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Ukraine: Nothing at Stake, Everything at Stake

ryanIn Moscow this week Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accepted Russia’s offer of a $15-billion bailout loan in addition to reduced gas prices, the combination of which (if managed smartly—not inevitable given Yanukovich’s track record) should be sufficient to prevent at least the direst scenarios in an already economically depressed country facing crises of credit default and further monetary deflation.

To our knowledge there are no significant strings attached to this deal—Putin has called it an “act of brotherly love”—though what was said behind closed doors to extract a handshake from Vladimir Putin is not known and may yet become clear. Ukraine has not, as far as we know, agreed—as Putin would certainly love it to do—to join Russia’s fledgling free economic zone with Belarus, Kazakhstan and (soon) Armenia; Ukraine has also not agreed to make any major changes to its national economic practices. This latter, of course, contrasts the Russian bailout sharply with the carrot dangled for several years by the E.U.: a bailout loan contingent upon radical austerity measures within Ukraine.

Why then has the Moscow deal, which offers quicker, more direct economic relief and greater national economic control, enraged so many of Ukraine’s people and been derided as a Russian power grab by nearly every media observer? And why do so many continue to insist that Ukraine instead pursue closer economic ties to the E.U., which is offering slow-drip relief with many more conditions and incursions on Ukrainian national sovereignty? And why is this offer seen as generosity rather than as a Franco-German power grab?

One thing is certain: the Ukrainian people have every reason to feel aggrieved by their living conditions and failed by their government—Yanukovich’s as well as Yushchenko’s and Kuchma’s before it. They also have every right to militantly demand better: better wages, better roads and transport, less police corruption, a cap on skyrocketing food prices, viable job prospects for young people, a solution to the country’s impending housing disaster, etc. (One might reasonably ask how well E.U. membership—which is far beyond what’s on offer to Ukraine—has helped neighboring countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania in addressing similar problems.)

In a puzzling irony, while pro-independence protesters have camped out in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) the world has come to know the movement by another name: Euromaidan (Euro Square). But is anything currently being demanded in Kyiv, including deeper relations with Europe, adequate or appropriate to Ukraine’s very real problems? Or has legitimate and admirable collective anger instead been contained within familiar Cold War ideological parameters and directed, however unintentionally, at merely handing the keys from one not-so-benevolent dictator to another? (One might reasonably ask how benevolent or respectful of national sovereignty the E.U. has been in countries like Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.)

To complicate matters, however, whichever geopolitical course (alignment with Russia’s economic bloc, alignment with the E.U., or—in a utopian wish—something else) we might consider most advantageous for Ukraine, at this point, after repeated disruptions of peaceful demonstration camps and with widespread reports of police brutality, we have to hope that the encampments in Kyiv survive and thrive and that at all costs they withstand the state violence and repression unleashed against them. Had the Yanukovich government taken a softer line on the opposition, things might well be different, but it has (unsurprisingly) not done so; thus, whatever other issues are involved, this has turned into a fight over the basic right to dissent and, as such, demands clear and unequivocal support for the demonstrators, whether we find particular merit in the content of their demonstrations or not.

Still, it is strange for so many who consider themselves progressives to be cheering Ukraine on to accept an E.U. economic agreement modeled on brutal IMF structural adjustment policies. It is similarly strange for so many to brush aside the disturbing presence of Ukrainian neo-Nazi and right-wing nationalist groups in the Euromaidan, as if any forces that move the country westward from Russian influence must be progressive, and momentarily forgetful of the fact that around half of Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language and have closer family and cultural ties to Russia than to the West Slavic and Germanic countries so beloved in Lviv. Leaving aside Roma, Tatar and Central Asian minorities, which aren’t well regarded by any of the major parties, how well will these Russian-speaking Ukrainians fare if nationalist groups win the day? Further, is it such a stretch to mention that Lviv, Volyn and other western oblasts have always preferred German alliances to Russian ones or that the explosion of neo-Nazi and nationalist groups may not be a coincidence in these regions, which proved so hospitable to actual Nazi collaborators less than a century ago and still allow living collaborators to be decorated at Victory Day celebrations?

