Would neutrality like Austria be an option for Ukraine?

Would neutrality like Austria be an option for Ukraine?

Author: Walter Schwimmer

In the current debate between Russia and the so-called West one can see, hear and read a lot of confrontation, aggression, provocation, escalation, troop reinforcement, sanctions heavy as never before and so on.  Even the word “war” appears in this context. There is little to hear about de-escalation and appeasement. Of course, in the various official statements they chew again and again the phrase of “hope for a diplomatic solution”. But what is the “diplomatic solution”?  The authors of these statements usually remain silent in this respect. It even seems that most of the stakeholders are not really interested in finding a solution. Russia is at least clear in its demand for guarantees to an end of NATO enlargement to the East knowing of course that it will not receive them. For NATO the decision of a country to apply for membership is a matter of principle, of sovereignty and of international law that cannot be denied by the Alliance. But in NATO 2030 Agenda enlargement is not foreseen (as NATO obviously does not see the maturity of possible applicants for membership). On the other hand the possibility of a NATO accession of George and Ukraine would bring the military alliance forces to thousands more miles of common borders with Russia in a region that suffered with 25 million deaths from World War II.  The Russians call it the Great Patriotic War that started in 1941 by hostile armed forces standing already at the Soviet borders. Memory and trauma of 1941 are deeply rooted in the Russian soul.

The “West” has no such a narrative. So other myths have to serve for it. E.g. a demonized President whose allegedly greatest dream is to restore the Soviet Union and is therefore the aggressor per se and no allegation must therefore be proved. Of course, the annexation of Crimea has violated international law. The support of violent separatists in Donbass is violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and therefore against international agreements. The short war with Georgia was not started by Russia and brought a few villages in Southern Ossetia under Russian control. If all these (and only these) are the results of restoration of the Soviet Union in 21 Putin years the alleged great dream has melt away before it crystallized. (The backing of internationally not recognized separatist entities in Moldova and Georgia started when the Soviet Union collapsed long before Putin became president. Even together with the “frozen conflict” territories there is no “Novyy Sovetskiy Soyuz”, no “New Soviet Union”.

Nevertheless having all this in mind the “diplomatic solution” looks like a Gordian knot. Who will untie it? In the center of the conflict is neither Russia nor the so-called West, NATO, US, European Union. It’s time to take seriously the lip service to Ukraine’s sovereignty and her right to self-determination. The solution of Ukrainian conflicts and problems lies on Ukrainian soil. European Union and Russia as sincere and responsible neighbors can help and assist Ukraine in that difficult process. NATO is according to its basic principles committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes, to building trust and, in the long run, preventing conflict may support the resolution by confidence bulding measures. 

But how could Ukraine install the law of action, can become again the master of the game, being the subject and not the object in the hands of the great powers? Are there examples Ukraine could follow? Austria was until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in a similar geopolitical situation that was even worse with two ideological camps confronting each other in the Cold War. Austria was not engaged in this confrontation. Regaining its sovereignty in 1955 through the State Treaty the Austrian Parliament adopted by constitutional law the permanent neutrality of the country, committing itself to abstain from military alliances and not to permit foreign troops on its territory. Of course,  it is not a secret that Austria chose the option of neutrality to get the State Treaty and to regain its sovereignty. To emphasize that it was nevertheless the autonomous choice of Austria and its citizens the constitutional law on permanent neutrality was adopted on the day Austria was free of foreign soldiers. It wasn’t a bad choice, quite the opposite. Neutrality helped Austria to find its own role in the international community, to develop successfully its economy and wasn’t an obstacle to become member of the European Union.

Although the situation of Ukraine is not completely the same as of Austria there are similarities. Like the post-WW II Austria Ukraine needs stability and friendly relations with its neighbors. The so-called Ukrainian crisis will be over when conflicts and disputes rooted in neighborhood and ethnic problems will be solved. There are of course hot issues. The most difficult one is of course the case of Crimea. Principles of international law such as territorial integrity and to right to self-determination seem to be irreconcilably opposed to each other. But international law – and in particular international law – is not black and white and gives room for flexible solutions. Part of the Crimean dispute (and its solution) are historic and ethnic ties, the Khrushchev “gift” to Ukraine, the agreements of Russia and Ukraine on the partition of the Black Sea fleet and the Kharkiv Pact. That really looks like a Gordian knot that must be untied with utmost sensibility. Whatever the current state of Crimea is, accord of Russia and Ukraine is indispensable for a future peaceful neighborhood of the two countries. But this is a task for the two states and not the playground of “interested“ third parties. Without any doubt Ukrainian neutrality similar to the Austrian model will be helpful to come to the accord. A decision for neutrality must be taken by Ukraine and its citizens and should in no way be imposed from outside.

The same applies even more to the Donbass and its separatist entities. Austria has a special regime to protect and promote national minorities that can be copied and applied with regard to the large community of ethnic Russians, by the way, not only in the two separatist districts. And Austria can contribute its special experience with the autonomy for the ethnic Austrian population in the Italian province of Southern Tyrol. The German speaking majority of Southern Tyrol enjoys pro rata representation in administration, has their own kindergartens and schools. The province can use up to 90% of the taxes independently from Rome. Southern Tyrol is considered as the most wealthy province of Italy.

There was also another economic aspect. Together with the Italian speaking province Trentino Southern Tyrol was for centuries until 1918 part of the county of Tyrol belonging to the Habsburg Empire, building a common economic space. The economic ties maintained even after the separation and Italy as well as Austria were interested in facilitating the economic cooperation. When after WW II the two countries adopted a Treaty on the autonomy of Southern Tyrol, , the “Gruber-Degasperi-Agreement”,  they added a “small agreement”, the “Accordino” on  facilitating the exchange of goods between the Austrian federal states of Tyrol and Vorarlberg on the one hand and the Italian Trentino/Southern Tyrol region on the other. It was clearly intended to alleviate the economic disadvantages of the political separation of 1918 for the residents and to preserve traditional trade flow. It worked for the advantage of the whole region until Austria’s accession to the European Union where it wasn’t necessary anymore. Within the European Union the entities concerned continued their cooperation and established even a joint representation in Brussels.

As the Donbass and Southern Russia belonged until 1991 to a united economic space the situation is quite similar and an Ukrainian-Russian Accordino, a “nevelykyy dohovir/nebol’shoy kontrakt” could lead to fruitful cross border cooperation and relieve tensions.

All together it will not be an easy path but one that is worth taking. The neighbors and in particular the big ones among them shall assist Ukraine but not patronize her. Russia and the European Union are needed to help recovering the Eastern districts. Austria can play a specific role, with its experience of 67 years neutrality, but also with its historic ties in particular with Western Ukraine that belonged about 150 years to the Habsburg Empire. Today’s neutral Austria without any imperial ambitions will be a reliable confidence building partner for Ukraine.

So, replace the warmonger language of confrontation, aggression, provocation, escalation, troop reinforcement, sanctions heavy as never before, by a peacebuilding speech of de-escalation, disarmament, stability, recovery. The geographic center of Europe lays in Ukraine; let it be the center of peace, good neighborhood and reconciliation of East and West.

About the author: Walter Schwimmer was from 1971 to 1999 member of the Austrian Parliament, belonging to the Christian-Democrat Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei/ÖVP) , and from 1999 to 2004 Secretary General of the Council of Europe.  

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