Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Piece on American press coverage for the online journal Logos

There are a number of reasons I have not posted here recently, but a major one was being commissioned by the people at the online journal Logos to write the article I am providing a link to here.

I will not offer any major additional insights here for now, beyond restating a belief I have held for some time that we should not allow the anxiety about troop movements from Russia naturally inspire among Ukrainians to lead to an overestimation of what Putin is capable of taking and holding in Ukraine beyond what he has taken.  Indeed, while I have seen no additional confirmation of this, there was even a report of a possible small mutiny among Russian regular army soldiers, who did not want to continue fighting in Ukraine.  At the same time all our eyes should be focused how Ukraine moves forward on the massive task of economic reform and anti-corruption measures.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

What is Putin up to?

Churchill famously called Russia “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  That comment was prompted by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939.  This week Vladimir Putin has lived up to that characterization; although, this time it is Russia’s actions towards Ukraine that has left heads people scratching heads.  
In as much as questions about Putin’s intentions have loomed over events in Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis there, I have been tempted several times to write a piece about Putin's role in events.  These efforts have always foundered because I am not really a Russian specialist and more to the point even the best informed analysts cannot get into Putin’s head.  This weeks news, however, offers a useful lesson about how Putin manipulates us even as it seems clear that that he has failed to foment civil war in Ukraine and that he is unlikely to succeed in creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas. 
From the moment of the bombings attributed to Chechen terrorists shortly after being named Prime Minister in 1999, Putin has demonstrated a deep appreciation for how the propaganda of fear can be used to manipulate events and the political atmosphere. This week’s announcement that Russia was sending a humanitarian aid convoy to the besieged Donbas city of Luhansk has been a textbook example of that tactic.  From the high diplomatic level where Russian claims that the convoy had the approval of the International Red Cross when it did not to the origination of the convoy’s journey from a town with a special forces base and the refusal to let independent journalists get a look at the cargo being loaded all was calculated to maximize anxiety that Putin had decided to go to war in Ukraine.  Almost immediately the phrase “Trojan horse” was on even casual observers’ lips; although, the notion that the trucks would be used to stage a provocation that would provide the justification for a full-fledged war seemed even more plausible.  In a climate created in the previous week by analysts of solid reputation saying we were reaching the moment when Putin would have to make a decision and that war was a very real possibility these seemed plausible concerns and even the idea that Putin might attempt a multi-pronged invasion could not be entirely dismissed.  
Of course, almost all informed experts knew such a move would be disaster and would bring little good to Russia, as the past several months have made it eminently clear there far too many Ukrainians committed to their independence to make long-term occupation successful even in the unlikely event that blitzkrieg tactics would succeed at first.  Most of those same people also knew that opinion polls showed the majority of Russians did not want an open war with Ukraine. Moreover, there were even signs that the Kremlin was not particularly interested in changing that.  While a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered in Moscow to support war with Ukraine at 2 August, anyone familiar with “managed democracy” knows that number could have been much higher if that is what the Kremlin had wanted, especially since the demonstration had a permit for 10,000 people.  Yet, with all eyes focused on those more than 260 trucks and word that Putin was going to make an important speech when he visited Crimea on 15 August those things did not matter and we willingly allowed Putin to appear once again to be master of events.  
That must have felt great for the man who has spent his political career, and no doubt his KGB career before that, making himself appear in command. The game continued with a Russian incursion early Friday that was verified by the presence of a Western journalist, although the Ukrainian military claims they substantially destroyed, the crucial fact was that the vehicles involved had not been unloaded from trucks from the convoy.  Indeed, so much materiel was already massed near the Ukrainian border that no massive convoy was needed, and when western journalists finally got access to the convoy they found the trucks were half empty.  Then, there was the curious matter of Putin’s speech in Crimea that same day.  During the week it had been billed as a major policy speech that would be broadcast nationally, but then at the last minute it was not, nor has a full transcript been published.  So we do not know what if any important policies Putin announced during his visit; although, quite clearly it was not a declaration of war on Ukraine.
No doubt, Putin has ideas about how he and his minions will use the convoy and other events this week to preserve the aura of mastery over Russia and its relations with the world.  Yet, the past week have done little to change the perception beyond Russia that Putin’s policy towards Ukraine has been a colossal mistake that Russians and Russia will be dealing with for years, and the question remains what other than fear were this weeks’ games supposed to achieve?  My guess, and it is only a guess; although I think it makes good sense of what otherwise quite confusing information, is the fear was used to obscure Putin’s decision to begin the recalibration of his Ukraine policy, and that his immediate aims may well have been quite successful.  By the end of the week, the most visible Russian face in the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, Ihor Girkin aka Strelkov had resigned, as had the leader of the Luhansk Peoples’ Republic Valery Bolotov.  Remarkably, reports suggest they were both injured within hours of each other, which raises suspicions.  Perhaps their injuries are real, and the timing is a coincidence.  Anyone following what the Ukrainian government calls the Anti-Terrorist Operation knows that the noose is tightening and were these men rallying their troops in the wrong place at the wrong time they could well have been seriously wounded.  Alternatively, and more likely, given that Girkin and Bolotov have totally disappeared from public eye, even though a picture of either men would cheer nationalists in Russia, something bigger is up.  

  Girkin and Bolotov are hard men committed to the the idea of a greater Russia and ideally the destruction of Ukraine.  As such. if Putin has decided to let their project rot on the vine, they must be removed in a way that does not rile other Russian nationalists.  With that in mind Putin's actions last week make good sense. For while Ukrainians and the outside world were worrying, Girkin and Bolotov would have been cheering the signs that Putin was finally ready to commit to their side.  They may even have been advised as much and told that the time had come for them to step aside and let the Russian military command take over with a promise of laurels as Russian heroes back in Moscow.  Wherever they are now, the two are likely dismayed to see that the full-bore invasion Russian Nationalists had hoped for has not materialized.

  Extricating Girkin and Bolotov could only happen if both were convinced that Putin was at last committed to a full-scale invasion of the Donbas, if not all of Ukraine.  At the same time, neither was born yesterday, and their previous careers have made them familiar enough with the ways of the double-cross that hard proof might well have been necessary.  In that case, how better to allay their concerns than letting a western journalist witness a Russian incursion and for supplies and reinforcements to continue cross the border along with continued shelling from the Russian side of the border?   To be sure, the chronology is a bit off. Girkin and Bolotov both resigned before the incursion occurred, or was at least reported, but maybe their egos got the better of them and they were more easily convinced than expected.  Ultimately, from Putin's perspective the key was getting the two militants out of the way, and that was achieved.

