Leonid Bershidsky notes that Russia and Ukraine are finally breaking up, and that this should offer some hope for Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have spent most of their post-Soviet history as Siamese twins, but for the last two years they’ve been undergoing political and economic separation surgery. It will probably be more or less complete in 2016, and though both twins are in for a grim period, the weaker one, Ukraine, has the better prospects in some ways.
Ever since Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, it sought to establish an identity that would set it apart from Russia. Its second president, Leonid Kuchma, even published a book called “Ukraine Is Not Russia” in 2003. In practice, however, Ukraine kept following its bigger neighbor even through its failed Westernization period of 2005 to 2010. It inherited the same basis for its legal system and government — the Soviet bureaucracy — and even attempted reforms often imitated Moscow’s moves. When I moved from Moscow to Kiev in 2011, I felt no discomfort: Everything, from bureaucratic procedures to the pervasive corruption that made a mockery of them, was largely the same in the two countries.
Economically, Ukraine remained Russia’s colony. In 2013, its trade turnover with Russia, at $31.8 billion according to the official Ukrainian statistics agency, reached 28 percent of its total trade. For Moscow, Ukraine wasn’t as important, but it was still its fifth biggest trading partner with a 5 percent share of turnover. That last peaceful year, 6.1 million Ukrainians, out of a total population of 45.5 million, visited Russia, about two-thirds of them to work. Only Poland, Ukraine’s entry point to the EU, received slightly more visitors.
Russian rulers got used to this. Even this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin contended that “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation.” It’s no longer true: The last two years, since Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity,” the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, have seen perhaps the biggest breakup between neighboring, closely interconnected countries in post-World War II history. In 2014, only 4.6 million Ukrainians traveled to Russia — less than two-thirds as many as to Poland. This year’s statistics are not in yet, but another drop in travel to Russia is highly likely, because Moscow has been tightening regulations to make it harder for Ukrainian migrant workers to stay indefinitely and because, as of last summer, there are no more direct flights between the two countries. Besides, starting in mid-2016, Ukrainians will be able to travel visa-free to the European Union, which will likely make travel to Europe vastly more popular.
As for bilateral trade, it has plummeted[.]