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Ukraine roundtable: Russia fails to attract political elites of injured countries

On Friday and Saturday, the European College of the University of Tartu hosted the seminar “Critical Perspectives and Critical Dimensions on the Ongoing Ukrainian Crisis: Which Systemic Challenges to the EU-Russia Dialogue?”

The event was organized in cooperation with the University College London (UCL) and UCL’s “Platform Ukraine”, an interdisciplinary network aimed to analyze and better understand the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 and its consequences. The goal of the event was to shed light on the recent developments in the Ukrainian crisis and their broader implications for the EU’s relations with Russia and the post-Soviet space.

The event managed to gather together more than 30 scholars from 21 different universities and 10 foreign countries, including Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Attracting highly significant public participation to the seminar, the event became the largest academic conference held in the Baltics on the recent developments in Ukraine.

Multi-disciplinary scholarly contributions combined very different perspectives, including not just politics and international relations, but also sport, religion, gender and media studies; discussing European and non-European perspectives and different scenarios and potential developments related to the events of the last year.

The event culminated in a round-table on the topic of “Making sense of the present to understand the future”, which brought together five key-note speakers: Sergey Glebov (Odessa National University, Ukraine), Anna-Cara Keim and Joanna Szostek (University College London, UK), and Andrey Makarychev and Viacheslav Morozov (University of Tartu), and was moderated by Stefano Braghiroli (University of Tartu).

Most of the contributors pointed out how the tragic events in Ukraine have changed the structure of continental security following the failure of the Vilnius summit – the Maidan protests, the collapse of Yanukovich’s regime and the successive crises in the east, marked by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the proclamation of the so-called People’s Republics backed by Moscow.

Unlike the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the current developments in Ukraine are likely to produce long term impacts on the EU’s relations with Russia and the post-Soviet space. This time both the Washington and European chancelleries appear much more reactive and cohesive in supporting Kiev’s new course and in condemning Moscow’s antagonistic stance. A number of key problems related to Ukraine’s European ambitions have been publicly discussed, including the need for political stablity and structural economic reforms, and the country’s unsustainable level of corruption, which so far does not seem to have been successfully addressed by the new government.

Furthermore, the roundtable participants in addressing the crisis in Ukraine defined the nature of Russia’s current foreign policy as a projection of the imperial ambitions of a declining empire. Many of the contributors also highlighted the mismatch between Moscow’s ambitions and its actual capabilities to act as a polestar for what the Kremlin defines as the “Russian world”. Both the Ukrainian crisis and the previous Georgian one (i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as well as the Moldovan (i.e. Transnistria) scenarios prove that, while Moscow is very successful in profiting from those countries' frozen conflicts, it fails to attract the political elites of the harmed countries into its geo-political orbit (as in the case of the Eurasian Union). It seems that Russia’s muscular embrace often results in its neighbors’ even stronger desire to “run away”. As in the case of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, Moscow’s interference or indirect actions have convinced the local elites of the necessity to pursue greater integration into the European and Atlantic frameworks.

Experts at the event also discussed the long-term sustainability of the European joint reaction to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and the effectiveness of the current sanction regime. Many participants stressed that Brussels’ stance has to combine the necessity to mitigate Russia’s imperial ambitions towards its neighbors with the need to prevent ongoing highly destabilizing political disruptions in Russia – such as the uncontrolled collapse of the current regime – which could cause unpredictable and even more dramatic consequences for the EU and Russia’s direct neighbors.

Many of the speakers highlighted Moscow’s chameleonic role as both a friend and foe of the EU over the past decades. They also stressed the fact that, in the long term, both the EU and Russia will need to find a common language again, given the high level of interdependence that has characterized the Eurasian space for more than two decades since the collapse of the USSR and which has been dramatically challenged by the current developments in Ukraine.

The experience of “Platform Ukraine” will culminate later this year in a conference in London on June 6-7, which will bring together more than a hundred scholars who are interested in the Ukrainian crisis and, more broadly, the post-Soviet space.

So far, the Tartu seminar is the only event organized within the framework of “Platform Ukraine” outside of the UK.

Stefano Braghiroli is a lecturer at Institute of Government and Politics and at the European College of the University of Tartu.

Editor: M. Oll

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