  Meanwhile, the war goes on and Putin may have conceded to himself that Novorossija will not be redeemed, but he does not see turning his back on pro-Russian fighters as acceptable either so fighters and equipment keep coming. On 16 August the head of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic claimed  they have received 1,400 reinforcement fresh from training in Russia.  This remains unconfirmed but we would be wise not to attribute too much meaning to it even if it is true; although, it may also provide an indication of what else was in the half-empty trucks before they reached the Ukrainian border.  Still, this is beginning to be reminiscent of Nixon’s escalated bombing and Vietnamization circa 1970 with the twist that if these new troops are Russian and not Ukrainian, shipping these boys off to Ukraine with minimal training is an easy way to get rid of the kind of people who might cause problems at home if Putin starts appearing insufficiently committed to Ruskyi Mir.  Above all, it shows that Putin has little qualms asking some men to be the last to die for a mistake.  That is not exactly news, but it should help keep this story in perspective even as we mourn for those who because of Kremlin’s whims will die in what may well be the closing weeks of this phase of Ukraine’s move to real independence

Thursday, July 17, 2014


It has been some time since I have been able to post about Ukraine.  Much of that had to do with distractions from the end of semester responsibilities and then some family matters that could not be put off, but the transformation of the Maidan revolution into a military conflict in the Donbas has hindered the ability of armchair experts to offer insightful comment.  While I am glad not to have spent time as a prisoner of pro-Russian fighters, I envy Simon Ostrovsky a bit, and hope his VICE reports get him bigger notice. Yet for all their immediacy and journalistic value, such reports cannot answer the big questions that everyone is asking:   1) Can the Ukrainian military manage to regain control of the region without exacerbating relations with the already disaffected citizens of Donbas? 2) How long can the paramilitaries in the Donbas hold out? 3) How much is Putin willing to do to support them?  More importantly, nor can I or any expert.  For tempting as it is to answer that last question and arguably most pressing question, no one is able to get in Putin’s head, and the truth is we will not know what Putin has decided until it is too late and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is underway, or we wake up one day and we realize Ukraine has ceased to be at the top of his agenda.  In the meantime, the only thing we need to remember is that Russian intervention in Ukraine is intended as a distractraction and buy time both in Russia and in Ukraine.

On Putin’s home front there are some warning signs.  A study released last week shows about two thirds of Russians do not like the idea of a war with Ukraine, a fact that would set a limit for how far Putin can go; although, having drawn heavily on Russophile pan--Slavs for support, he now has to worry about a backlash if he backs down.  So open but never quite acknowledged support continues for the fighters in Donbas, as do faints to suggest he is ready and willing to invade.  On Monday, 14 July Dmytro Tymchuk, Ukraine’s best connected journalist on military affairs put out a statement stating that Russian special forces would enter Ukraine on 15 July, and it is now the 16.  Better safe than sorry of course, but at this point one can only surmise that the Russian communications traffic that Tymchuk reported had repeatedly referenced 15 July as an invasion date was itself an effort to deceive and distract.  Coming as it did just days before NATO and European countries are set to decide on introducing further sanctions to Russia, attempting to make the Ukrainian government look alarmist could well play well in some important quarters, like Germany and France so that the next phase of sanctions remain mild.  If that was the intent, the tactic has not worked, and so we shall see what Putin will do next.

The saddest part is that people are dying and suffering in multiple ways because Putin would rather distract than deal with the cul de sac that is his vision for Russia and Ukraine.  He has made consistently poor choices in respect to Ukraine since 2004, because for him there can only be one outcome, one that Ukrainians are increasingly opposed to.  That said, while ignoring it would be inhumane and irresponsible, let us remember the conflict also distracts from the real business of transforming Ukraine, which is what the Maidan revolution was about.  Last week Ukraine’s Fifth channel reported that following difficulties passing reforms affecting Ukraine’s historically corrupt gas monopoly Naftogaz prime minister Arsenyi Yatseniuk drafted a letter of resignation and left it with the President of the Ukrainian parliament.  Around the same time, Ukrainska Pravda reported the new mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klischko has named a Kyiv real estate tycoon Ihor Nikonov as his chief advisor.  Nikonov happens to be a partner of the natural gas oligarch Dmitriy Firtash, who is currently in Vienna fighting extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges and would of course like to see as little change possible to the gas market in Ukraine.  Klitschko’s connections to Firtash are not new, nor are Poroshenko’s, so one has to wonder can the current distraction provide the opportunity for the oligarchs to hijack the Maidan revolution the same way as happened with the Orange Revolution in 2004.

So far the oligarchs do not seem to be closing ranks or systematically sabotaging reforms, at least not yet. Ukrainska Pravda has since reported that all signs are Yatseniuk will remain prime minister for the foreseeable future, which we can hope is a sign that Poroshenko understands the costs of sabotaging Yatseniuk.  Meanwhile the oligarchs who profited most from Yanukovych’s misrule that their most have been the most wrong-footed by Yanukovych’s downfall.  Akhmetov has played his hand so poorly, hedging his bets until he had lost credibility with the Donbas people so that it is increasingly unlikely that the government will need to court him as they retake the Donbas.  Firtash is also on the defensive, and is likely doing all he can to get the new government to convince the U.S. to drop the charges against him.  He has just offered to forgive a loan to the government of 100 billion hryvna (roughly 100 million dollars) no doubt hoping for some favors, but that does not seem to be in the cards.  Two days ago Kolomoisky, who is the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region and has great standing in the new government and the people thanks to his success in preventing pro-Russian movements from taking hold in his bailiwick, stated that the companies both Akhmetov and Firtash bought during privatizations conducted by the Yanukovych government should be renationalized.  

The oligarchs, however, are themselves a distraction, because their ability to influence the system is dependent on collaborators, and the fact is the continuing war is serving such people quite well.  While some of the millions of people who supported the Maidan have volunteered to serve in the fight to recover the Donbas, and many others are pledging money, the focus on the war has provided an excuse to postpone parliamentary elections.  Without a new parliament, the existing parliament is itself becoming a kind of frozen zone.  The Communists will likely never be represented again, and the same fate may await many Party of Regions, unless they can join a forge a new party of power and patronage.  Cooperating with the new government fits perfectly with that aim, and the longer the war goes on allowing the elections to be postponed the easier it will be for them to succeed in that goal.  Supporting the government’s anti-terrorist action is understandable and necessary, but it should not distract from the remaking of society that was at the heart of the Maidan. With Yanukovych gone and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia clearer than ever, the time is ripe for a new political spectrum to emerge, but that can only happen if Ukrainians keep their eyes on the prize, and don’t let the war in the East, whether won or lost, distract them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Inconvenience of Ukraine

If I were Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, I would not be looking forward to my next few visits to Washington.  Of course, there will be smiles at the photo ops and talk of cooperation, and maybe some pleasant times with friends of his American wife Anne Appelbaum, but it is quite clear that America’s foreign policy establishment is quite upset with Sikorski, even if they are too diplomatic to say so directly.  In separate Charlie Rose interviews broadcast on Friday 2 both Jessica Tuchman Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia both agreed that it had been a terrible mistake to put Ukraine in a position where it had to choose between East and West, and they of course are not alone.  Since the idea of drawing Ukraine closer to Europe through an Association Agreement was Sikorski’s baby, this is clearly about him.

That ire is understandable.  Foreign policy is above all about maintaining stability and getting along, and one thing that can be said of the last six months is that Eastern Europe is far less stable, and our relations with Russia have deteriorated significantly.  Because of the heightened tensions, we have finally agreed to station troops in the frontline NATO states of Poland and the Baltic republics, something we have until now avoided.  Nor does it help that many among the foreign policy elite likely feel that Sikorski is quietly regarding that last decision as a triumph.  Nonetheless, such thinking only reflects the extent to which our foreign policy elite has failed to understand the significance of the past six months, and would like to avoid the awful truth that approach taken towards integrating Russia and the other Soviet successor states over the past 25 years has turned into a cul de sac.  

