18 February 2014
Epic and ominous imagery streams from Kiev as the government begins to crack down on the opposition gathered in Maidan Square. The capital seems to be all on fire after at least one dozen people have died in the last day's violence. What's it all about? Some people in and out of Ukraine want to make it all about democracy or freedom, so it bears repeating that the crisis is about more and less than these things. It's mainly about Russia. The western part of the country and many liberals throughout Ukraine hate Russia. Some see that country and its current leader as embodiments of authoritarian menace; others see Russia more simply as the local bully, much as much of Latin America sees the U.S. They don't identify with Russia, as the eastern part of the country supposedly does, and they can't accept the domination by Russia that the trade deal supposedly entails. Their attitude toward Russia might not be any different if someone less odious than Vladimir Putin ran things. The people in eastern Ukraine and the supporters of President Yanukovich no doubt also feel that democracy is at stake. In their minds the protesters, heroes of liberalism in the eyes of many outsiders, are probably no better than the American southerners who rejected the results of the 1860 presidential election and provoked a civil war. The analogy isn't exact, since to my knowledge few in western Ukraine talk about seceding and seeking admission as a separate nation to the European Union. Instead, they want it all, which means the fall of Yanukovich. Is Ukraine a nation? If so, at some point the minority must submit to the majority -- at some point one side must confess itself a political minority and as such obliged to submit so long as submission doesn't mean subjection. Why is the trade issue an all-or-nothing, zero-sum affair, for Ukraine itself and for Russia and the EU? Is it really that Russia wants to "dominate" Ukraine? Recent developments confirm that impression for those already inclined to distrust Russia. Many observers believe that a recent release of Russian aid money to Ukraine was conditioned upon a crackdown on the opposition that appears to be under way. If so, it'll only make Putin look more like a bad guy if he can't tolerate dissent in another country. Ukraine is not obliged by geography or history to kowtow to Russia, but there may well be a "silent majority" there that chooses Russia over Europe, for whatever reason. Is it tyranny if they get their way, even if they have to force their will on the rest of the country? If they have to force their will on the rest of the people, whose fault will that be? If the opposition refuses to acknowledge any legitimacy to the Yanukovich government or its policies, aren't they guilty of a bad faith incompatible with democracy? The tragedy of Ukraine is that the opposition, driven by their hatred of Russia if not a hatred of their own eastern brothers, has forced a choice between rule or ruin, and will most likely get ruin.