billion dollars, and pressed to pay the outstanding gas bill of more than 10 billion dollars immediately at a regular rate, not at the heavily subsidized price. Kiev will not get the 18 billion dollars the IMF has committed recently until it begins to make deep cuts in spending and embrace prolonged austerity.  The austerity is sure trigger further unrest in the rump Ukraine as it has in Greece and Spain.

This sorry Ukrainian saga has several important lessons for small countries like Nepal.

First, small countries continue to remain vulnerable to blatant aggression from big countries of all hues in one pretext or another — protecting minorities, preventing humanitarian catastrophe, promoting their own values, etc. However, the real intention behind such aggression is often strategic and economic.

Western countries colonized much of the world to exploit. Germany and Italy occupied much of Europe and parts of Africa during World War II. Japan did it in Korea and South East Asia and China in Tibet and Vietnam. The Soviet Union invaded Hungry, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and Georgia. More recently, western countries have engaged in aggression in Granada, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. India invaded East Pakistan and Maldives. Now Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Second, unless their strategic or economic interest is at stake, big countries often do not come to protect small countries. Oil-rich Iraq, Kuwait and Libya and oil-less Syria and Palestine get starkly different treatments. So small countries with limited strategic and economic interest for larger countries must fend for themselves from external aggression.

Third, big countries, more than small, are driven by their interest. Western hearts did not bleed for Ukraine; they were only interested in Kiev joining the EU and NATO. They made noise about democracy but did nothing to protect Ukraine’s integrity. Russia loved Crimea to protect its own turf. Not to forget, during the Cold War, both blocs were only interested in expanding their ideological tent.

Fourth, small countries often fall into the trap set by large countries and lose. Big countries use glib rhetoric projecting that they and small countries share the same values and interests. Small countries cannot tell their interests from that of their bigger friends and do things that work against them. Ukraine lost Crimea because of this. Western countries are cutting huge business deals with the worst human rights violators while preaching human rights and freedoms.  China makes big deals with Taiwan but complains when its smaller friends try to engage with Taipei. India trades with Pakistan but dislikes when a smaller neighbor does the same.

Fifth and most problematic, political leaders are interested more in wielding power than in protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. More so in small countries. The Ukrainian nationalists have proved it once again. Rather than tolerate Yanukovich for a few months and keep Crimea, they forced him out and let the territory go to Russia.

This is not the first case and is unlikely to be the last. For instance, the personal rivalry for power between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, both educated in Britain, was behind the partition of India. Yahiya Khan and Julfikar Bhutto partitioned Pakistan rather than let Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman of East Pakistan become prime minister. East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have similar stories.

This list of lessons is by no means exhaustive. But it is sufficient to warn: Small countries, including Nepal, beware!!!

30 March 2014

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