Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Revolution for a Slow Decline

By David G. Young

Washington DC, November 23, 2004 --  

The hundreds of thousands of protesters currently gathered before Ukraine's parliament building see their cause as an emotionally-charged battle for the future of their country. Sunday's rigged elections gave a Moscow-leaning candidate the edge, and Ukraine's protesters are favoring a Western-oriented candidate. The outcome of the confrontation will decide whether Ukraine will become a loose province of Russia or a loose province of the European Union. The stakes seem high, but the reality is that Ukrainians' prospects are bleak no matter what happens.

The people of Ukraine, like their neighbors in eastern and central Europe, are wedged between two bad models in the new world order. To the east is Russia, the collapsed shell of the former Soviet empire, eking out a living by trading on the remnants of the old system and selling raw mineral wealth appropriate for the third-world economy it has become. Prospects for the emergence of a dynamic capitalist economy in Russia are dead -- killed by President Vladimir Putin's political jailing of an oil businessman and subsequent dismantling of his company. The average Russian's life expectancy is plummeting, and the population is in the process of a steep decline. Russia is headed down, and it's headed down fast.

The more attractive model, the one idolized by the Ukrainian protesters, can be seen by looking west. Earlier this year, several former east-block countries joined the European Union, and it's put the continent on a roll. The new members have expanded the federation to surpass the United States in population, and equal it in aggregate income. Many EU citizens have dreams of being a military superpower as well, recently setting up a rapid-reaction military force that can be used in trouble spots around the world.

But beneath Europe's superficial successes, trends for the continent don't look good. The European Union is nothing more than a group of declining states that can no longer stand on their own, banded together so that they can experience the strength of their combined numbers. Despite the newfound unity, their decline continues.

The Union's European-descended population is shrinking, while far the poorer insular Arab communities grow steadily. Economic growth rates consistently lag behind those in America, and are nowhere near the rates seen in the more dynamic parts of Asia.

Dreams of the continent becoming a military superpower are completely unrealistic. The EU's new rapid reaction force is but a superficial ornament on a continent lacking serious military power. While resentment of America's world predominance runs strong, there is absolutely no support from people or politicians to put European money where its mouth is. Such a move would require Europe to spend hundreds of billions of Euros each year on its military forces, an unthinkable change in budgetary priorities.

For the new eastern members of the EU -- Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- the turn toward the West has provided only mild benefits. Economic growth rates have improved since communist times, but not nearly enough to allow the eastern countries to catch up with living standards in the West. Union with Europe brings access to markets, but also the economic baggage associated with Europe's generously bloated welfare states.

Without an economic niche to fill, the eastern members of the European Union are destined to become than the poor stepchildren of a family in decline. If Ukraine were to follow this path, it would be destined to go down as well. Ukraine's tragedy is that its people dream of being part of Europe's slow decline. Compared with the disastrous trajectory of the Russian model, however, a slow decline just might be worthy of a revolution.