EU’s neighbourhood policy, Russia, and the conflict in Ukraine

December 13, 2015

Here is an amended and completed version of the talk I gave at the peace conference “The EU –Neighbourhood Policy in the Southern and Eastern Neighbourhood” on 11 December 2015, at the European parliament in Brussels. The event was organised by the GUE-NGL group.

Ladies and gentlemen. In this brief talk I will be making three arguments. The first concerns politico-economic conditions of peace, as applicable in the context of EU’s foreign economic policies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The second argument deals with the justification and real effects of the sanctions on Russia. Finally, in the third part, I will first make a few critical remarks about double standards in world politics and then, most importantly, try to show possible ways forward, that is, towards overcoming this and other similar conflicts in the future.

1. Global political economy forms a complex, dynamic process in which actors and issues are tightly interwoven. This applies to developments in every region of the world, as the dynamic processes of the world economy shape conditions everywhere. The euro crisis and socio-economic problems in EU’s “neighbourhood” are intimately connected, not only because both are tied to much bigger processes. The whole is more than the sum of its parts; but the whole does not work without the parts. Actors do participate in bringing about and steering global political economy processes in various ways. The EU is an important actor in the world economy.

From the start, the European Community aimed at contributing to global economic liberalization. By the time of the arrival of the euro, this project had achieved a single market within the EU and continued to foster globalization outside it. Simultaneously, since the 1970s and 1980s processes of financialization have taken centre stage in the world economy. This has led to increasingly powerful and globally synchronised cycles of boom and bust.

The global financial crisis of 2008-9 was the most serious crisis of the world economy since the Great Depression and World War II. As a result of the crisis, Ukrainian GDP collapsed by almost 15% in 2009, ending a decade of high economic growth and rapidly decreasing poverty. During the euro crisis Ukraine has faced a situation that is not only analogical but at least in some ways also similar to many euro crisis countries. Austerity and financial problems become self-perpetuating.

The problem is that especially unemployment can aggravate social antagonisms. Unemployment becomes easily an issue of even existential security and thus creates room for securitisation of political issues. The Euromaidan protests started in November 2013 after the president, Viktor Yanukovych, began shying away from an association agreement that had been negotiated with the EU and instead he chose closer ties with Russia. The EU had offered a relatively small loan, with conditions similar to the Troika conditions imposed upon the crisis countries within the EU. Criticism of those conditions fed into the East-West and other divides in Ukrainian society.

It should be stressed that not only EU’s economic policies, but also its promotion of human rights and democracy has been rather one-sided and unilateralist. Especially human rights and democracy-promoters who approve of neoliberalism, or whose aims are at least compatible with neoliberalism, have been supported. Also many spontaneous democratic civic movements have found external support from the EU or US, which has often been translated, once the democratic movement has entered government, into a full-scale programme of neoliberal restructuration.

Following Euromaidan, in 2014-15 socio-economic developments in Ukraine have been rather grim. Economic growth has again turned sharply negative, partly but not only because of the war. The Ukrainian currency, which had been pegged at a rate of 5:1 to the U.S. dollar, was devalued to 8:1, and was stabilized at that ratio until the beginning of 2014. The hryvnia is now floating and the current rate is around 23:1. This devaluation and related inflation has affected the real income of ordinary people. In the midst of all this, especially the Eastern parts of Ukraine remain economically and otherwise tightly integrated with Russia. Meanwhile, the EU (together with the IMF) continues to push for austerity, in addition to various other neoliberal measures. As a result the Ukrainian splits and schisms are being further entrenched.

2. The justification of sanctions on Russia cannot be based on their likely effects on policy change in Russia. Russia has been increasingly concerned about drawing a line at NATO and EU expanding Eastwards. The Russian government tends to see “colour revolutions” as a key means of this expansion. Thereby the universalising neoliberal orientation of EU’s external relations and expansion comes to be contested and geo-politicised, even if Russia itself combines elements of neoliberalism and state capitalism in its economic policies and institutional arrangements.

Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the war in Eastern Ukraine, the West has imposed sanctions upon Russia, to which Russia has tried to respond in kind. In the academic field of International Relations, a fair amount of research on the real effects of economic sanctions has been published. A general conclusion is that if the idea is to bring about a desired policy change, sanctions do not usually work. In situations where sanctions seem to have worked, the effects are usually relatively difficult to disentangle from the effects of other developments. Recently, Iran concluded an agreement on its nuclear facilities with the West. It appears that sanctions did play a role; but also in this case it is difficult to disentangle the role of sanctions from other causes, such as developments in Iranian domestic politics and economy and altercasting (shaping the Other’s perception of one’s own identity and interests).

We also know that the more effective the embargo, the more likely the desired results are. And yet an effective embargo tends to have detrimental socio-economic effects on the population of the target countries. Negative socio-economics developments have in turn been associated with de-democratisation in the target countries. The net effect is both technically and ethico-politically ambiguous.

Moreover, while small and poor nations may be easy to target and punish by the EU or US, Russia is much bigger. Therefore the Western sanctions against Russia can easily become part of the mutual process of conflict escalation. This is true in spite of the fact that there are major asymmetries: together the US-EU population is sixfold the population of Russia; and they spend ten times more on the military than Russia.

In the light of evidence, are sanctions against Russia well-justified? The strongest rational argument for sanctions is in fact quite weak: “something had to be done because Russia violated international law; but we know that sanctions don’t usually work and, moreover, they also involve major risks”. This argument implies, however, that it is wrong for all parties to destabilize countries and their governments; not to speak of intervening in their developments militarily without UN authorisation. These kinds of principles should apply to the US and EU and its member states as well.

3. Attempts at overcoming imperial double standards in world politics must be generalizable and forward-looking. At first it must be strongly emphasised that two wrongs do not make a right. Usually this elementary moral principle is not so much forgotten as bent by the process of enemy-construction. Enemy-construction affects human moral judgements, making them systematically biased. As a result of enemy construction, only the wrongs inflicted by the Other seem to count and be remembered. The Other is evil; one’s own wrongdoings are not recognised as such.

A complementary possibility is to draw the lesson that if the Other can do X, so can we. This possibility has been practiced particularly insistently by Russia. The recurrent wrongdoings of the Western Other are taken to justify similar actions by oneself. Moreover, also the similarity of actions (Xs) is interpreted unilaterally.

The first golden rule of diplomacy is that one should always try to see how things look from the point of view of others. What is lost when double standards are practiced or used as a pretext, and when enemies are being socially constructed, is the ethico-political ability to see things from others’ perspective. To counteract these tendencies we could think about the possibility of a 21st century version of the Helsinki process, based on dialogue, confidence-building measures and new, pluralistic politico-economic processes that may yield partly unexpected results.

From within the EU, and as participants in the EU processes, we should aim at pluralising the external policies of the EU. The EU should be capable of not only recognizing and accepting but also explicitly cultivating differences. These differences may concern both ethical and political differences per se, but also different understandings of the politico-economic conditions of development and progress. Given the constitutive relationship between EU’s internal economic policies and its economic neighbourhood polies, however, this requires transformations of the EU itself. The current and failed free market utopia should be replaced by more Keynesian and socially responsible economic policies, increasing rather than decreasing autonomy.

What we should be aiming at is a pluralistic security community. A security community is defined by the mutually shared understanding that there is an institutionalised capacity to resolve social conflicts by means of peaceful changes. One indication is that actors do not prepare for the use of violence against others, but this as much an effect as a cause. What really matters is that actors do expect peaceful changes to be possible. This means that things do not have to stand as they are now; status quo is not a norm that should be respected or accepted without questioning.

The Left should move beyond just condemning one or the other side of various conflicts and move towards thinking about more constructive steps forward. Democracy is a process whereby conflicts are resolved by peaceful means. Overcoming both false universalisms and double standards would require new institutional frameworks of dialogue and cooperation, based on the principles of pluralistic democracy and comprehensive accountability. The latter should stem from a global rule of law, not allowing any double standards for the powerful.

We should go on to ask: how could we shape the processes of human history towards a rational direction on this small planet called Earth? Ultimately the answer is that peace requires global democratisation, also in the governance of the world economy.

Thank you!

Heikki Patomäki