But we are faced with these paradoxes (supporting, on some level, the demonstrations but wary and critical of some central parts of them) because the Kyiv protests do not fall into a Left/Right political frame. Putin’s Russia is no prize, and neither is Merkel’s E.U. The protests may (though this is unlikely) pressure Yanukovich to step down as President, but are Yanukovich or his Party of Regions the Right? Is anyone who might conceivably replace them the Left? I don’t see it in that way.

Is this even a matter of legitimate or illegitimate assumption of power, as was the case during the Orange Revolution of 2004, when a clearly defrauded election needed to be re-run in order for the government to be seen as legitimate? It is common in the Euromaidan to refer to Yanukovich as “the crook,” and he certainly has a criminal past and has been, among other things, a crook (stealing, for instance, the 2004 election which was later overturned). But what this designation means with respect to the demands of the Euromaidan protests (i.e. What has Yanukovich stolen this time that the protesters would like returned?) is not clear.

Against the dubious ideological assumptions of the Cold War, it is also not clear to me that greater freedom or prosperity awaits Ukrainians on either side of this particular geopolitical struggle, in which they are seen as (strategically very important) pawns by both sides, neither of which promises to be especially cognizant of Ukrainian self-determination or national interests in the future.

Euromaidan slogans like “Ukraine belongs in Europe” are laden with the assumption of all sorts of cultural- and identity-markers that exclude as many Ukrainians, most of them living east of Poltava and south of Kryvyi Rih as they include. We can imagine slogans like “Belarus and Russia are our brothers” that would satisfy and marginalize equal but different portions of the population and be just as unlikely to alter the difficult daily living conditions of most Ukrainian people.

It needs to be said here as well that the privilege of exposure to Western ideas and institutions—including the opportunity to travel and study in the West, to learn English or German languages, to have contact with family and friends who live in the West—is not at all evenly distributed across Ukraine. There are also hard economic realities that make it easier for western Ukrainians than for eastern and southern Ukrainians to support European integration and burn bridges with Russia. These inequities are observable in myriad ways. Inquire what percentage of Ukrainians in the east and south of the country have a relative working in Russia and sending money home and therefore rely on close economic ties and open borders with Russia. Inquire how many western-Ukrainian families have female relatives working legally (if still in poor conditions) in the E.U. as domestic help, then observe how many eastern-Ukrainian internet cafes are full of young women trying to advertise themselves on dating and marriage sites for a chance to go West. Visit a Ukrainian diaspora community in Canada, the U.S. or Western Europe and ask which percentage of people living there came from west of Kyiv.

Even the uncontroversial rallying cries against corruption and for good governance (who would disagree?) ring hollow as no major political players or parties in Ukraine are likely to usher in such changes. Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko rode into power on a similar wave of anti-corruption and pro-national protests in 2004, and both exercised their offices with no less cronyism and secrecy than had their opponents. Yushchenko is now completely discredited everywhere in Ukraine except a few western fringes.

Tymoshenko has once again been elevated as a hero-martyr by Western countries and by many Ukrainians due to her political imprisonment; however, like Mikhail Khodorovsky in Russia (another cherished hero-martyr in the West), Tymoshenko is guilty of the corruption with which she was charged and more, even if it is also true that her prosecution and imprisonment were politically motivated and that the government imprisoning her is equally guilty. In Tymoshenko’s home region of Dnipropetrovs’k, where she began in politics and maintains deep mafia ties, her long history of corruption and political intimidation is well remembered.

Vitaly Klitschko, a failed Kyiv mayoral candidate and former boxing champion whose party is called UDAR (The Punch), has emerged as the figure capable of leading Ukraine forward?! This alone points to the spectacular quality of the Euromaidan protests.

