Wed | Aug 15, 2018

Commentary: The Yellow Rose of Ukraine

Published:Friday | March 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM
File Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shows a piece of a bus that was attacked recently during the panel "The Future of Ukraine" in Davos, Switzerland on January 21.

There was once a relatively small region wedged between two large countries. Although such geographical arrangements are not unusual, they are often the product of diplomatic manoeuvring to create buffer zones that separate large nations.

In this particular case, the smaller entity had doubts about its viability as an independent nation. It had much stronger cultural ties with one of its neighbours, but it initially saw better economic prospects with the other.

Its leaders openly courted the two neighbours, constantly switching sides. Although people may think that the region in question is Ukraine; it was actually Texas between 1820 and 1840.

Comparative analysis is a powerful tool used to identify patterns of social behaviour. Although not as elegant and parsimonious as mathematical regressions, it can often provide insights into complex situations.

The parallels between 18th-century Texas and 21st-century Ukraine are very interesting. In the former, the question was whether to become part of Mexico or join the United States?

For Ukraine, the European Union and Russia are the protagonists. Mexico, at the time, was a newly independent country. It was also extremely rich. Brimming with precious metals and a cornucopia of agricultural products, it had been one of the crown jewels of the Spanish Empire. It had a huge landmass that stretched from the tropical jungles of Central America to the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Poor families from the Appalachian regions of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee led by Moses Austin petitioned the Mexican government for the right to become citizens and immigrate to the coastal forests of Tejas. They were eager to become part of the Mexican political system, and they sent delegates to the constitutional convention of 1823. They were hopeful that under the country's federalist structure, they could gain control over the rich lands that were in the west.

But, as Mexico moved to a more centralised form of government under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Texans' dreams evaporated. They eventually revolted and sought independence.

Yet, the US government was not interested in annexing the new country. Texas had been settled by southerners, and it had a slave-based economy. Admitting Texas would unsettle the political balance of power in the US. Therefore, it was left as a sovereign state.

In the meantime, the young Republic's debt load soared. The war had been costly, and the government had been forced to take out large loans. Furthermore, the massive distribution of land to the original settlers, problems associated with titling and incidents of fraud limited the arrival of new settlers.

Last of all, measures to repel hostile Indian incursions were a constant drain on the government's coffers. As a result, the Texan economy began to sputter and the government was forced to further increase its debt load.

As the country's economic woes spread, social unrest followed. By the midpoint of the 1840s, Texas was insolvent and broke. The US annexed it, and bailed it out as part of a wider compromise that saw the full incorporation of other Mexican territories.

Although the Ukraine's aspirations may lay in the west, its heart, history and culture lay in the east. The name of the country says it all. The word 'Ukraine' is derived from the Slavic word, ukraina, which literally means 'borderland''.

At the end of the Middle Ages, ethnic groups from present-day Ukraine moved east into modern-day Russia. That is why the cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine are much stronger than those with Europe.

The Ukrainian economy is also deeply intertwined with Russia. Industrial complexes, particularly heavy armament, straddle the border. Its energy system is completely dependent on Russia.

At the same time, the Ukraine is a distant outpost for Europe - one that is becoming more expensive to defend. Likewise, the conditions imposed on the Ukrainian economy are becoming too much to bear. Soaring heating prices, unstoppable inflation and the collapsed currency is making life untenable.

Bailing out Ukraine is well within Russia's means. It would also make the whole source of the conflict go away.

Maybe, just as was the case in Texas, when it was annexed by its eastern neighbour, Russians will sing someday: "And the Yellow Rose of 'Ukraine' shall be mine, forevermore".

n Dr Walter T. Molano is a managing partner and the head of research at BCP Securities LLC.