For the moment, the foreign policy elite continues to view the Ukraine crisis as a complication rather than an opportunity.  This is nothing new.  Ukraine has long been regarded an unwanted complication for the American foreign policy elite.  Ukraine signaled the end of the Soviet Union when it declared independence just weeks after George Bush senior delivered a speech in Kiev aimed precisely at keeping the Soviet Union together and warning of suicidal nationalism.  While the bloodbath many feared did not happen, Ukrainian independence raised the issue of Ukraine’s inheritance of the portion of the Soviet nuclear stockpile.  That was resolved in 1994 with the Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, but even then Ukraine did not fade into the background as a happily pliant Russian client state.  Its generally free and fair elections revealed a country that could not quite make up its mind whether to lean East or West, leading to shifts in course foreign policy experts dislike, and then there were the crises, the Orange Revolution, the gas disputes with Russia, all before the Euromaidan crisis ostensibly brought on by the push to bring Ukraine closer into the European orbit.

By contrast, Russia has been treated as stable and reliable.  Of course, it had a head start as the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, and however shrunken its economic power, it remained the largest country on the map.  Despite tense moments in 1993 and the 1996 elections, the leadership has generally been seen by experts as having predicable interests, which has included preserving the stability in its backyard.  In the instance of the Budapest Memorandum, Russia could be seen as a force for good, but even when it did things the West did not like, such as play games with Ukraine over gas, Russia’s actions were always framed as understandable.  Further, both Yeltsin and Putin have been eager to be seen as major players on the world stage, and brokers in affairs well beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood, most notably in negotiations in the Middle East, most recently in Syria. 

Of course, in 1994 no one foresaw that Russia might unilaterally abrogate the Memorandum, and the Memorandum was seen as great power politics done right.  Indeed, there are likely few observers, who can honestly say that they were not optimistic about the long-term value of integrating Russia into world affairs and treating it as a potential “normal country,” which would have to go through some difficult times, but would be transformed by broader contacts with the West.  Yet, what we have lived to see in our new globalized world is that our institutions are not the bulwarks of civil society and well regulated free market economy we thought them to be.  They can be they can be tainted by corruption, and the biggest corrupting force is huge capital than can be used against the interests of the many.  Significantly, this was not Russia’s doing, but the very fact that the west was becoming increasingly comfortable with huge income disparities meant that the bankers and other players found it easy to miss the fact that the oligarchs in the Soviet successor states had amassed their fortunes not through careful building of market share and introduction of new products in a free market, but through arbitrage that was only possible because of the lack of transparency in their economies.  That wealth had to managed, and who could resist the temptation not to help these men and occasional women make use of their assets, and so we get Londynograd.  Moreover, it was not difficult to assuage any guilt through the profits one made, and by telling ourselves that this wealth was an aberration resulting from the transition, but that these fortunes, like those of the American robber barons a century before would dissipate in time.

That assumption rested on the notion that a new economic transparency would gradually take hold in the Soviet successor states.  It has not, and if that has not stopped a new entrepreneurial class from emerging, it is also evident that Putin has little interest in nurturing and broadening the middle class in a way where it can become more become a player in its own right.  For the denizens of the foreign policy elite, however, that has remained a minor matter, and this truth, as well as the effects Russian money was having on our allies, was ignored because other more pressing concerns elsewhere, particularly in the middle east were more pressing, and having Russia’s help was accepted as essential.  So we have coddled Putin, and been slow to recognize the extent that world order Putin has been pursuing is one aimed at aggrandizing Russian and complicate our ability to confront his aggression.  

If convincing our European allies to confront Putin is difficult now, one can only imagine what it would have been five or ten years from now had the Ukraine crisis not cropped up.  Now that the crisis has happened and it is clear that the assumptions made two decades ago have proven flawed, we should not run away from what we have discovered.  Rather the time has come to reexamine our real goals are in the post-post-cold war era, and how we can use the challenges presented today to forge a new long-term stability.  For to keep going and pretending that a shift has not taken place is actually likely to lead to an even greater disruption down the road.  So angry as they may be now, in five to ten years, I predict the realists and the rest of America’s foreign policy elite will be thanking Sikorski for his Ukrainian policy.  By pushing the association agreement with Ukraine, he has triggered events that have made it plain how false the post-cold war assumptions were.  In the meantime, we may hope that Ukraine will finally be able to break the cycle of corrupt oligarchic rule that has crippled its development so far.  If they succeed, we will not have helped the Ukrainians alone, Ukraine will become a model for Russians and Belarusians that there is a different way that will spread prosperity further, and that will only become more important as Putin and Belarus’s presidents get older and their infirmities cease to be the ones that can be managed with Botox, hair dye, and make-up.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Ongoing Disorientation Brought on by the Anxiety about What Will Come Next

This blog has fallen victim to the current state of uncertainty brought on by Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine and the ongoing question of whether Putin will intervene directly.  On the face of it, that ought not to be a big issue for a blogger writing some 7000 miles from the scene, especially one who tries not to traffic too much in speculation.  Yet, it is hard not to get away from how a sudden term of events gets in the way of the long-term.  A week ago, after giving considerable thought I was on the verge of writing a piece on the way so much of Ukraine's future depended not on Ukraine but on Putin with a comparison of Putin's current mode of governing with that of Slobodan Milosevic.  Then I came home Sunday afternoon to the alarming news about the seizures of buildings in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk.  Suddenly that was more important and I was following every moment and the scarce time I had to bang out the  planned Putin piece disappeared into thin air.  

I write this not just to justify the long gap between now and my last post, but to illustrate the broader impact of Putin’s current efforts to destabilize Ukraine.  For if a small time blogger far removed from the events is thrown of stride, it is not difficult to imagine how people and institutions in Ukraine are unsettled.  In the aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea I have heard reports of shortages of basic items like sugar and flour, as people stock up in case of a disruption of supply networks should full-fledged war break out.  The need to deal with the anti-government protests naturally also distracts the government as it attempts to implement changes that will reduce corruption and promote responsible economic development.  

More broadly, as instability lingers the perception that Ukraine cannot manage its affairs grows leading people in the west to thinking that supporting Ukraine may not be worth the effort.  Indeed, Ruslana Lyzychko, the pop singer and effective moral leader of the Euromaidan, expressed that concern following her trip to the US this week, and not without cause.  On Tuesday Rachel Maddow used the brawl between Svoboda and the Communists in parliament as a punchline to a brief exposition of disfunctional government in a way as to suggest that maybe between that brawl and events in the East Ukraine cannot really manage its own affairs.  She did not explain the context; however, like the fact that the Communists had a long codependent relationship with the corrupt Party of Regions party and will be luck to be represented after a new parliament is elected, and that that same fate may also await Svoboda. 

