In a recent op-ed in The New Republic, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum wrote that “nationalism is exactly what Ukraine needs” and that “the tiny group of nationalists in Ukraine… represent the country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment.”
I would respectfully beg to differ.
Nationalism is not what Ukraine needs.
The former Soviet Union has already had enough Gamsakhurdias, Tyahnyboks, and Zhirinovskys. Controversial individuals like these, claiming to act in the interests of “their nation,” cause too much instability and chaos. Their chauvinistic discourse, provocations, and insular ideologies only divide, not unite, people. Consequently, if nationalism is encouraged in Ukraine, it has a high likelihood of only dividing the country even more. Already extreme nationalist groups, like Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) and Svoboda, have alienated the majority of the people in the Southeast, a good number of people in the Center, and yes, even some in the West too. In fact, in the Southeast, events like the recent tragedy in Odessa or the shooting in Mariupol, have only fueled a strong rejection of these groups among locals.
Ms. Applebaum also conflates the concept of nationalism with more inclusive civic patriotism. However, no Western journalist can change the fact that groups such as Right Sector are indeed far-right organizations whose actions have proved to be divisive among Ukrainians. Thus, nationalism is far from the solution to the problem, especially if the ultimate objective is a united Ukraine.
So, what does Ukraine really need? First, it needs leadership.
The average Ukrainian might as well throw up his or her arms when observing the choices (or lack thereof) from which they have to choose. From corrupt oligarchs to far-right thugs, where is the choice?
A future leader of Ukraine must rise above rampant corruption, a self-centered political elite, and political extremists. Such a leader should also work to unite the country and take into account the different interests of all Ukrainians, whether they speak pure Ukrainian, Surzhyk, Carpatho-Rusyn, or Russian. Invoking divisive nationalist rhetoric will not serve to bring the people together. A true leader of Ukraine would be required to balance everybody’s views and outlook.
A future leader should also be an idealist, ready to work for reform. Not IMF-style “shock therapy” austerity reform, but real, genuine social reform. This would be social democracy.
What Ukraine, Russia, and all former Soviet countries need is not wild card, run-amuck capitalism in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few rich oligarchs and corrupt politicians. Instead, they need true, genuine social democratic systems. Such systems would ensure democratic rights, free elections, and free speech for all citizens. At the same time, capitalism would be controlled, balanced by a system of social welfare and social justice. After all, how can democracy truly be “democratic” if the majority of the population is disenfranchised? The people of Ukraine and the former USSR need a voice and social democracy can grant it to them.
Finally, attaining social democracy is also something that Ukrainians fundamentally must accomplish for themselves. Certainly, the EU cannot solve Ukraine’s problems. They are still dealing with a major financial crisis and have been unable to curb corruption and bad governance in new member states like Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. If the EU was indeed the “panacea of democracy” as it is so often presented, then why do these countries still have corrupt and inefficient governments today?
Consequently, it is only up to Ukrainians to pull themselves together and to solve their own issues. Social democracy, not nationalism, can unite the country and move it forward.