Divided Ukraine Drifts Neither East nor West
No one is quite sure how to think about Ukraine. It's as big as France, lies in the geographic center of Europe, and boasts 50 million citizens.
But just who are they? Do Ukrainians identify with Russians, seeking closer ties with Moscow?
Or are they central Europeans, proud of their national traditions and hoping for a return to Europe?
You won't get clear answers by asking the people you meet in Kiev, the capital. Most of them will speak Russian until they hear Ukrainian, and many will claim to be of both nationalities.
If you travel further east, toward Russia, you'll find that the Ukrainian language all but disappears from public use. But if you take a westbound train, toward Poland, Russian vanishes and Ukrainian takes its place.
Does this mean that the country is divided, that its future as a sovereign state is uncertain?
Sunday's Ukrainian parliamentary elections seem to support such a view.
The Communist Party was triumphant, drawing the bulk of its support from central Ukraine and the Russian-speaking east.
Finishing second was the patriotic Rukh Party, whose voters hail from Ukraine's western regions.
With the east voting for communists, and the west voting nationalist, what is the future of the Ukrainian state? What will hold it together?
Despite appearances, both of these political extremes have strong interest in an independent Ukraine.
It goes without saying that Ukrainian patriots cannot countenance the thought of losing any of their vast state's territories. And whereas Rukh's leaders are motivated by the emotive demands of patriotism, Ukraine's post-communist elites are driven by calculations of power.
The clans of post-communist politicians that dominate Kiev hail from the industrial cities of Ukraine's east.
Were the country to split and these lands go to Russia, people who are now national leaders would suddenly find themselves provincial nobodies.
Ukraine's ethnic Russian minority of 10 million has also showed little sign of separatism. Even the question of the status of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula populated by Russians, has all but disappeared from Ukrainian politics. Ukraine's Russians have accepted the Ukrainian state. For them, as for other Ukrainians, it has become a banal fact of life.
But what sort of state is Ukraine? Like its people and its politicians, it defies easy categorization.
Unlike Russia, Ukraine has chosen a clearly pro-Western foreign policy.
Ukraine accepts the extension of NATO to its borders, hopes for greater integration with the European Union, and enjoys good relations with the US. It has no quarrels with its westerm neighbors Poland and Hungary.
But the Ukrainian state is more and more a foreign policy machine, with less and less control over what happens inside its borders.
Unlike its western neighbors, Ukraine has totally failed to create a normal market economy.
ITS foreign trade is directed almost entirely to Russia, and will remain so in the near future.
Its domestic economy is dominated by mafias, that are unregulated by a formless state administration and untroubled by a police force that doesn't work unless bribed.
But Ukraine is here to stay, within its borders, and we should adjust our concepts to meet its realities.
Ukraine is not like Russia. And though Russia will remain its major trading partner, Ukraine will continue to resist political integration with its giant eastern neighbor.
Ukraine is neither moving back toward Russia, nor forward toward Europe. It is fulfilling neither nightmarish predictions of disintegration nor fond hopes of reform.
How, then, to think about Ukraine? As a big country in a strategic position, as a partner whose simple existence stabilizes Europe, and as a democracy whose future remains wide open.
* Tim Snyder, a Harvard University historian, is temporarily based in Prague and Warsaw. His most recent visit to Ukraine was in February.