In the great scheme of things losing Maddow for a day is not a huge thing.  She may be MSNBC’s most popular presenter, but she is on cable, and so her audience is small.  Still, she is an important voice on the American left, which as noted previously has to sadly been a weak link in the chain regarding support for Ukraine, largely because of a combination of Russia’s effective use of buzz words like fascism and right-wing extremism combined with a general and understandable desire not to get too involved in someone else’s business, as well as the prominence of well-known left-leaning commentators like Stephen Cohen who talk authoritatively about Ukraine, whether or not they really are. That means that were she to take the lead in promoting informed discussion about Ukraine she could provide a valuable service, and I am not talking just about propaganda here in the pejorative sense, I mean providing useful information that could help her audience honestly assess the current situation.

A week or two ago, Maddow seemed on the verge of doing just that.  In one of her thoughtful meanderings that are part of her program she specifically referenced Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands as valuable for understanding the background. Yet, from my monitoring (and I must admit I cannot watch her everyday due to scheduling conflicts) she has not built on that by Snyder or other informed observers, leaving that to other less popular presenters like Lawrence McDonnell, although to my knowledge Snyder has yet to be brought on as a guest).  PBS has been better, and that same evening provided a much more thoughtful analysis, but I fear as we look at this as an issue defined by identifying with Russia v. identifying with Ukraine we lose sight of the deeper sources of instability, which is the threat the new government poses to the networks that have long profited from the corrupt environment that successive Ukrainian governments have allowed to flourish in the East.  As such a whole way of life is under threat, and while we who have been sympathetic to the Euromaidan see the new era as ushering in new long-term stability, the fact remains that those very advantages mean profound changes for how the economy in Eastern Ukraine works. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Twilight of Ethnonationalism?

For some reason, this took quite a while to get banged into shape, but as you can see, I have not ceased thinking about the situation in Ukraine.  

Ever since the Euromaidan began, Ukraine has been a giant social experiment, and for the most part results have been positive.  We have seen a people cowed by an increasingly authoritarian and mercurial government rise up on the principle that they are collectively responsible for the kind of state they live in.  Now thanks to Vladimir Putin, Ukraine has become ground zero for a new social experiment in which the relative effectiveness of two diametrically opposed conceptions of the nation are being tested: the völkisch ethno-nationalist vision Vladimir Putin has invoked to justify his decision to annex Crimea, which can easily be applied elsewhere, including Eastern Ukraine on the one hand, and the open, inclusive civic nationalism of symbolized by the the Maidan protests on the other. The stakes are huge.  If Putin succeeds in dividing Ukrainians along ethnic and linguistic grounds, we will likely be in for years of misery, and a return to civil war on the European continent.  Worse, it will destabilize the Baltic states, and Kazakhstan, and even perhaps Belarus, where Putin’s recent aggression has even begun to worry the Kremlin’s long-standing ally Aleksander Lukashenko.  If Ukraine survives intact save Russia’s de facto control of Crimea, then we can truly begin to speak of putting the darkness of Europe’s twentieth century behind us.

Twentieth century history tends to make the first and more pessimistic scenario seem more likely.  As conventional wisdom goes, the appeal to tribe is powerful and once unleashed inexorable.  Throughout the twentieth centuries from population exchanges of Greeks and Turks after at the end of WWI to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in east central Europe during and after WWII and occurred again in Yugoslavia, we have seen how escalating ethnic tensions create a logic of their own that countervailing tendencies like mixed marriages, inter-ethnic friendships, and cooperation on a local level become unable to resist.  This is the road to civil war, and unrest in the major eastern cities of Ukraine, like Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk it is all too plausible right now.  Never mind that there is increasing evidence that pro-Russian demonstrations in those cities are dependent on Russian agitators crossing the border, because what matters is not how divisiveness takes hold, but whether or not it takes hold.  If such provocations work, then they will have served their purpose and Putin will intervene.  Sadly even if the provocations do not work, and for the moment they do not seem to be, except in the now alternate universe of the Russian media, Ukrainians will not be able to rest easy.  For Putin and his media spin doctors have now created a worldview where the Russian soul can only be satisfied by redeeming Russians from foreign rule, which if repeated often enough in an environment where Putin has little option other than to attack Ukraine ostensibly to save Russians from fascists and divide the community after the fact as has happened in Crimea.  

Bleak as that possible future is, however, we should not resign ourselves to the notion that history will repeat itself. Indeed, far from marking the descent into the ugly narrative we know so well from the past century, Putin’s recent aggression may mark the bitter twilight of an awful era of European history in which nations were understood defined first and foremost by ethnicity, rather than shared political interests grounded in living within the same state. 

Nationalists think of nations as grounded in ancient ethnic bonds, but the reality is that our understanding of nations as political communities is modern, and the shape of nations determined more by states than ethnic ties.  Indeed, if we look around the world today, the reality is that all nations are heterogeneous, and most quite openly so precisely because it is understood that above all nations function to bind a political community.  While some nations feel compelled to sweep that diversity under the rug in the name of today national unity, the number of nations that are defined primarily by ethnicity is quite rare, otherwise, there would be thousands of them.  Yet, the dirty secret is that while the rhetoric of shared language and culture is what generally attracts people’s attention, even those ethnic nations owe their positions to the actions of states, are often seen as reflecting a distinct ethnic heritage. This insight also explains the curious concentration of ethnically defined nations in central, eastern, and southeastern Europe.  For in the nineteenth century when nations first began taking shape these regions were ruled by large empires, which were unable to establish cultural hegemony of the language of the state.  In the Balkans this can be traced back to the millet system the Ottoman state used to govern peoples according to their religion, something that was complicated further by the Orthodox Church’s support of local vernaculars.  Further north the key factor was the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

We will never know whether if left to its own devices, the Commonwealth would have cultivated a modern national identity that would have incorporated all the peoples living in the Commonwealth, whose descendants we today identify as Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Jews.  It certainly seems possible, as that is what their respective elites had already done.  We do know, however, is that all the partitioning powers found incorporating the Polish-speaking elites problematic.  As a linguistically largely homogenous state with a comparatively small number of Poles, Prussia and then Germany managed this reasonably well at least until the 1880s, but the Habsburg and Russian Empires both struggled to find a way to incorporate the Poles and bring them to accept the state language as their own.  As a result they each followed the path of divide and rule, recognizing other lesser nationalities to offset the prominence of the Poles.  In our modern world with its emphasis on diversity the path taken in Habsburg Austria were a multi-cultural society was emerging by fits and starts is particularly appealing and is destruction by World War I especially poignant.  In Russia, divide and rule politics proved sufficient to preserve Russian dominance until the crisis brought on by World War I.  Nonetheless, the old regime state provided enough nourishment to various nationalists that when the Bolsheviks took over Lenin too felt some kind of recognition was necessary.  Stalin aborted that project and revived the imperial order albeit without formally discontinuing the Soviet Union’s nominal national federal structure of Soviet Republics, Autonomous Republics, and Autonomous regions that nonetheless affirmed the mystical importance of nationality.  

No wonder that when that day came, there was grave concern that radical nationalists would be the great problem of post-Soviet space as they sought to assert control of ethnically diverse political communities in the name of titular nations.  In the case of Ukraine, independence did not lead to significant bloodshed until this year, but by no means did this naturally lead to the kind of inclusive understanding of identity that has been the hallmark of the Euromaidan protests.  The Soviet legacy was as engrained in Ukraine as any republic, perhaps more so given that the Ukrainian nationalist movements’ activities before and after WWII, and many of the problems still faced by Ukraine today, especially the sense of an east-west divide, can in part be traced back to the Soviet conception of nations first and foremost as cultural communities.  Thus, as the Soviet Union collapsed it was simply understood that now all people living in Ukraine should participate in that community by speaking the language of the titular nationality.  

