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In November of 2013, protests erupted in Kiev, eventually unseating Ukraine's Prime Minister. Now the country faces a decision about how to integrate with Western Europe. (Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr / Creative Commons)

What Europe Can Learn from Ukraine

European leftists are too quick to patronize Ukrainian protesters.

BY Slavoj Žižek

The question is not if Ukraine is worthy of Europe, good enough to enter the EU—but if today’s Europe is worthy of the deepest aspirations of the Ukrainians.

As the European Parliament elections scheduled to take place in late May draw near, one should keep in mind the recent events in Ukraine. The protests that eventually toppled Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and his gang in late February were triggered by the government’s decision to prioritize good relations with Russia over the country’s possible integration into the European Union. Predictably, many Leftists reacted to the news about of the massive protests by patronizing the poor Ukrainians: How deluded they are to continue idealizing Europe, unable to see that Europe is in decline! They don’t understand that joining the European Union will just make the Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, much like Greece is today.

What these Leftists ignore, however, is that Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the European Union. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities. Their message was, simply, that their own situation is much worse. Europe’s problems—its economic instability, its unrelenting unemployment—are still rich men’s problems. Remember that, in spite of the terrible predicament of Greece, African refugees are still arriving there en masse, fueling the ire of Rightist patriots.

A much more important question is: What does the “Europe” to which the Ukrainian protesters refer stand for? Europe cannot be reduced to a single vision: It spans the entire scope from nationalist and—even Fascist— elements up to the idea of what Étienne Balibar calls égaliberté, freedom-in-equality, which is the unique contribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even if it is today more and more betrayed by European institutions. Between these two poles, only the naïve put their trust in liberal-democratic capitalism. What Europe should see in Ukrainian protests, therefore, is its own best and its own worst.

The Ukrainian Right’s nationalism is part of a renewed anti-immigrant, pro-religious populism that presents itself as the defense of Europe. The danger of this new Right was clearly perceived a century ago by G.K. Chesterton who, in his Orthodoxy, described the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion: “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church.” Does the same not hold for the advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started with ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? Does the same not hold also for the recent rise of the defenders of Europe against the immigrant threat? In their zeal to protect Europe’s Christian legacy, the new zealots are ready to forsake the true heart of this legacy.

So what are we to do in such a situation? Mainstream liberals are telling us that, when the basic democratic values are under threat by ethnic or religious fundamentalists, we should all unite behind the liberal-democratic agenda of cultural tolerance, save what can be saved and put aside dreams of a more radical social transformation. So what about the liberal-democratic capitalist European dream that Ukrainian protesters advocated for so fiercely? One cannot be sure what awaits Ukraine within the European Union, but austerity measures are sure to be part of the package.

We all know the well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us, the Jews, there will again be anti-Jewish pograms…” “But,” interrupts him the bureaucrat, “this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!” “Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.”

We can easily imagine a similar exchange between a critical Ukrainian and a European Union financial administrator. The Ukrainian complains: “There are two reasons we are in a panic here in Ukraine. First, we are afraid that the EU will simply abandon us to the Russian pressure and let our economy collapse…” The EU administrator interrupts him: “But you can trust us, we will not abandon you, we will tightly control you and advise you what to do!” “Well,” responds the Ukrainian calmly, “that’s my second reason.”

So yes, the Maidan protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square were heroes, but the true fight begins now: the fight for what the new Ukraine will be. And this fight will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. The question is not if Ukraine is worthy of Europe, good enough to enter the EU—but if today’s Europe is worthy of the deepest aspirations of the Ukrainians.

If Ukraine ends up as a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. Political commentators claimed that the EU did not support Ukraine enough in its conflict with Russia and that the EU response to the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted. But there is another kind of support that was missing to an even greater degree: Ukraine was never offered a feasible strategy of how to break out of its socioeconomic deadlock. To do this, Europe should first transform itself and renew its commitment to the emancipatory core of its legacy.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T. S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between sectarianism and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is our only chance today: Only by means of a “sectarian split” from the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive. Such a split should render problematic the very premises that we tend to accept as our destiny, as non-negotiable evidence of our predicament: the phenomenon usually designated as the global New World Order and the need, through “modernization,” to accommodate ourselves to it. To put it bluntly, if the emerging New World Order is the non-negotiable destiny for all of us, then Europe is lost. So the only solution for Europe is to take the risk and break this spell of our destiny. Only in such a new Europe could Ukraine find its place. It is not the Ukrainians who should learn from Europe, but Europe itself who must learn to incorporate the dream that motivated the Maidan protesters.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.

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