An article written by Gabriella Cseh
“Rule of law against rule of friends who are negotiating” or ethnic conflict? This question describes one of the main axis of the discussion organised by Riku Eskelinen, candidate for the Centre Party in the Finnish Parliament. The goal of this afternoon event on 28 February (held in the Arkadia Bookshop) did not lack ambition: it set out to seek a solution to how to end the year-long crisis in Ukraine.
A sad à propos, the programme started by a minute of silence for Boris Nemtsov, Russian opposition leader who was assassinated in Moscow the day prior. Unsurprisingly, Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin were heavily present in the discussions that were supposed to come up with solutions on the Ukrainian conflict.
Putting in context past events
The speakers started off by putting in context the current situation in Ukraine, the main question being “how did we get here?”. We must commend the organisers for putting together a very diverse panel of speakers – this set the scene for an understandably animated discussion: Bessarion Gugushvili (former prime minister of Georgia, August 1991 – January 1992, a resident of Vantaa since 2008) argued that the conflict in Ukraine is an ethnic one between Ukrainians and Russians, going further, a downright civil war. He stated that no solution can be found, or even envisaged, as long as the local and international community refuses to acknowledge this.
Ksenia Vakhrusheva (Russian opposition activist from the Russian United Democratic Party “Yabloko”, belonging to Liberal International and affiliated to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) and Denis Pertsev (Head of the Ukrainian Association in Finland) disagreed with this assessment: their starting point was that the conflict in Ukraine is not an ethnic one but a conflict of values. As Ukraine happens to be on the border of countries of liberal democracy and Putin’s Russia, both seeking to expand their territory of influence, and due to historical developments, the Ukrainian society is divided when it comes to democratic values: do they want a liberal democracy, a rule of law or do they wish for a system where the leading oligarch’s friends make deals and negotiate in their own favour and this drives public policy?
Despite the different interpretations that were proposed, there were two points where the majority of the speakers agreed: they see that Russia is threatened by the Eastern expansion of NATO and would do its best to prevent the neighbouring countries from integrating in the Western European block of EU and NATO. In this light, it is even more interesting to observe that basically all the speakers deplored the perceived blatant inaction of the EU and the international community as a whole. What action they took, speakers estimated, was too little and too late.
Predictions for the future
Riku Eskelinen invited the speakers to reflect on possible ways forward; he asked them to explain how they see the situation evolving in some years’ time. In short, one could say that the past will steer the future. All the speakers underlined that the damages have been severe, both from economic and from humanitarian point of view. No matter the economic difficulties Russia is suffering, they all agreed that it is in Putin’s best interest to keep the situation as unstable as it has been (preventing any further Western orientation), which is likely to translate into this conflict (referring to Crimea and Donbass) becoming not an escalating but a frozen one, not unlike Abkhazia, Transnistria and South-Ossetia.
Speakers agreed on the need for Ukraine to step up its efforts against corruption, which will be indispensable for a real change in society and political decision-making. The help of the international community, in particular the EU will be needed for strengthening the rule of law and Denis Pertsev added that even for taking back the control of the borders (this latter becoming possible in a few years time, due to Russia’s economic challenges). It was pointed out though, that one has to analyse all present threats to peace and weigh the Ukrainian issue against other problems, such as the worldwide proliferation of terrorism.
What can be done?
The third and last part of the discussion was the liveliest and involved many interventions from the audience, as well. It started off by listening to Antti Pentikäinen (Executive Director of Finn Church Aid organization, specialist in conflict mediation) who shared his views on and experiences in peace negotiations.
He underlined that contrary to popular belief, time rarely heals wounds in conflicts if nothing happens. He underlined the role of local communities in peace negotiations and gave participants some guidelines by which a way forward can be envisaged. For every peace negotiation, he said, some basic elements need to be clear: who negotiates on both sides and on what basis? Following this logic, it was striking how the EU has been missing so far: it was only Merkel, Hollande being mentioned – not Mogherini or Ashton! The US has been notedly disengaged, Obama being somewhat stuck in Bush’s foreign policy heritage.
Having touched upon the “who”, the next question to tackle was the “on what basis”. Various can be envisaged, including an economic one, where a promise of a profound economic reform might appeal to Russians. A determining factor will also be the spirit and tolerance of Russian citizens: after the assassination of Nemtsov, one might wonder until which point they will tolerate Putin and his cronies? How will the rebels’ leadership re-evaluate? These factors might very well weigh in the negotiating balance. In any case, it was made very clear that whatever way is the one to go, if lacking political will on both sides, it will go nowhere.
The final part of the discussion focussed on concrete actions that might help. Among others, proper peacekeeping measures (including an optimal composition of peace-keeping forces), personalised sanctions and curtailing the economic movement of Putin’s cronies were evoked.
What did we learn?
Various positions and opinions were outlined during the discussion, ranging from ethnic-based civil war to an eventual EU membership within two generations’ time. All this being parts of a bigger puzzle, it is clear that Ukraine is a country and a society on the border of conflicting values and interests, with a strained past and a future which depends heavily on the international community. A country which was unprepared for the aggression – a lesson for Finland to take: a country can never be prepared enough. Establishing and strengthening the rule of law in Ukraine is essential, but this can be envisaged only with sufficient political will and real buy-in from Ukrainian citizens. The international community has a responsibility, both externally and internally – many feel that this has not been honoured so far and it will have to be assumed in the future. Looking at international, and more particularly on the EU, its relation vis-a-vis Russia is still unclear. A major building block of cleaning it up would be an independent energy policy. To be seen how that develops with the recently presented Energy Union Package.
Participants, including Finnish, Ukrainian, Russian, French, Macedonian and many other nationalities, continued the discussion on their way to the Russian embassy. They put flowers in commemoration of Boris Nemtsov, a key figure of Russian opposition, killed with four bullets in front of the Kremlin.