Ukraine and Ukrainians in Europe
A very short history of the European country at the centre of the Russia-Ukraine crisis
Two comedians stand resolute in Kyiv. Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a professional comedian and actor elected President of Ukraine in 2019. And even Putin himself is laughing at Boris Johnson swooping to the rescue. The threat they are defending us against is an invasion of Ukraine much larger than that which we saw after the country’s last pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled in 2014. Russian military forces are lined up at the Ukrainian border, and the United States is sending troops to Europe. The United Kingdom has accused Russia of planning to invade and install a puppet government.
This is not an article about NATO or natural gas or great power politics, but an invitation to get to know the European country at the centre of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Europeans are eyeing the eve of war with trepidation, but not the kind of desperate fear that we might expect. Because the land of forty million people where this international drama is unfolding is little known to many of us, and, if we’re honest, it still doesn’t really feel like Europe. The danger is not quite on our doorstep.
The European Union has worked since 2014 to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine by unseating Russia as the country’s largest trading partner and welcoming Ukrainians to work throughout the continent with rights and protections. But Europeans are still getting to know Ukraine. The eastern cities of Budapest, Krakow, Tallinn and Bucharest, and even non-EU Sarajevo and Belgrade, have become top travel destinations for western Europeans increasingly interested in eastern culture, food, and history. But Ukraine remains shrouded by its perceived economic backwardness, political corruption, and instability.
Ukraine is ‘other’ in the minds of many, but it is a wholly European country with an unmistakably European culture. In Lviv, bars and cafes spill out into the squares. In Odessa, beach clubs pump Europop hits and sunbeds line the sand. In Kyiv, spectacular churches litter the skyline. This country at the centre of the crisis is just like your latest holiday destination and the places that you feel most at home. In past and present, Ukraine is Europe.
A shared history
A common European culture has been shaped by centuries of migration and religious and political conflict that has seen the map of Europe redrawn over and over, long before the fall of the iron curtain. Much of present-day Ukraine was Christianised in the tenth century, when Kievan Rus was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe. Like other European people, Ukrainians suffered through the destructive wars of the middle ages, and during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries their territory was partitioned among imperial powers: Polish-Lithuanian, Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian. This meant that Ukrainians fought on both sides of the First World War, and like the peoples of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, (then) Czechoslovakia, (then) Yugoslavia, and Ireland, the Ukrainians made a bolt for independence in its wake.
But the Ukrainian People’s Republic survived just a few short years, and during the interwar soviet era, the Holodomor famine of 1932-3 killed at least 4 million Ukrainians. During the Second World War, Ukrainians once again found themselves on both sides of the fight. Millions of Ukrainians served in the Red Army, and hundreds of thousands — including my grandparents — worked in German munitions factories and entered the ranks of the Wehrmacht after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Many of these people lived in parts of the country that had been partitioned to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939. Like much of Europe, Ukraine was devastated by the war. At least two million Ukrainians were displaced, and those that were unable to return home lived in refugee camps for some years after the war before eventually settling around the world.
Ukrainians in the European Union
After the Second World War, there was substantial migration of Ukrainians to other parts of the Soviet Union, contributing to sizeable diasporas in today’s Poland, Slovakia, Latvia, Romania, Czechia, Croatia, Estonia, and Lithuania. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of Ukrainians also migrated to Italy, Greece, Portugal and France. These economic migrants often took up lower paying jobs in service and care work, and many of them were women. In Italy, for example, 80 per cent of (legal) Ukrainian migrants are female.
In addition to permanent migration, seasonal labourers (often illegal) flocked west. Anecdotally, for those living in border regions, the appeal of earning enough in just one month working in Poland to live off for six months in rural Ukraine was enough to eclipse any safety or legal concerns. Since 2017, Ukrainians have had access to visa-free travel within the European Union, and countries such as Poland have made work permits easier to access, strengthening the rights of seasonal labourers. Today almost three million Ukrainian citizens work in the EU - about one million of them in Poland’s agricultural sector. The Ukrainians already living in the European Union perform vital jobs and contribute to the diversity of European life.
Welcoming Ukraine to Europe
In 1991, 90 per cent of the Ukrainian population voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Efforts to negotiate an Association Agreement with the EU from the early 2000s were stymied by political corruption that was inconsistent with the EU’s common values and in particular the rule of law. Perceived electoral corruption, and the intimidation and imprisonment of political opponents, triggered major popular uprisings in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Euromaidan. Both protests engaged swathes of the Ukrainian population, including a large proportion of young people, in the fight for Ukrainian nationhood and democracy.
An Association Agreement was finally ratified by all Member States and granted by the European Council in mid-2017. The main obstacle for candidacy remains the high level of corruption, particularly in the judiciary. Significant changes are also required throughout the economy, for instance in the energy sector, the regulation of banking, food safety, and land use, as well as regional infrastructure development.
Joining the EU represents an opportunity for Ukraine to reform these institutions, not simply for the purpose of accession, but to strengthen its democracy and economy for the benefit of its people. But it’s important that the economic transformation prioritises citizens’ wellbeing rather than simply the creation of a market economy that is secure for international investment.
The transition from soviet-era state capitalism to liberal market capitalism is not automatically seeing benefits ‘trickle down’ to ordinary people. The election of Zelenskiy as a populist president reflects people’s frustration with political leadership, and with the absence of progress made to improve their everyday lives and ensure the security of their future. When the immediate crisis is over, the EU and Member States should strengthen their efforts to integrate Ukraine, and do more to support a wellbeing focus during the process of reform.
The domestic political conditions of Ukraine’s reform programme have long been challenging, and the present threat of war is a disturbing escalation. But the EU’s economic sanctions were not enough to stop Russia from continuing to occupy Crimea since 2014, and efforts at integration have not been enough to prevent Ukraine from being placed as a pawn once again at the centre of today’s crisis.
A disclaimer and an invitation
This abridged history is shaped by the stories of my family who live in the Ivano-Frankivsk region near the historic city of Halych, heart of Galicia. The region is historically a centre of Ukrainian nationalism and considered pro-European. Being a long-occupied and partitioned country, you might get another history from another Ukrainian. And I encourage you to ask, because the histories of Ukraine are the histories of Europe.