07 April 2014
In Eastern Ukraine: 'people power' or 'astroturf?'
Tensions in Ukraine ratcheted to a new level this weekend after pro-Russian demonstrators in several cities stormed and occupied government buildings in the eastern, predominantly Russophone part of the troubled nation. The demonstrators demand referenda giving them the option of declaring independence from Ukraine and seeking annexation by Russia. So they're evil, of course. It's grimly amusing to read western commentary on these incidents, almost unanimously denying them any legitimacy. Of course all those people are puppets of Vladimir Putin -- probably his paid agents, too! But how different are these incidents qualitatively from the Maidan uprising in Kiev that precipitated the current crisis? "Qualitatively" is the right term, since I'll concede without verifying it that there were more people in the streets at the height of the Maidan than there were in all the eastern cities this weekend. West or east, however, how representative are crowds? Do we have any objective basis for deeming the Maidan more legitimate, for demanding the ouster of President Yanukovich, than the eastern mobs are for demanding union with Russia? Why do western liberals cry slander when anyone east of Kiev suggests that anyone in the Maidan was a paid agent of a foreign power, yet let stand or even endorse the charge that the eastern demonstrators are Russian agents? Why not give 'people power' the benefit of the doubt in both places? The answer, of course, is Russophobia. If the mobs in the east support Russia in general and Putin in particular, then they can't be for "freedom," and thus can't be people power in action, since people power, apparently, only comes into being for the advancement of liberal democracy. The Maidan was people power because it was against Russia and thus inferentially for liberal democracy, despite whatever percentage of fascists or "extreme rightists" in the new Ukraine regime -- less than Russia claims, most likely, but also more than the west claims, quite possibly. To remind readers again, nothing here is intended to whitewash Russia or Putin -- it's no place I'd want to live and probably not the kind of leadership I'd care for. It's probably tough to be a dissident there, but it's also possible for it to be too easy sometimes. Yet it isn't idealizing Putin to point out yet again a hysterical exaggeration in western perceptions of Russia that has persisted through numerous changes in the country's form of government for at least 200 years. Russian expansionism or chauvinism is an objective threat to some degree to the country's immediate neighbors, but it's more difficult now than it was fifty years ago to claim that Russian power threatens the freedom of the whole planet. In an ideal world -- at least according to one ideal -- Russia's neighbors should pursue their destinies without interference or even influence, if it isn't wanted, from Russia, but in that same world there'd be some spokesman for that ideal less compromised, less likely to be judged hypocritical, than the U.S. government. But there's more than one ideal in the collective political imagination, and more than one notion of national and human destiny. Liberalism is not the only option, and when liberals claim that any other option is a lie, the rest of us will have to judge the truth for ourselves.