02 September 2014

Are there principles at stake in Ukraine?

In short: no.

Imagine an alternate scenario. To protest President Yanukovich's decision to make a trade deal with Russia instead of the European Union, the western part of Ukraine secedes, declares itself a separate nation and seeks membership in the EU. I don't doubt that Yanukovich would have used force to keep the country whole, and I feel pretty certain that Russia would help him in any way President Putin could think of and get away with. So the actual conflict, in which Russia is helping the eastern region against the central government, probably isn't about any group's right to self-determination as a matter of principle, as the Russians claim it is.

But the war in Ukraine is no more a struggle for democracy against the sort of authoritarianism Putin currently embodies. The current government effectively gave up any such pretense after the Maidan uprising drove Yanukovich from power. Maybe that was a triumph for "freedom" or "liberty," but using people power to drive an elected leader from power is no more democracy in Ukraine than it was in Egypt. I'm willing to believe that Yanukovich was corrupt, a toady of Russia, whatever you want to say. But as far as I know it was his prerogative as the elected leader of his country to make the trade deal he thought best, by whatever criterion. That he didn't make the deal a large number of Ukrainians wanted is not sufficient cause to demand, much less effect, his ouster before his term was up. This has to be stressed now that some Americans want to drum up an ideological crusade against Russian authoritarianism. Russians may be everything Americans think they are, but they still have reason to question the legitimacy of Yanukovich's replacement. Before you celebrate the Maidan as direct democracy in action, ask whether you'd like governments in your own country to rise or fall in similar fashion.

Rather, the Maidan, like last year's uprising in Egypt, point toward a devolution of democracy. They signal a dangerous distrust of electoral democracy if not of representative government itself. While blind faith in democracy -- an assumption that it can never result in tyranny -- may not be justified, bad faith within a democracy -- an assumption that it is always on the verge of tyranny, that your opposition is always scheming to impose tyranny -- is hardly more justified. Suspicion of democracy has grown steadily since the decolonization of the Third World raised the spectre of "one man, one vote, once" democracy, the sort inevitably co-opted by the ambitious and ruthless and converted to authoritarianism at best, despotism at worst. Increasingly we see faithless democracy, founded on distrust of those who disagree with you and suspicion of their motives, in which the stakes are too high ever to acquiesce in controversial policies until the next election, so long as it's assumed that the next election may not take place, or that the ruling party will rig it somehow or otherwise steal it. Yanukovich is becoming a tyrant and must go; Morsi is becoming a tyrant and must go. How soon before more people say "Obama is becoming a tyrant ..." -- or fill in the name of a Republican for future reference? We distrust the "authoritarian" demand for submission, and now we distrust the implicit democratic requirement of submission as authoritarian. It's said that Putin fears the Maidan and the Ukrainian example because it may recur in Russia. Whatever he thinks, it is something to fear if it means that any mob of people can drive an elected leader from power for any reason. In the U.S. we're invited to see the Ukrainian war as a people's struggle for freedom from the ever-evil empire. In effect, to support Ukraine now is to endorse the Maidan and encourage imitators. Saying this doesn't mean I want to see Yanukovich restored to power in Kiev; at the least it's too late for that now. But do we really want a world where anyone can gather a mob and undo an election? You might say the mob won't win if the government really has its people behind it, but in our time, with the evidence in front of us, can you be so sure? Russia's bullying presence in ruthless pursuit of national interest makes the issue look simpler than it is. But neither Putin's authoritarianism, whatever its actual extent, nor the mob veto of the Maidan is a model worth promoting globally. If Putin is violating Ukrainian sovereignty, it's only after Ukrainians violated their own sovereignty more than once. Principles, such as they are, cancel out, leaving national interests -- and if the U.S. has a material national interest in the fate of Ukraine I wish someone would tell me what it is.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, (Ukraine aside) it does seem that in these "Arab Spring" states, the "winner" does seek to impose oppression over the loser. But it seems that that is how things traditionally are over there. Except in the rare case where a ruler imposes equality by force, it seems oppression is the rule of the day.

Samuel Wilson said...

And of course, whenever someone "imposes equality by force," someone is going to call that oppression. You just can't win.