Post-communism: On the Way to War
In the Eastern European countries, a wave of revolutions marked the fall of communism by overthrowing their governments and transferred power to capitalist governments in 1989. These countries gained independence from the USSR and USSR dissolved, creating the present Ukraine and Russia. This fall of communism is one of the direct causes of the current war in the Donbass region of Ukraine, started in 2014 between the government and the pro-Russian rebels. This armed conflict has its roots in the fall of communism and that they are interconnected between them with nationalist, economical and geopolitical basis. The fall of communism laid the groundwork for the ongoing war in Donbass by creating conflicts between Ukrainian and Russian nationalism. Nationalist resentment between these two countries resulted in Russia-EU and Russia-NATO conflict which are the main reasons behind the current war.
In 1989, Russia and Ukraine were part of the former Soviet Union. Revolutions to end communism stemmed from Poland and spread to the East European countries of Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. All these countries were part of the Soviet Union when then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev laid down the path of radical reforms towards a non-communist regime. His policies of a transparent media and economic restructure brought drastic changes in these countries. The Warsaw Pact, jokingly named as the Sinatra Doctrine implemented by him gave the Eastern European countries that were allied with the USSR by the Warsaw Pact, the permission to determine their own forms of government. These reforms brought drastic changes in these countries as they had more freedom than they had before. Revolutions against Communist government sparked in these countries ultimately leading towards the collapse of communism. According to an article found in the Office of the Historian website, “By the summer of 1990, all of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe were replaced by democratically elected governments.” As the countries under the USSR domain started dismantling their communist government, “this atmosphere of possibility soon enveloped the Soviet Union itself” (History.com). The atmosphere of possibility was proven true because only two years after, countries in the Soviet Union declared independence. Communist party of the USSR lost their monopoly over political power. The dissolution of the USSR was sealed when Ukraine, the second most powerful republic after Russia decided to separate. Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991 but even though they had declared that they would no longer follow the laws of USSR and would follow only the laws of Ukraine, they still are under a lot of influence of the remaining USSR domain, Russia. This influence brings up the ongoing problem, the war in Donbass.
Donbass is the term used to call the Donetsk and Luhansk region together. Donbass separatist forces have claimed independence from Ukraine and are now fighting the Ukrainian government. The separatist rebels are backed by Russia. The conflict started when the government refused a deal from EU to accept one from Russia. Russia wanted Ukraine to join the Eurasian Customs Union. When the former president gave up the process of signing the trade deal with EU and suspends the negotiations with them, pro-European groups protested against this decision. According to a CNN article, the anti-government protests escalated into armed conflict and military actions were taken by the government (Thomson). This military action soon turned into a civil war in Donbass where majority are pro-Russian. This tension between Russia and Ukraine is not a singular event rather the reasons behind it have connections back to the fall of communism. The post-communist transitions gave way to the rise of a set of political, social and cultural problems that has directed these countries towards a battlefield.