Given that at the time of independence ethnic Ukrainians were by far the largest single ethnic group making up about 72%  of the population while the ethnic Russian minority was circa 20%, not including Russian-speaking Ukrainians or other minorities, 20% at the time of independence and no other group made up more than 1%, the expectation that all people learn Ukrainian may not seem unreasonable.  Nor was it perceived as such at the time of independence, whether out of naiveté or just out of shock. Still, that thinking almost immediately created a divide in the society between those, especially among the educated, who felt comfortable speaking Ukrainian and used it as their main language, and those who did not with a mild, though generally unspoken, aura of shame being associated with speaking Russian.  As a result, the former group became identified with being less Soviet, and often with the best of intentions felt it was their duty to evangelize Ukrainian identity among those who used Russian.  

No one likes to feel ashamed, especially when one feels one had done nothing wrong.  Nor did it help that the bulk of Ukrainian speakers came from the west of the country, which was seen as underdeveloped, and where the survival of Ukrainian was associated with deep-seeded resistance to the Soviet project, the very project people of the East attributed their economic status to. On that basis the very real differences between East and West solidified into the East-West political divide.  By 1994, frustration over the law making Ukrainian the only legal language was already and an issue, and would remain so through the 2010 presidential election, creating a distraction that the oligarchs used seize control of Ukrainian business.  

For all the inequities and criminal activity that accompanied Ukraine’s privatization, however, there was an upside to the emergence of the East-West divide. Too big, and its economy too diversified for one group to seize control, but not so large that total control was impossible, Ukraine’s political culture remained pluralist to an extent no found in any other Soviet successor state outside of the Baltic states.  That in turn nurtured a belief that elections should be free and fair, and that orderly transfers of power were possible, a point testified to by the 2004 Orange Revolution when outcry over rigged voting led to a rerun of the run-off election, and the subsequently smooth 2009-10 elections.  This condition lasted long enough that a generation of people have grown up in the east, west, north and south of the country with a connection to the Ukrainian state and be shaped by its institutions.  It also made the political systems people encountered when they went to Poland or countries in western Europe seem familiar, making comparisons between those countries and Ukraine’s progress seem more valid.  Thus they had taken Yanukovych’s promise to lead Ukraine into Europe as a dividend for his corruption, and they felt a responsibility to keep Ukraine on that track when Yanukovych decided to back out of the association agreement with the EU in November.   This sense of collective responsibility became even stronger following the government’s crackdown, and as has been noted time and again by commentators, the Euromaidan protests cut across lines that have so long been understood to divide Ukrainians.  Russian-speakers and Ukrainian speakers, West and East (even if the former was more widely represented at Independence Square in Kyiv), Jews and Gentiles, and even Muslims, not to mention all branches of the Orthodox faith.  

Putin, of course, seems to believe that this new unity of action can be sabotaged, and perhaps it can, but this suggests how little he understands what has been taking shape in Ukraine, even as he recognizes it poses a threat to his world.  He certainly did not understand it this fall and winter as he insisted on Yanukovych cracking down, and the power of the Maidan and Ukrainians’ belief in themselves has only gotten stronger now that they have overthrown Yanukovych and begun to organize to defend their country.  With the news in the south and east no longer run through the filter designed to promote Yanukovych and Putin the people are increasingly showing themselves to be ready and willing to firm for a united Ukraine.  If Putin knows what is good for him, he will leave things as they are. If he does attack Ukraine, he will bring on a bloody miserable guerilla war with brother Slavs he claims to be saving.  Then, the truth will slowly sink to undermine the lies of the official media, and bring him misery that will not be offset by the annexation of Crimea, or any other territories in Eastern Ukraine he might be able to bring under Russian control.  For the moment, however, we must watch and wait, to see what happens.  Perhaps a well placed bomb can create the discord Putin needs, but I am not betting on it, rather I’m betting on the power of shared political interest in a safe and open society reasonably free of corruption and Ukrainians’ will to work towards that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ukraine’s People and Military Model the Power of Resisting Violence

The more tense things become and the quicker events unfold in Ukraine the harder I find to sort out what is the information that non-specialists need analyzed.  This weekend saw me go from expecting a full-blown invasion after seemingly coordinated attacks on the regional government buildings in Kharkiv and Donetsk on Saturday following similar attacks in Crimea the day before, to breathing a sigh of relief that these events did not get the kind of support Putin may have expected.  Sunday’s protests in Russia against intervention, and not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, were also heartening, for though they were small and some were arrested, they were more in line with popular opinion than the pro-intervention counter-demonstrations.  We know this because a poll released Monday indicated that 73% of Russians opposed intervention. Couple that with far less support for Russian protection coming from Ukrainians, and a more robust response from the rest of the world and Putin has been forced slow down and pretend that nothing bigger was in the works.

My first inclination was to frame this information in a treatment of Putin, but others have done that well, and one more column describing how Putin has boxed himself in will not make it even more true than it already is.  Instead, I think praise is in order to the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military and the new Ukrainian military.  Ukraine has no Gandhi or Martin Luther King, no prophet of civil disobedience and non-violence, and yet the strength of the Maidan was its peacefulness in the face of persistent provocation.  Nonetheless, there was a recognition by people with limited training in such things that concerted non-violence had to be disciplined and was essential because resorting to violence would provide justification for a crackdown.  Indeed, arguably the violence resistance that began on 19 January ultimately did provide justification for the crackdown that cost about 100 lives, although, I think it is clear that by 18 January Yanukovych would have used violence on regardless.  Further, we should not that when some finally succumbed to the temptation of violence in January, it came at a time when Yanukovych had tacitly admitted his weakness by not carrying out an all out crackdown on the peaceful demonstration.  

Throughout that struggle Ukrainian protestors had a largely unseen ally in the Ukrainian army, which consistently refused to side with Yanukovych and go against their own people.  Perhaps that reflects training Ukrainian officers have received via the NATO sponsored Partners for Peace program, or perhaps it simply reflected the awareness that the army itself was a fragile institution, and the realization that even attempting to carry out Yanukovych’s orders would not just break the army, but insure a civil war as brigades split up under the strain of being asked to follow commands that not all were prepared to obey.  In time, we may get more insight about what motivated the Ukrainian military command to act as they did, but in the meantime, they and their soldiers have garnered further reason for praise by remaining largely loyal to Ukraine.  This cannot be easy.  They know if fighting breaks out they will lose, and they are not well paid, indeed the one major defector, the newly appointed commander of the Ukrainian Black Sea fleet, allegedly appealed to his underlings to follow him on the basis that they would be paid better.  Yet, they have chosen to stand firm prepared to die, and defend themselves and their country if Russia opens fire.  At the same time, their awareness of the dangers of escalating events by firing the first shot is clear, and their discipline is to be lauded, as should the new Ukrainian government’s commitment to that strategy, and this is understood by the Ukrainian people as a whole.  Strikingly, the Right Sektor military group who were at the forefront of violent resistance to the Yanukovych regime have declared that they will not go to Crimea, a sign that they fully recognize the danger their presence so near Russian troops might pose to their country.  