And yet a spectacle is not always a worthless thing, nor does calling something spectacular necessarily imply that it is not substantive and serious at its core. If the concrete directions in which these demonstrations point all seem less desirable than the last, then such ambivalence may be seen not as hopeless but as a revealing indication that the political system within which Ukraine operates is not only plagued by bad, incompetent and corrupt leaders (though that is of course the case) but also structurally flawed such that no leader or party, however virtuous, could plausibly bring about sufficient reforms.

Yanukovich, like Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, Kuchma and others, has had to play a dirty ballgame in which Ukraine is not a very powerful player, and his successors, no matter who they are, will have to do the same. One government or another may decide to change teams. Georgia and Moldova are attempting such a change by signing, despite pressure from Russia, E.U. association agreements similar to the one Yanukovich rejected. There are reasons to be concerned for these two countries. It will take a lot more than a symbolic 2-hour visit by John Kerry for them to weather the turbulence of Westernization, including the punitive economic measures Russia is certain to take. And it would be an understatement to say that, in Eastern Europe as elsewhere, Western powers do not exactly have a reputation for committing resources over the long term to match the amplitude of their soaring pro-freedom rhetoric. But changing teams changes neither the rules of the game nor Ukraine’s position within it. No disinterested third party—not Russia, not the E.U., not NATO and not the United States—is waiting in the wings to support Ukraine’s development without demanding a high degree of economic and political control.

It should also be noted that many Ukrainians who support European integration care little about the terms of economic cooperation actually at stake in the current negotiations. For them the key components of integration are eased visa requirements and E.U. membership. But the political reality is that, in an era of general austerity and uncertainty, and amid the still rocky incorporation of Bulgaria and Romania into the E.U., there is little appetite anywhere in the West for E.U. expansion, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Croatia has squeaked through and is probably going to be the last new E.U. member for some time. (This will certainly be unwelcome news to Georgia and Moldova, not to mention Serbia.) Given the fever pitch in recent years over the “influx” of Romanian workers into Western Europe, it is also hard to imagine a significant change to the visa requirements for Ukraine, a country with a poorer and much larger population.

The causes of Ukraine’s problems are global (when has Ukraine ever been in control of its own economic destiny?), and the problems are therefore not soluble within a national frame alone. Ukraine is not alone in this conundrum; every country in Eastern Europe except Russia faces it to some degree, which is why national politics in the region tend to take on something of a farcical, soap-opera quality (remember Yanukovich’s wife, in ghastly blue lipstick, taking to national television during the Orange Revolution and accusing the United States of injecting Ukrainian fruit with mind-control serum?). So much is at stake, and yet so little can be done on the national scene. Alliances are necessary, and yet they are excruciatingly costly and compromising.

The most encouraging descriptions of the Euromaidan have been those that emphasize its differences from the Orange Revolution of 2004. This time, unlike 2004, there is no particular party, color scheme or charismatic figure standing in for the entire movement. Some have called this a weakness and doubt whether the movement will be able to cohere and form a stable government should it succeed in ousting Yanukovich. That is a fair observation, and the skeptics making it are probably correct. In my view, however, the best outcome has nothing to do with Yanukovich either agreeing to sign a deal with the E.U. or resigning (though it wouldn’t be the worst idea for Ukrainians to vote him out of office next time they have a chance—the country could really use some fresh political faces).

Rather than looking East or West, the best the demonstrators can do is to continue looking around, at one another. If the Euromaidan can remain the crucible it has been for new kinds of alliances, for experiments in cooperation and for creative political thinking and dialogue—and, crucially, if these activities can be taken home, institutionalized and expanded,—then the people of Ukraine will have done more than stage a spectacle that draws attention to the limits of national politics and exposes the ruthlessness of the global power struggle. They will have done more than grieve and protest. They will also have taken important steps toward the construction of real citizenship, operating across multiple cultural spheres, which alone can respond to and create novel solutions for local problems and can, over time, remake political structures of increasing orders of magnitude.

The more places where this is happening, the better, and the less trapped we will all be by the infuriating confines of global politics that make a mockery of Ukrainians’ brave demonstrations. Changes like these have to start somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that place is Ukraine.


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