The shift from communism created a nationalist division between the Ukrainian people. Instead of being a united country, Ukraine has two nationalist ideologies. One ideology demands closer ties with Russia and other one demands sovereignty and freedom from Russian influence but at the same time is more inclined towards Europe. In Donbass, the separatists speak Russian and their aim is to gain autonomy from Ukraine and reunify with Russia. This raises the question why a region wants to be separated from its country. That is because post communism has introduced nationalist resentment in Ukraine. After the fall of communism, independent Ukraine faced ethnic division between two groups, Ukrainian nationalists who declare Ukrainian nationality and Russian nationalists who refer to Russia as their homeland. Their debate is whether to seek Russian alliance or other major global power like Europe (Szporluk 316). Since then, Ukrainian people had division between nationalities and the current war is a highlight of that. The decommunization processes in Ukraine left them open to Russian influence even after being independent, especially in the Donbass region. This gives great insight to understand the present day nationalist resentment in Donbass faced by the pro-Russian separatists and the pro-European government. The people fighting there no longer want to be a part of Ukraine because of its pro-Western leanings. In his book Cultural Formations of Postcommunism: Emancipation, Transition, Nation, and War, Michael D. Kennedy wrote about the transitional culture after 1989. Post-communism transition does not only affect economy or politics but also social aspects of a country. He said that, “...the Ukrainians are much more constrained in their vision of the world...those in Donetsk refer to what happens in Russia” (186). The transitional culture after the collapse affected their nationalist ideologies. The Ukrainians have struggled with their identity, specially the people in the Donbass region. The Donbass region is unique because most of the people here speak Russian and they consider Russia as their ethnic root and homeland. Post-communist transitions still has this effect as a great number of people there still identify with Russia than with Ukraine. The regions have demanded Russia to be the official language with their autonomy from Ukraine. Also, the Ukrainian nationalists identity has fueled the activists to lead protests against the president for not accepting the EU deal and for having allegiance to Russia not Ukraine. When the new president is selected the EU deal is signed and he warns Russia that Ukraine's determination to pursue its European dreams will not be denied” (Thomson). This is replied with escalated violence from the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass region. This nationality split is from the post communist transition and what then was a division between people now is a civil war.
The collision of economic interest of Russia and EU is originated from the nationalism split. Nationalist conflict explains not only why people are fighting each other in their own country but also why the separatists are so against Ukraine’s relation with EU. The answer is Russia is in opposition to Ukraine-EU relation because they are wary of EU enlargement which was triggered when the Eastern European countries joined after the fall of communism. When the new president accepted the trade deal bomb attacks and gunfight broke out in the rebel occupied regions. Although Russia has maintained trade relation with EU, they have not expressed any intention to join whereas Ukraine signed an association agreement with EU as a process to gain membership. After the fall of communism, most of the Eastern European countries joined EU to stabilize their economy. Russia identified this as a strategy of EU’s expansion and a threat to their dominance. Joan Debardeleben, in her book noted that, “Once eight of the former post-communist countries entered the EU (including the three Baltic states that had actually formed part of the Soviet Union), the implications became more clear, introducing some new sources of tension into Russia’s relations with the EU” (45). The addition of the former sphere of influence of Russia affected them to be cautious towards EU. Disagreements and clashes of interest have caused tension between them. For this reason, a mutual settlement between Ukraine, who is on the border of Russia, and EU was met with strong opposition. For Russia, this symbolized European superiority and gradual expansion of their domain. Russia saw EU partnering up with the lost countries after the fall of communism and then with their immediate neighbor, they decided to interfere with military support which escalated the war in Donbass. Pro-Russian resentment towards EU is from the fact that the countries which were under Soviet dominion before they took down their Communist government to be free from Russia to be allied together. So, Russian troops moved into Ukraine as a warning against being a part of the EU enlargement.
The reason it is a matter of economic interest for Russia is, Ukraine and Russia have a free-trade agreement. Having trade relations with EU would require Ukraine to make some changes in their policies. This poses potential problems for Russia in trading. Russia is very eager to make Ukraine join the Eurasian Customs Union. This Eurasian Customs Union ensures free trading, free movement of capital and labor, coordinated tax and a common economic space for the Eurasian countries. It’s an attempt of Russia at integration of post-Soviet countries. The reason for the violent outbreak is that the pro-Russian forces demand that the government join the Eurasian Union, not the European Union. However, the negotiations between Ukraine and EU are currently frozen because of the current destability. There are several reasons at play for Russia to have wanted this Eurasian Union but one of the key reasons is regaining control over the neighboring countries (Shumylo-tapiola). Creating this union with the Eurasian countries will make Russia’s position as a global power because this union will let Russia access to limitless resources, raw materials and better market. This will also act as a counterbalance to EU’s economic power. Russia is so invested in this war by sending troops and supports to prevent that. Economic interest in Ukraine is what motivated Russia to back up the separatist forces in Donbass to fuel the war.