Ukraine Today Opinion. Antoine Arjakovsky on his book which will be presented at Ukraine Today
Your book raises the issue of universal values and contrasts this to your notion of a ‘clash of civilizations'. In our increasingly world, do you think that there can be both shared common values and distinct civilization values existing side by side without conflict?
This is a very controversial subject in France right now. On the one hand, there are those – and I count myself among them – who believe that the dignity of the person is a universal value and that the ‘Revolution of Dignity' in Ukraine should be defended by everyone (including those Russians who want to remain faithful to the legacy of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn).
On the other hand, the French academician Helene Carrere d'Encausse, who is very pro-Putin, published an article in Le Figaro on February 6, 2015, entitled ‘Let us cease to judge the Russians according to our criteria.' She is willing to admit the sanguinary side of Russian history but believes that this barbarian ‘Eastern' trait should be respected - above all by those who have ignored the otherness of Eastern Europe for so long.
In my book, I explain that there is a lack of critical distance regarding the thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations' put forth by Samuel Huntington. Russia is different, it is true. It could even be called Eurasian. But it is part of the unique civilization of the global village which is now emerging. There can only be one international law and a sole system of values shared by all countries. This way of speaking about a return of the civilizational factor is nice (especially for someone like myself who believes in the importance of theological-political reflection) but it only results in aberrant decisions such as the division of Ukraine (unfortunately proposed by one of our most trustworthy intellectuals, Edgar Morin) which is nothing other than the proposition of a new division of Poland in the image of the August 1939 pact between Molotov and Ribbentrop.
The arguments I put forth in my book are based in a comparative study of Ukrainian and Russian History. They arrive at a strong condemnation of Kremlin politics. This conclusion is shared by such eminent intellectuals as George Weigel (‘Lenin meets Corleone'), professor at the University of Washington and Timothy Gordon Ash (‘Putin must be stopped'), Professor at Oxford.
Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution was regarded by most participants as a struggle for the European values enjoyed by citizens of the EU. Do you think this is recognized within the EU?
Yes. A survey carried out in France on January 21, 2015, by the polling institute BVA at the bequest of Ukraine Today shows that the great majority of French people have realized that Ukrainians had risen up against a corrupt government and that they had been punished by Russia, which is responsible for the present war in Ukraine. 79% of those who participated in the survey thought that Ukraine was right in resisting Russia. I believe that this percentage is similar in the other European countries. The best proof of this is that the Europeans supported their governments in the Treaty of Association between Ukraine and the European Union, which was ratified by the European Parliament in September 2014.
But we must be aware of a twofold problem. On the one hand, it is necessary that the Ukrainians finally affirm that they are bilingual, bicultural and ecumenical and that they find the means to transmit this image to the world. The Ukrainians have needed time to discover and, above all, to believe in the viability of their complex identity. But they have not finished this task since, on the religious level, the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches continue to maintain confessional differences which date from prehistoric times, whereas there are no fundamental differences on the level of faith! If the Ukrainians do not arrive at a more profound vision of their ‘unity – in – diversity', the Russians can be reinforced in their program which consists in repeating that the Ukrainians do not really constitute a nation.
The other problem which we must be aware of is that in Eastern Europe there is a gradual loss of the metaphysical foundations of democracy. Dominique Schnapper, a former member of the Constitutional Counsel and daughter of the famous political scientist Raymond Aron, laments that our democracy is in crisis because it has forgotten that our principles of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' were proclaimed in 1789, and again in 1848, as being under the auspices of the ‘Supreme Being'. This is why the French need the Ukrainians as much as the Ukrainians need us – provided, of course, that the Ukrainians do not lose heart. The Poles, for example, have come up with a formula in their 1997 Constitution which could one day be useful to Europe; it harmoniously combines liberty of conscience and the recognition of the transcendence of a God who is active in the world: "We, the Polish Nation – all citizens of the Republic, Both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources, equal in rights and obligations towards the common good – Poland, beholden to our ancestors for their labours, their struggle for independence achieved at great sacrifice, for our culture rooted in the Christian heritage of the nation and in universal human values…."
Supporters of the official Russian narrative over Ukraine tend to relegate Ukrainian interests and frame the confrontation in geopolitical terms. Can a balance be struck between the defense of universal values and the geopolitical interests of regional powers?
By defending the universal values of liberty and justice, an indestructible national community comes into being. This is what France has experienced since 1789. This provoked the anger of the empires which united against France. But after more than 200 years, France, thanks to its attachment to its values, has become a great regional power in spite of its relative resources.
France also knew how to go surpass its ancient rivalries with Germany by understanding that the theological-political conflict between the two (who is the true heir of the Holy Roman Empire?) contradicted its own Christian points of reference. Ukraine and Russia are going to have to undertake this twofold task of historical criticism before being able to unite in diversity in a more ample union with other European countries in view of forming this famous European house so desired by Mikhail Gorbachev and Francois Mitterrand.
The space of the European Union is not determined geographically. In the preamble of the project of the Constitution of 2005, it is simply designated as ‘a privileged space of human hope', presuming that the values proclaimed are lived out in practice.
What does the Ukraine conflict teach us about the strength of public support for European values within today's EU?