At this point I think it is clear only Putin and his allies in the Kremlin really wants war.  The question is whether he can create a reason to justify it.  So far thanks to Ukrainian resolve, that has not yet happened, and woe to him if he manages to manufacture his justification.  Still for now though we are on pins and needles, but for Ukrainians and the world Ukraine is definitely not dead yet.  Mr. Putin you have been warned.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Understanding the Real Revolution: Yulia Tymoshenko and the Future of Ukraine

People seem to breathing easier in Ukraine.  While in some places like the Crimea and Kharkiv there is still some resistance to the new order, even die-hard supporters of the regime are now reasserting their commitment to the territorial integrity of the country. Yet in the eyes of many protestors, this revolution is only partly done.  While the corrupt and murderous Yanukovych is gone, the entire political class that includes both the former supporters of Yanukovych in the Party of Regions and the opposition parties now need to come to terms with the fact that the people did not stage this revolution simply to replace one leader with another.  The past three months have been and, likely for quite a while yet, will continue to be about Ukrainians demanding that they be treated as citizens rather than subjects.  

It was the centrality of this change that frustrated specialists as they followed the limited coverage of the events and in the Western media with its focus on dramatic moments that were, at least until the past few days, of limited relevance to the key developments of the protests.  Not that there weren’t images that did not reach the public consciousness.  The piano player on the Maidan did get noticed, but that only caught a glimpse of what was going on, which was the breaking down of a post-Soviet mindset and the forging of civil society.  In a certain respect this was also the rediscovery of ethical thinking and action, something that church leaders were quick to pick up on.  It is not that Ukrainians were not religious before, but the religion as it was practiced in most cases took a rather atomized form, a legacy of decades of repression.  

Admittedly such things are hard to capture in a soundbite, or even through an anecdotal reportage, because the extent of the attitudinal changes is not easily measured by one event or an interview or two.  Pictures can do somewhat better.  The pictures of the masses of people who converged more than once to the Maidan caught the fact that people cared about how the government’s use of violence to suppress dissent, as did the pictures of the fighters on Hrushevsky Street, but even these did not to mind convey the connection between people that has been developing.  In that respect, the exception for me was a picture of people standing on the tracks in Dnipropetrovsk to prevent a train full of riot police and civilian thugs from moving.  It is all the more meaningful because support for the Maidan came slowly in Dnipropetrovsk, and was only galvanized after the riot police and thugs in civilian dress attacked protestors in January.  

The best evidence of this revolution in how Ukrainians think about their relationship between themselves and their government has been the response to the release of Yulia Tymoshenko.  In the west Tymoshenko is known as the beautiful politician with the braids wrapped over the top of her head, who was the most visible force during the Orange Revolution almost ten years ago and since 2011 has been imprisoned following a conviction on corruption charges.  While there is no doubt this was a highly selective prosecution, Tymoshenko is no Aung San Suu Kyi, and is probably better compared to the late Benazir Bhutto, who was likewise a talented populist whose reputation is sullied by corruption. In Tymoshenko's case that includes her close association with Ukraine’s former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, and her accumulation of a vast fortune while heading a gas monopoly using the same combination of connections and lack of transparency used by other oligarchs.

Ironically, a decade ago that past and her populist skills made her an appealing political figure.  Then there was virtually no way to be politically consequential without being well connected to the business interests which had emerged as the old Soviet regime collapsed, and having been on the losing side of the battle between the so-called Dnipropetrovsk and the Donetsk clan, she not only had an axe to grind, but she had some ideas where the bodies lay, and understood the centrality to the secret deals in the gas industry to the rapid growth of oligarchs.  Put that together with an unmatched talent to speak to the people that was on display during the Orange Revolution, and her popularity was understandable.  What is more her 2009 deal with Russia, was actually transparent and helped expose the oligarch and Yanukovych backer Dmytryi Firtash as someone making money off the Ukrainian people.  Yet, the situation is different now, and were Ukrainians to see Tymoshenko as their political saviour they would be taking a huge step back, because were Tymoshenko to return, so too would the ugly pattern of politics driven solely by elite interests and kompromat, the compromising material that all the political elites had access to and used to protect their interests and reshape political alliances.  Further, Tymoshenko’s return would be the best way to confirm the Russian view that the past three months were all part of a plot orchestrated by the U.S. and the EU to replace Yanukovych with their own pawn. 

Fortunately, the protestors of the Maidan saw this.  They recognized the symbolic relevance of Tymoshenko’s release, but that was it.  Crowds did not shout out calling for her to take the reigns of power.  Rather, very quickly the talk was that people had not given their lives to install Yulia as president, and the clever poster-makers who have been an important part of the revolution were quick to make their contribution to spreading that word.  

Caption:  People did not die for this.

This skepticism, and its breadth among Ukrainians is true sign of the changes that have happened in Ukraine, and now after three months of persistently running behind the protestors at the Maidan, it is time for the established politicians do their part and recognize that they are no longer administrators of elite expectations they are observers of the people.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Pace Quickens and Desperation Appears on the Increase

With due respect to the more than 100 people who have been killed of the past seventy-two hours, the events in Ukraine have taken on the quality of a gangster film at the point where the gangster is on the run and tension builds as his options narrowing rapidly and his desperation increases.  It will not be over until its over, but there are a few points that deserve note as we prepare for tomorrow.  

Today’s extraordinary session of parliament was a landmark.  In effect, as of today, Ukraine once again has something resembling a functioning parliament for the first time since 2010, even if nearly half its deputies were absent.  The question is how Yanukovych and other sectors of government will react to this?  Right now I place odds on the fact he will try to ignore them, and hopes that the army will finally see things his way.  As I write, the deputy chief of staff has resigned upset at Yanukovych’s efforts to draw the military into the conflict.  I applaud him for showing junior officers that they have an alternative to following illegal orders. (Incidentally, it is also worth noting that many of the officers have, thanks to the Partner for Peace program which emphasizes things like proper relations between the military and the civilian authorities and not following illegal orders.)  So we shall see how they stand up to increasing pressure from Yanukovych, right now based on experience so far just as I would put odds on Yanukovych trying to get the army to attack the protestors, I would put odds on the military finding ways to avoid doing so.

If the big question remains whether Yanukovych can draw the army into the conflict, there are two things to look for to judge where he stands or thinks he stands.  The first is who shows up to parliament tomorrow.  It was in the interest of Yankovych loyalists in the Party of Regions and Communists not to show up today in the hopes that they could prevent a quorum from being reached.  They failed, but if they come running back in large numbers tomorrow and try to reassert their authority, or to be more precise return toe parliament to irrelevance, then we know that Yanukovych still thinks he can shape events in the realm of conventional politics, which is not to suggest he would stop with that.  If the PR and Communist deputies are back, it will also mean that the rumors about large numbers of deputies leaving the country are false.  If, on the other hand, they do not return, it suggests that Yanukovych has lost his hold on them, and that in the way of criminals they are now busy saving their own skin.  Given multiple reports from everyday people that people in Mercedes are at Kiev's secondary airport, I think the latter is more likely than the former.

