03 March 2014

The Eurasian Union; a new Holy Alliance?

Among the writers criticized in Stephen Cohen's Nation article on Ukraine was the historian Timothy Snyder, a Eastern Europe specialist who writes for the New York Review of Books. For Cohen, an opponent of Russophobia, Snyder, who has written extensively about the atrocities committed by both Soviets and Nazis during World War II, is guilty of underrepresenting the neo-fascist element in the Maidan protests that drove President Yanukovich from Ukraine. Snyder issues a counterblast in the New York Review's print edition for March 20 and an updated online article at the Review's website. He rejects the implication that neo-fascist, neo-nazi or even "far right" elements predominated in the Maidan, arguing in the print article that these elements were actually latecomers to the protests. The earliest protesters against Yanukovich, he writes, "were politically on the left, some of them radically so." The defining feature of the Maidan, for Snyder, isn't any nostalgia for Hitler but identification with Europe rather than Russia. Meanwhile, he smears-by-association anyone who characterizes the Maidan as predominantly "far right," since you can find the same judgment in Lyndon LaRouche's publications or, to be less esoteric, on Ron Paul's. Snyder traces all such charges to Russian or pro-Yanukovich propaganda, which he finds pretty rich considering the political views he claims to be prevalent in Russia. In Snyder's eyes, Russia under Putin has resumed, if it had ever really renounced, its historic role as the inherent enemy of European liberty. It's not enough for him to see Putin as a ruthless nationalist dedicated primarily to regional hegemony. Instead, he urges us to see Putin's Russia as once more an ideological state, opposed on principle to liberal democracy. The vehicle of this ideology, Snyder explains, is the Eurasian Union, an "international commercial and political union" for nations either east of the European Union or, Snyder suggests, ideologically hostile to it. From his print article:

The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights. On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin's rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

Snyder informs us that there is already a "Eurasian ideology," new to the 21st century and born largely from the mind of Aleksandr Dugin, an advocate, according to Snyder, of the reconquest and colonization of Ukraine by Russia. Snyder claims that Eurasianism is explicitly opposed to liberal democracy. Dugin reportedly "calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism" and is influenced by the proto-Nazi political scientist Carl Schmitt. What Dugin actually says Snyder leaves for us to discover, citing a major work called The Foundations of Geopolitics. I suppose I can concede without reading that work that this Dugin is no liberal, but the suggestion that he is Putin's ideologue and that Putin's motives are ideological to any significant extent are less demonstrated than assumed in Snyder's account.

It's bad enough that Russia is unwilling to let Ukraine sort out its own destiny, though by the same principle Ukraine is also no one else's business. Russia's intervention in the Crimea region to protect ethnic Russians, an allegedly persecuted minority under the new Ukrainian regime, seems hypocritical when there's a sizable and vocal minority of Tatars within the Russian enclaves that avows loyalty to Kiev. Since the Tatars are Muslim, their protests only allow the Russians to say that the anti-Yanukovich coalition consists not just of Nazis and gays but also of Islamist terrorists. From Russia's standpoint, if you don't like Russia, you're evil. From the Russophobic standpoint, Russia is evil, perhaps innately so. For two hundred years, at least, Russia has been seen not just as the oppressor of its own subjects but as a threat to freedom elsewhere. After the defeat of Napoleon, Russia provided the muscle for the so-called Holy Alliance, a coalition of conservative states cooperating to crush dissent and rebellion in central and eastern Europe, and for a time feared as the means to spread reaction westward. Russia's size and its politics seemed to prove the claim by Montesquieu, but rejected by Madison, that a country of such vast size could only be governed by tyranny. No one takes Canada, the second-largest country geographically, as a  threat to liberty, but Russia's historic combination of size and force seems to make it an irredeemable entity in world history. Its size certainly puts a chip on the figurative Russia shoulder, but does it make Russia as absolutely hostile to liberty as so many fear?

A partial corrective to Snyder's alarmism might be found in the same issue of the Review. Discussing a new "History of Democracy in Crisis," John Gray criticizes the author's simplistic contrast between democracy and autocracy, noting that such a stark distinction misses "differences" in kind among both autocracies and democracies. Gray considers it a fallacy to equate democracy, as the author under review does, with liberalism. History informs Gray that liberals historically have distrusted democracy because of its potential for "tyranny of the majority." Turning to Russia, Gray writes that "Putin's Russia more closely resembles the type of democracy against which nineteenth-century liberal thinkers warned." Gray appears to agree with Snyder that Russia is explicitly opposed to liberalism, and is "far from any kind of civilized government." But he warns that a more truly democratic Russia "would not necessarily be more tolerant or pluralistic than the one that currently exists" so long as it remains grounded in an illiberal civilization.

Gray doesn't shy away from moral judgments about Russia, but he also exposes a manichean thinking among liberals that both equates democracy with liberalism and decries any departure from liberalism as a slippery slide toward autocracy. He also spotlights faults in liberalism that may reduce its appeal to some cultures. If we still take the U.S. as the exemplar of liberalism, Gray concedes that the country is not "monopolized by a tyrannous majority," but observes that the government has been "immobilized by an irreconcilable minority." While Gray remains confident that "the current gridlock will eventually be overcome," he recognizes that "probably few people outside the United States ... any longer regard American government as a model that should be emulated." It might be inferred that the American experiment in liberalism has gone too far, at some levels, toward immunizing minorities from oppression, especially once purely numerical minorities defined by political beliefs begin to feel themselves entitled to liberalism's protections. Liberalism's concern for the vulnerable few in any polity will always be problematic, not just because of majority prejudices but also because of the ease with which safeguards conceived in the interest of the vulnerable few -- ethnic and religious and now sexual minorities -- can be exploited by the powerful few to thwart not merely an undesirable tyranny of the majority but any effective democracy. Liberalism abhors Russia, and other countries, because dissidents there seem to get pushed around on a more regular basis than they do in liberal nations. Liberalism is dedicated fundamentally to the proposition that the dissident should never get pushed around, that he should never suffer for being in any sort of minority. It's provocative even to suggest calculating the costs of that approach, but liberal absolutism of that sort threatens to alienate the liberal powers from a wider world where most people are simply less horrified, less outraged morally, when the local dissidents get pushed around, whether for holding obnoxious opinions, growing too big for their britches, or for general malcontenment. If we could see other countries this way, still critically but not hysterically, instead of seeing them as slaves of evil rulers of insatiable ambition, some of us might not have seen the Ukrainian trouble as the world crisis it has become.

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