Ukraine: Community beyond imperialism

A few weeks ago, I spilled out some thoughts on the necessity of recognizing ethno-cultural difference. If you were so gracious as to have made a dent in the post (it was a bit on the long side), you’d have noticed the importance I place on multicultural societies managing a “unity-diversity” tension. I drew on Christian scholar Judith Gundry-Volf, who described how Jesus’s interactions with “the other” were informed both by an emphatic recognition of his Jewish heritage, and a willingness to courageously break through firm ethnic boundaries.

I suggested that ethnic distinctiveness is central to people’s identities, and must be accommodated and respected if there is to be peace. Ethno-cultural recognition is, however, a fragile concept. Like an unstable chemical compound, a change in environment can morph the molecules at its core into something far more volatile and dangerous.

As we speak, rhetoric of difference is being used in Central Europe as a way to justify imperialism. Vladimir Putin’s administration has aggravated ethnic tension so as to kindle Russian nationalism in eastern Ukraine and Crimea as a pretext to establishing its sphere of political, economic, and cultural influence. As Chrystia Freeland noted in yesterday’s New York Times, this is more political contest than ethno-cultural conflict: it is erroneous to assume that a “fratricidal separation between Russian and Ukrainian speakers” precludes peace. It is increasingly apparent, though, that the aims of belligerent elites oppose unity.

This is not to say that everyday people are merely pawns. Some eastern Ukrainians undoubtedly have decided – willingly and conscientiously – that they would rather be part of Russia. It is those at the levers of power, however, that have insidiously limited their choices to “stay” or “go”. Just as in ancient Israel, empire has destroyed the option of living out mutual respect in community, and created an environment where difference fuels fires of alienation and violence.

Where do the keys to peace lie in such a power struggle? Freeland might well be correct in asserting that Putin’s current ethnic experiment will fail, and he will not consolidate power as easily as he predicted. However, Ukrainians’ ultimate escape from imperialist bullying and oligarch-driven instability will come only through the formation of a strong civil society strong enough to defend its fledgling democracy. In addition to advancing liberal ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism, this movement must be defined by forgiveness and reconciliation – values that transcend common political vocabulary.

To me, this conclusion constitutes a wide view. To others, it may consist of nothing more than platitudes: it says nothing specific about gas pipelines, European institutions, or geopolitical positioning. These are important variables that will be decisive in whether war or peace defines Eastern Europe’s near future. In a tenuous post-Soviet order, though, Ukrainians initiate more conversations about the type of political community they want, and dream big – bigger than established powers can currently imagine.

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