Second, if snipers return to attacking the protestors,  but nothing more drastic ensues, it likely means that Yanukovych is again trying to buy time and/or provoke the protestors into some kind of violence that he can claim represents terrorism, but has otherwise run out of ideas other than using terror himself, which, as we see, has not deterred the protestors. Regarding the snipers, one more point seems worth noting.  The mayhem caused by them has been terrible, but the cost of human lives today is nowhere what it would be the internal forces deployed a machine gun or two.  Some of my fellow experts disagree with me on this, but I see this as a sign that even among the ostensibly loyal internal forces there is a reluctance to use lethal force in the scale that could resolve the Maidan situation quickly. 

Beyond that we shall see.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again: The situation in Ukraine as of 7 pm (Ukrainian time) 18 February 2014

On Saturday news came that the protestors on the Maidan were ending their occupation of the Kyiv City Council building and that even Pravyi Sektor was dismantling some of their barricades such that Hrushevsky Street would be passable.  All this was part of a deal that would lead to the release of activists who have been detained by the authorities since 30 November 2013.  For this observer sitting some 5000 miles away, it was a hard to believe.  On previous occasions when the opposition had brought back news that an amnesty had been arranged, they had been booed and the protestors on the Maidan had not gone along.  Why had they gone along now?  Was this part of a much larger back room deal being quietly brokered that would lead to more dramatic announcements in the days to come?  Or was this just another just ploy to throw the protestors off guard, and were they just too tired to say no? 

We got our answer today, and all optimism that there were serious divisions in the Party of Regions, and that moderates would lead Ukraine out of its crisis by breaking entirely with Yanukovych has been dashed. Perhaps such people really do exist, although I am doubtful, but if they do they have been outmaneuvered by hardliners and Putin who created conditions that led to today’s violence.  I am writing today before the dust has settled, and so I will not speculate on who escalated to violence first, but the reported deployment of snipers on the roofs of buildings in the government district does not fit with the spirit inherent in an amnesty agreement.  At the same time, with the report today that Russia has agreed to release an additional 2 billion dollars of loans he had offered Yanukovych in December, we see who is the real provocateur in the Ukrainian crisis.  

Were the negotiations that led to the amnesty agreement, a manipulation by Yanukovych, or were they real and was Putin just so overcome by his imperial ambitions that he decided to throw good money after bad?   Only they know right now, and it really doesn’t matter. what does is that the traditional Ukrainian opposition, the U.S., and the EU all look stupid today.  They, in the end will be forgiven, but the same cannot be said for Yanukovych or Putin.  

Putin, of course, does not need to worry right now about being removed from power, but  it is very hard to see this ending well for Yanukovych.  If, as has happened on all previous occasions, the internal forces and Berkut are unable to clear the Maidan, the additional 2 Billion dollar loans will do little to restore his authority. The negotiations between the government and the opposition will continue tomorrow as scheduled, except Yanukovych will look weaker than ever, and his chances of getting yet another infusion of cash from Putin will be diminished further.  If forces loyal to Yanukovych do succeed in clearing the Maidan, however, his future does not look much better.  The more violent the clearing is, the worse he will look in the eyes of Ukrainians, and as such the violence will feed more demonstrations, even in the East.  Moreover, clearing the Maidan is a very different thing from reasserting control of the country, especially in the West of the country where his authority has been totally rejected.

There has been increasing anxiety about a civil war, and today’s events have done nothing to allay the fear that Ukrainians see no other way out than the destructive all or nothing option of war.  That said, there are reasons to believe that the clearing of the Maidan, if successful, will not push the country into civil war.  Here we can all be thankful that the regular army has refused to take sides or given any sign that it would allow either side to gain access to its weapons.  That, along with the the salient fact that people in Western Ukraine are not advocating separatism means that the comparisons with Yugoslavia circa 1990 are limited.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the current situation will continue to obtain and prevent a civil war, especially if Yanukoych decides to reassert control of Western Ukraine, but he would be a fool or desperate to do so before he has a firmer grip on the rest of the country, and that seems unlikely in the short-term.  The Euromaidan protestors have shown themselves to be amazingly creative in finding ways to carry on their protests, and damaging as the loss of the Maidan would be, new kinds of protests will appear that will keep Yanukovych scrambling.  For now though, we will have to see how events unfold in Ukraine during the next few hours and days. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Where Things Stand as of 11 February 2014: The Significance of the Leak of Asst. Sec. Victoria Nuland’s Conversation

It has been nearly two weeks since I have checked in here.  Like everyone else I have been continuing to wait for something to happen,  With no further progress on a negotiated solution the big question on people’s minds is what Putin will do after Sochi is over, and while I remain skeptical that Putin will intervene militarily, I see no need waste ink on more speculation.

Thus, the most substantive event as far as the news cycle has been was the leak to Youtube of the private conversation between Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State, and the Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador, where they were talking strategy.  My initial impulse was not to comment on it, because, apart from the unwise wording regarding the EU, what I heard showed my tax dollars well spent.  The assessments Nuland and Pyatt made about the main opposition figures was accurate and corresponded to informed opinion among Ukrainians.  Nonetheless, the conversation has clearly raised alarm bells among people sincerely concerned that the U.S. is trying to manipulate events so some explanation seems appropriate.

First, as for the posting of the conversation, it was clearly calculated to do two things: 1) drive a wedge between the US and the EU, and 2) provide evidence to those inclined to distrust US that the Euromaidan protests are illegitimate and essentially part of a western plot to upend the eternally friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine.  Regarding the first point, the leak heartened me, because it suggested to me that, if as assumed Russia was behind the post, it suggested that Russian intentions in Ukraine were limited.  After all, the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, is likely well aware that a direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces would quickly trump the anger generated by the leak, so its effectiveness as a vehicle to sow discord between the US and the EU depends on Russia not getting overtly involved in Ukraine’s affairs.

Regarding the second, I doubt the leak has changed many minds in Ukraine or Russia. Based on how Russian media has portrayed events in Ukraine, the conversation simply confirmed what Russians already believed, and the same is true in Ukraine, except that most Ukrainians know enough not to believe that the Euromaidan is some kind of foreign intervention.  Likewise, in the west the leak appears to have had the most impact among people who were already suspicious of American foreign policy, often for good reason.  Certainly, hearing the strategizing about which opposition figure should enter a new government through roundtable talks does sound like Nuland and Pyatt are picking winners and losers, which they are, but not necessarily against the will of the Ukrainian people, assuming Ukrainians supporting the Euromaidan were to embrace a roundtable agreement.  

So what does it mean when Nuland and Pyatt say that only Yatseniuk (called Yats in the conversation) should go into a government and that Klychko (called Klych in the conversation)?  First, let us be clear this talk assumes that the new government would continue to operate with Yanukovych still in office as president, an arrangement that can only be accepted with a return to the Constitution of 2004 that limited the role of the president in order.  It is not attempting to remove Klychko from the scene.  Indeed having Yatseniuk as the only opposition leader in the transitional government would keep Klychko’s hands clean.  This would put him in a position where he could run against Yatseniuk in the 2015 elections claiming that Yatseniuk had sold out by cooperating with Yanukovych.  By contrast, insisting that Klychko take a position in any government would put him and Yatseniuk and a relatively even playing field. That might sound like the fairer thing to do, but it would also create conditions where the opposition vote would be more likely to split creating a means for Yanukovych, or his chosen Party of Regions successor to stage a comeback.  Whether Tyahnybok is included in the transitional government is less important, since he does not have a sufficient base in the East to run and win.

