An Unconscious Truth Lurking in Ukraine

Last November, when Washington and Brussels dismissed President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to help lift Ukraine out of its economic malaise by way of a trilateral agreement, the universe pulled a fast one on NASA. What was originally thought to be a single galaxy located 100-million light years away, once presumed to be a unified collection of celestial bodies, turned out to be two galaxies masquerading as one. Initial radio images of these two galaxies appeared as “one fuzzy blob,” duping astronomers into thinking they were observing a single galaxy. But more recent observations have identified a new structure emerging from this distorted appearance, revealing a separate galaxy that was there all along, one that had simply been obscured by the dominant, prevailing image.

Is this not the perfect metaphor for present day Ukraine? The predominant story told in the West is that Ukrainians took to the streets for neo-liberalism, that the people of Ukraine, by way of civil resistance, ousted their former president Viktor Yanukovich for abandoning the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which, had Yanukovich acceded, would have further integrated the country into the European Union, thereby reducing trade barriers, liberalizing trade, and allowing European capital better access to Ukrainian businesses. As opposition leader Arseny Tatsenyuk told The Independent: “Ukraine has woken up in a different state after Yanukovich refused to sign in Vilnius. It is no longer Ukraine.” And now that Crimea has decided to secede and join Russia, one would surely agree with Tatsenyuk, that it is no longer the same Ukraine. But is this really the case? Can we not also see this split as a sort of revelation – that perhaps Ukraine had, all along, been internally fragmented?

Just like the two galaxies that had been passing as one, what was originally thought to be a single country, presumed to be a unified body politic, has, in fact, turned out to be two states masquerading as one! Professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University Stephen Cohen told Amy Goodman in a recent interview for Democracy Now! that

Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media [says], which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically; it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West.

One should be careful, however, not to interpret the recent developments in Ukraine as a “splitting apart down the middle.” Rather, one should understand that Ukraine has always-already been fractured from within. Since pretty much the Dark Ages, Ukraine has been both a link between Europe and Russia and a cutoff point separating the two. Both the Euro-Atlantic West and a post-Soviet Russia, in an ongoing clash with each other over border issues and other geopolitical concerns, culminating in the recent upheaval in Kiev and the Crimea, have been hyper-exploiting this inner antagonism since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

What most of today’s news-consuming public is in the dark about, is that throughout much of the 1990s and early twenty-first century, EU officials never once promised Ukraine accession into the EU as they did for other Eastern European nations. As for those other Eastern European nations that did join the EU, well, we might want to ask how they are faring at the moment. Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat informs us in a piece he recently wrote for the Guardian that,

The newest member of the EU, Croatia, is third in the union when it comes to youth unemployment, at 52%. So this is what we got by getting rid of communism and entering the EU.

There is no questioning that the recent social upheaval in Ukraine, the protests and demonstrations and so on, had been ignited by genuine governmental corruption and economic malaise. Yanukovich was a prick. That much is true. But just because something is true, does not mean there is not more to the whole story. And so what is not being discussed in the news is the fact that, for years, Europe relentlessly balked at the idea of accepting Ukraine into its union, mainly due to Ukraine’s lack of progress in political and economic reform, human rights concerns and lack of a free media (recall Leonid Kuchma’s “Cassette Scandal“), which simply contributed to maintaining the perception of Ukraine as a “gray zone” between Russia and Europe. In fact, the joint report of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of France and Germany for the year 2000 explicitly states that Ukraine not enter the EU (See: On the Future of Europe: Policy Paper No. 6: New Neighborhood – New Association. Ukraine and the European Union at the Beginning of the 21st century. Warsaw: Stefan Batory Foundation, March 2002).

So why, all of a sudden, did the EU reverse its position? Why the recent interest in inviting Ukraine to integrate? The only reasonable answer here seems to be more in line with a grand investment plan for border security than with spreading liberal democracy: the Country Strategy Paper 2002-2006 on Ukraine, which includes the National Indicative Program 2002-2003, emphasizes that European “enlargement is bound to make the EU more sensitive to ‘soft’ security threats from Ukraine which need to be addressed: environment (nuclear safety and related issues . . .), Justice and Home Affairs (juridical reform and combating organized crime, corruption and illegal migration); public health (transmissible diseases).” This document allocates €115 million towards border management and security, with€22 million alone for border management. The aim of this program, Tatiana Zhurzhenko writes in “Europeanizing the Ukrainian-Russian Border: From EU Enlargement to the ‘Orange Revolution'” (published in the academic journal Debatte, Vol 13. Number 2, August 2005) is to “improve the overall border management system in Ukraine with the view to facilitate movement of goods and people, while combating illegal activities.” She continues:

The EU Action Plan on Justice and Home Affairs Concerning Ukraine identifies as one of the main areas of cooperation the “development of a system of efficient, comprehensive border management (i.e. border control and border surveillance) on all Ukrainian borders and examination of possible participation of the State Border Service in a system of early prevention of illegal migration.” The EU supported Ukraine’s efforts “to reform the Border Guard Troops in order to create a law enforcement agency working as the professional body responsible for border management.”