In spite of appearances and in spite of the propaganda, Europeans are deeply attached to certain values. A survey on European values, carried out by the European Parliament in 2014, shows that solidarity with the poorest is one of the guiding values. In the EU's member states, the struggle against poverty and social exclusion (54%) remains the prime policy to be promoted by the European Parliament.
Europeans are, of course, worried about the evolution of the world. The question of immigration (25%) and the struggle against terrorism (29%) are those whose importance has increased the most and revealed new divisions among the member states. But, for today's Europeans, the protection of human rights (60%) is, by far, the prime value to be defended by the European Parliament. Next come equality between men and women (36%) and liberty of expression (34%), both of which are on the rise.
Those who participated in the survey were asked what they thought were the principle elements constitutive of European identity. The values of democracy and liberty are the main traits which make up this identity. The results at the EU level show a strong progress of the values of democracy and liberty (47%, +7 compared with June 2013) which now surpass a sole monetary system (40%, -2). Culture is in third place (28%), followed by history (24%), the successes of the European economy (20%) and geography (18%).
It is true that Europe is now going through an important change. It is torn between those who consider that the liberal space be transformed into a space of libertarian tolerance (and intolerance for every contrary position which is immediately catalogued as fanatical) and those who consider that modernity has gone too far in disconnecting the values of liberty and equality from that of fraternity. Indeed, there cannot be an effective liberty and real equality unless there is a common reference to these values. This is why I believe that today it is important to work within the framework of all of Europe, in an ecumenical and inter-religious manner to define a foundation of common values. So that simple liberal tolerance regarding diverse opinions might evolve into a sense of hospitality towards each and every person. Europe can thus avoid a twofold danger; a Mafioso and corrupt neo-feudalism in the East, and a materialistic and decadent libertarian state in the West.
What would be your message to Russians who remained convinced that the West seeks to undermine ‘Russian civilization' or impose foreign values on Russian society?
Today Russians are under the domination of a propaganda which is itself imposed upon the nation by an illegitimate regime. The great American political scientist, Karen Dawisha, has shown in her book, Putin's Kleptocracy, that the elections won by Vladimir Putin since 1999 have been tainted by fraud. The result, as demonstrated by the surveys of Vstiom, is that the majority of Russians believe themselves threatened by the West. Only a minority now believes that Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine.
It is therefore urgent to explain to the Russians that, on the one hand, there is no such thing as a ‘homogeneous and decadent West'. They need to understand that this is a myth. The countries of Western Europe have shown a great deal of solidarity and have systems founded on values. It suffices to point out the difference between the level of social protection in France and in Russia. Russia is a country where the gap between the richest and the poorest is among the greatest in the world. The life expectancy of a young Russian is less than that of many African countries. France is not trying to impose its values on Russia. But, while remaining very aware of its own limits, it is ready to share its knowledge with any country desirous of benefiting from it to accede to a greater prosperity.
But, above all, the Russians must rid themselves of their persecution complex. I fear that this is one of the principle sources of the ‘Russian malaise'. This incapability to assume responsibility, to recognize errors, has done a lot of harm to the Russians. Today they should be seeking to acknowledge their responsibilities in the crimes of Communism (instead of closing the Gulag Museum at Perm) and contribute to the common good along with the other peoples of the world. Today it is a question of finding responses which concern the ensemble of the countries of this planet, whether it concerns global warming or the rise of social injustices due to the deficiencies of international law. There is a need of a common effort to regulate the illicit movements of capital and the mafias. There must be a common struggle against the different forms of fundamentalism.
The Russians should also convince themselves that the countries which surround them do not want to harm them. Nobody wants another world war. I know that Russian television regularly broadcasts images of the bombardments of Bosnia Herzgovina by the US and NATO in 1995. Journalists try to present the West with a threatening visage. But the situation in the ex-Yugoslavia was very different from that of Ukraine. The Russian elite cannot put the independence of Kosovo with the aid of the international community on the same level as the annexation of Crimea by Russia. I show this in my book. Moreover, in 2007-2008, the European countries were ready to discuss a new security system in Europe but the Russian invasion of Georgia put an end to any confidence in such a project.
The Russians should open their eyes to a very simple fact: Russia has lost its international prestige since Putin has come to power. In the 1990s, in the epoch of Yeltsin, Russia was integrated into all the international agencies (and even some cooperation with NATO was set up). With Putin, Russia has been evicted from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. She has left the G8. At the level of the General Assembly of the United Nations, only 10 countries supported Russia over Crimea, and these countries are all dictatorships i.e. North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov only confirmed the convictions of the democracies of the world that the Russian State is to be avoided for it is neither bearable nor durable. The Russians really need to get ahold of themselves. They should ask their spiritual authorities, and especially Patriarch Kirill, who is the principle supporter of the Putin regime, whether there is any foundation in the Gospels justifying the assassination of opponents, the persecution of minorities and aggression against neighboring peoples.
Russians need to rid themselves of persecution complex
About author: Antoine Arjakovsky is a French historian, author and essayist, Co-Director of the research department "Société, Liberté, Paix" of the research centre of the Collège des Bernardins, Emeritus Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Lviv. Former Director of the French University College of Moscow and Deputy Director of the French Institute of Ukraine from 1989 to 2002. He has published several books on the history of Orthodox Christian thought and has taught in several European and American universities : Mohyla Academy in Kiev, Lomonossov University in Moscow, the Catholic University of Leuven, Centre Sèvres and Notre Dame University.