So does Nuland and Pyatt’s strategizing run against the interests of the Ukrainian people?  I think not.  At the start of the protests, Yatseniuk and Klychko were arguably on a level playing field for credible leader of an all-Ukrainian opposition.   Neither rose to the occasion in the way that Yulia Tymoshenko did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, however, but Yatseniuk has shown himself somewhat more tone-deaf to the mood of the Maidan than Klychko.  So even though Yatseniuk’s stock has risen some in polls about a prospective raise between him and Yanukovych, which at this point show that even Tyahnybok could win against a match up with Yanukovych, Klychko would still do even better.  Nonetheless, Yatseniuk has much more parliamentary experience and on that basis would likely be the more effective prime minister in the near term.  Further, if the balance of power between the President and Prime Minister return to what they were according to 2004 an electoral agreement where Yatseniuk backed Klychko for president in exchange for carrying on in the office of prime minister would hardly write Yatseniuk out of political power.  Whether the two men trust each other enough to do that is uncertain; although, current evidence suggests they do not.

If there is a weakness in Nuland and Pyatt’s thinking it is the failure to take the Euromaidan protestors into account.  While most Euromaidan activists recognize the need for some kind of negotiated agreement, and recognize that they have to live with the political establishment they have, they have their own goals -- not just the change of government but moves towards making Ukraine “a normal country.,” i.e. one where oligarchs do not have so much power and corruption is greatly reduced.  Sadly, when the Maidan chose representatives to meet with the government none of the leading activists several weeks ago, the opposition leadership managed to control the nominations in ways that excluded any of the Euromaidan’s leaders, of whom there were several possible candidates.  That has meant that when negotiating with Yanukovych they do so without someone to remind them of the mood on the Maidan, something that helped contribute to the outbreake of violence on 19 January.  If I were Nuland and Pyatt, I would be working on convincing the opposition to bring on one of the Euromaidan leaders, who could help smooth the way for a deal to be approved by the increasingly radicalized Euromaidan.  The last thing we need is for a reasonable deal to be reached that militant elements on the Maidan, like Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) which is at the forefront of the fighting on Hrushevskyi Street, reject with the support of other members of the Maidan. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Breakdown of the Soviet System with a Capitalist Face in Ukraine

Most people in the U.S. first became aware that something was going on when the statue of Lenin was torn down at Bessarabs`kyi Square.  Sadly, journalists who covered that event did not answer the question that many Americans were probably wondering about as they heard the news:  if Ukraine has been independent for more than twenty years and has already had one revolution, what was Lenin still doing up there anyway?  I know journalism is about news, but really it is about answering people’s questions about current events, and since many of the journalists were probably wondering the same thing it would have been nice had they shared what they learned with viewers.  I raise this not to snipe at journalists, even though coverage of Ukraine has been so lousy but because that question gets at the heart of the broader context that led to the Euromaidan revolution.  

So to all who have been wondering about that Lenin statue’s survival until 2013, it lasted because bold as Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 was, it was not a revolutionary act.  Rather, it was driven by discontent with the major economic reform Gorbachev was then preparing to introduce, and national sovereignty was used as a justification by the Ukrainian Party elite to retain power.  That path to independence has largely shaped Ukraine’s political and economic development since, and explains why the Orange Revolution brought so little change, for even as people sincerely lined up on different sides in 2004, the underlying issue was which faction of the post-Soviet elite would wield power.  What became clear after the Orange Revolution, however, is that the interconnections with the elite where stronger than the will for reform.  

Those, including the much of the Western media, who have chosen to view current events through the prism of the Orange Revolution are, however, sadly mistaken.  From the beginning observers have noted that the Euromaidan demonstrations are not about exchanging one political elite for another, they are about a reshaping the relationship between the government and the governed.  As such, it reflects a revolution that has taken place in Ukrainian society that began but did not end with the Orange Revolution. Moreover, the fact that the protests have remained strong despite repeated government efforts to bring Euromaidan to heel speaks for a new maturity of post-Soviet Ukrainian society, and shows that the Soviet system with a capitalist face that has prevailed in Ukraine for the past two decades appears to have lost its legitimacy.

To be sure, that change is most evident in the west where the Party of Regions, which for all intents and purposes is the functional, if not legal, successor of the Communist Party, has never been a political power.  Yet, the coventional treament of the East-West divide misses the point that even in the east and south of the country the legitimacy of the Soviet system with a capitalist face has broken down under Yanukovych’s rule.  Until recently seeing no credible alternative people there have accepted the leading role of the Party of Regions.  During the 2004 Orange Revolution and again in 2010 and 2012, people there voted for Yanukovych expecting that he would deal with the considerable unemployment there, and encourage the oligarchs to modernize the heavy industry in their control in ways that would improve the economy and spread the wealth.  Yet, Yanukovych did not do that, and Ukrainians in the East have seen their image of the local boy made good after a rough start completely sullied, as he has neglected them leaving their situations have remained unchanged, while his family has in the space of three years joined the oligarch class through legitimate source other than connections.

Of course, thanks to Yanukovych’s strong-arm tactics, people in the East still have no credible alternative to the Party of Regions, but contrary to the usual western portrayals they are not sheep.  Last weekend spurred on by the sudden passage of laws restricting protests, significant numbers of protestors gathered in many eastern cities threatening to take over regional government offices, just as their fellow citizens had done in the West.  Compared to the numbers active in the west their numbers were modest, but rather than demonstrate a sense of moderation on its own turf, the leadership showed its fear and its belief that it is as above the law.  In Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhe, the Berkut riot police cooperated with hired thugs dressed in sport outfits, who used the Berkut lines to run hit and run attacks on the protestors.   One commentator, has described this as affecting people in Dnipropetrovsk in a similar way that the original 30 November beatings at the Maidan in Kiev had on people in central and western Ukraine.  

Of course, many of the protestors have been arrested, but the people will not forget this, and regional officials are clearly running scared.  In Luhans`k, Mykolaiev, Kherson, Odessa, Kharkiv and Donets`k, the Party of Regions run administrations have barricaded themselves into their buildings in preparation for attacks from Banderists (a reference to the Ukrainian Insurgent leader, Stepan Bandera whose followers fought against the Soviet regime during and after World War II).  Governments confident in the support of the people just do not do that, and it cannot help but spur a sense among more previously passive locals that the Party of Regions grip on power is far weaker than they had believed.  That does not mean there is a credible alternative, but it may well embolden people to act and create one in the process.

We are nowhere near the end of the crisis in Ukraine, but anyone who wants to establish a long-term solution will have to do more than just restore order.  They will have to offer a new political and economic ideas that will provide solutions to the problems that the cooperation between Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite and the oligarchs who have manifestly failed to resolve.