24 February 2014

Apocalypse Ukraine: the next round?

Whether or not he's ultimately to blame for last week's street fighting in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovich is certainly to blame for making the situation still more volatile by fleeing the Ukrainian capital this past weekend. We don't really know yet what provoked him to flee, but it doesn't look like you can blame Russia for this one. A Russian TV commentator supposedly close to the Putin government has slagged Yanukovich for betraying his own country and his Russian friends. One might have expected the Russian media to portray Yanukovich as both an innocent victim and still the legitimate ruler of his country. The Russian government has taken that stance, but they still may have expected Yanukovich to stand his ground with more courage than he has apparently shown. To bring everyone up to date: Yanukovich bugged out of Kiev shortly after reaching an agreement with the opposition to hold early elections, leaving behind a statement decrying a coup d'etat against him. The nation's legislature responded by impeaching him, and an interim government reportedly is seeking his arrest. Much of the eastern part of the country, supposedly pro-Russian and pro-Yanukovich, has also repudiated the president, but other parts, particularly those where Russian is the main language, have protested his removal and fear the worst from their Russophobic western compatriots. From the outside, people's attitudes are shaped mainly by their attitudes toward the European Union, on one hand, and Vladimir Putin, on the other. Those who see the EU as a neoliberal menace deplore the latest turn of events, while those who see Putin as today's leading exponent of "tyranny" applaud what they see as his defeat by the Ukrainian opposition. The danger in an ideological view of Ukraine, of course, is its encouragement of a belligerent attitude toward Russia should Putin choose to punish Ukraine in some way. It also remains to be seen whether "democracy" really has triumphed in Ukraine. The scenario looks much like Egypt last year, only with the military much less prominent. In both cases a divisive leader with an electoral mandate was driven from power under pressure from mobs who claimed to represent the people of their respective nations. If this is democracy, it's democracy in its most primitive and dubious form -- the democracy of those who show up at the right time in the right place. It's as obvious in Ukraine as it was in Egypt that the mobs in Kiev didn't represent the whole country, yet many outsiders will believe it because they assume that opposition to Putin -- the opposition felt that taking money from Russia meant economic and political subjugation to a hated neighbor -- means you stand for freedom, and that makes you the true people of any body politic.

It's interesting to observe Ukraine from the vantage point of the British media. You get a perspective largely missing from the U.S., that of Euroskepticism. There's a surprising amount of support for Yanukovich in the comment threads of British news sites, and while any such expression is assumed by some to be paid for by Putin, it seems grounded in a common perception that membership in the EU is not such a great thing for any country, from both a political and economic standpoint. For right-wingers, the EU remains a threat to national sovereignty. For left-wingers, it's the bringer of austerity and no friend of the working classes. Whatever the reason, these skeptics question whether Ukraine really will benefit from choosing the EU over Russia, regardless of their opinions of Putin or Yanukovich, and they're more inclined to see the crisis as an EU (or US) power grab. Perhaps ironically, a lot of the people condemning the Ukrainian opposition for the "fascists" in their ranks are probably on the right wing of their own country's political spectrum. But that's what happens when you don't see things through the lens of American "freedom" ideology. There's also probably more actual sympathy for Putin than we might expect. Some on the global right see him as an ally against Islam. Some on the global left see him, warts and all, as a perhaps-necessary bulwark against American neoliberal hegemony. None of this requires anyone to endorse Putin's own ideas about "managed democracy," but it wouldn't surprise me if more people around the world, and in the U.S., see American democracy, the ideal toward which the Ukrainian opposition is expected to aspire, as really little better. For many, I suspect, the idea of democracy isn't inconsistent with a government's readiness to push around people thought too big for their britches, or even take them down a few pegs, while the American ideal may seem to go too far toward insulating those same people from any real accountability. If the U.S. gets too confrontational with Russia over Ukraine's future and tries to justify its stance with the usual freedom argument -- if Obama becomes no more than an echo of McCain -- you might see the usual argument challenged by more than the usual "anti-imperialist" or "isolationist" suspects. Ideally, we won't get to that point. We need to recognize that the struggle in and over Ukraine isn't about freedom as much as it's about markets, and no government has any business risking anyone's lives over markets. No other country should dictate Ukraine's future, but that doesn't mean we need to fight if Russia tries to. That may mean Ukraine loses in the end, that the country can't escape a geopolitical destiny, and you can curse that fate if you're so inclined -- but don't curse the world with the burden of fighting it.

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