To interpose a necessary philosophical intervention here, let us turn to a rather esoteric anecdote, one that is well known among the rarefied circles of academe: the eighteenth century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote the infamously insurrectionist text, On the Social Contract, condemned writing for being less immediate and less desirable than speech itself. But is this really how he felt? No, not really. Thanks to the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, we are reminded that Rousseau actually preferred the written word to speech; for he found that he expressed himself more successfully in his written word than in person. As Rousseau declared himself:

I would love society like others, if I were not sure of showing myself not only at a disadvantage, but as completely different from what I am. The part that I have taken of writing and hiding myself is precisely the one that suits me. If I were present, one would never know what I was worth.

Can we not make the claim then, that from a “Derridean” angle, so to speak, it is absence that reassures the presentation of Rousseau’s truth? Let us now turn to another example, this next one a bit clearer and definitely less esoteric, of how “absence reassures the presentation of truth” – that is to say, how certain truths remain dissimulated beneath the guise of surface appearances. Recall Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon. As a concept album, its lyrical content deals precisely with what the title insinuates: the “unconscious truths” that are hidden behind the veil of appearances, specifically, those execrable truths of contemporary society at the time, and, at a more universal level, the more dismal nature of the human experience itself: conflict (“Us and Them”), greed (“Money”), the passage of time (“Time”), death (“The Great Gig in the Sky”), and insanity (“Brain Damage”).

These two disparate accounts have one crucial thing in common: they locate and denote the obverse of presence and outward appearances – the unconscious truth that is often obscured by the presence of outward appearances. What we are essentially getting at here is a concept of truth formulated by the late French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. That, far from being the domain of irrational and wild drives needing to be conquered and tamed by the ego, the Freudian unconscious is the site from which a traumatic truth speaks. Thus the deepest truths are those that are not direct and present, but instead absent by dint of concealment: those truths that we repress into the murky depths of our unconscious. This is precisely what it means to say that, “truth is unconscious,” and that such a truth is often obfuscated by surface appearances and pretense. That all said, can we not relate this concept somehow to the recent upheaval in Ukraine?

Clearly the EU is interested in Ukraine as a “barrier function.” Ukraine is the largest transit country into Western Europe for various migrant flows, from the Middle East, China, and “NIS” countries, thereby making border management a supreme interest for Europe (which relies on the US to be its enforcer and co-investor). What this ultimately reveals is that the recent “ruse of liberal democracy” – the predominant story that Ukraine has been fighting in the streets for deeper democratic reform, integration, and liberalized trade – is far from being a neutral frame. What is in fact being obscured by this predominant narrative, what is being concealed behind this present series of news reports is that, aside from being an issue regarding democracy vs. autocracy, and aside from being a matter of sovereignty and self-determination, the recent events in Ukraine also hint at the unconscious (or rather, unpublished) truth about globalization: the construction of new walls protecting Europe from a flood of immigrants.

One should take careful notice then, that Ukraine is being treated as more of a geopolitical object than subject here. That its western border has, since 2004, been transformed into a Schengen (a relaxation of border controls between participating European nations), the objective to “Europeanize” the Ukrainian-Russian border has been one of top priority for the Euro-Atlantic West. And from Moscow’s perspective – that the US-led West has been trying to dominate the region since the fall of the Soviet Union, beginning with the expansion of NATO under the Clinton administration, which extended over the years all the way to Russia’s borders, followed by the missile-defense installations along Russia’s borders (putatively a defense against Iran, a country that, as of yet, still has no nuclear weapons, nor any missiles to convey them) – it should come as no surprise then that Putin’s suspicions have been amplified to the point of a Crimean incursion, and everything else that has followed in the wake of this. Hence the palpable effusion of Cold War hawkishness that is now transpiring.

The West wants us to perceive Ukrainians as “subjects supposed to revolt in defense of liberal democracy,” whilst Putin’s Russia, for the sake of expressing a semblance of power, is exploiting a group of people who still identify with the old rules and traditional, collective ways of a nostalgic, though unreal, vision of Russia. In other words, both the West and Russia are acting on, and exploiting, ideological and moral notions. Thus Leon Trotsky’s description of Ukraine’s state-of-being is still relevant: “In a state of confusion: where to turn? What to demand? This situation naturally shifts the leadership to the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their ‘nationalism’ by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one imperialism or another in return for a promise of fictitious independence.”

So, at first glance, Ukraine seems to be divided from within, split between two poles: on one side there are those who fervently want to join Western Europe, who desire a more liberal democratic society, and free trade, and so on. On the other side, there are those who identify with, whose allegiance lies with, (a false ideal of) an autocratic Russia. But can we not think of a potential third option here, one that takes a truly leftist position? This third position stands for those who, whatever is next for Ukraine, should recognize the nonexistence of the “big Other”: that (joining) the EU does not guarantee social and financial stability for an already fragmented Ukraine, and that siding with Russia will only engender problems like those seen under Kuchma’s reign.

If it is true that communism “died” in the twentieth century, then it is also true that its imperishable spirit still persists among us. Therefore, Srećko Horvat is correct: the specter of Lenin does indeed haunt Europe. We should therefore identify this apparition with our third position from above, that is, with those who envisage the following positive potential inherent to this crisis: that neither Russia nor the EU is the answer, but rather a Ukraine that is united around free and independent workers’ and peasants’ rights. A Ukraine that is not an object to be manipulated and fought over by imperial powers, but a Ukraine that stands for globalization without new forms of social exclusion; a Ukraine that stands for equal rights and a fair distribution of income without crippling debt and the seizure of public spaces.