Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ukraine: murky moral terrain indeed

I'm sure many readers have been following developments in the Ukraine with interest.  The latest seems to be that the pro-European demonstrators have driven the pro-Russian President out of the capital.  He's taken refuge in his political stronghold, from where he's probably going to threaten all sorts of nastiness.  The possibility of civil war is very real (that is, if you don't think what's been happening all last week already qualifies as civil war).

Trouble is, both sides in this dispute have issues that make the situation less than clear-cut.  Both are trying to impose their will on the other.  There's no clear national consensus in the Ukraine about the future;  just an equally divided nation that can't make up its collective mind.  That goes all the way back to early Communist times.  Most ethnic Ukrainians have never forgotten (nor forgiven) the Holodomor, the deliberate starving to death of millions of their countrymen under Stalin.  Partly as a result of that massacre, millions of Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi invaders as liberators during World War II, and rejoiced as they drove out the Communists.  There were even enough Ukrainian volunteers to form an ethnic Waffen SS division.  However, Nazi racial policy led to atrocities in Ukraine, compounded by horrendous reprisals as Soviet forces regained control of the territory in 1944.  The territory's infrastructure was almost completely destroyed.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union followed a deliberate policy of settling ethnic Russians in western Ukraine as a way to dilute nationalist sentiment there.  Heavy industry was developed in that region as well, particularly military production facilities.  In the eastern part of the territory, ethnic Ukrainians continued to dominate, along with others from eastern European cultures such as Poland, Galicia, etc.  This divide is what's visible today in the fighting in Ukraine;  the western parts of the state are pro-European, while the eastern parts are heavily pro-Russian.

Unfortunately, under Communism a small technocratic elite developed who basically ran the nation under orders from Moscow, and received privileges and benefits in return for their co-operation and acquiescence.  That elite fractured with the coming of independence, some trying to run things in a pro-Western way, others trying to do the same in a pro-Russian way.  They're still at it.  The current President is a pro-Moscow technocrat.  The woman who looks set to replace him (at least temporarily) is a pro-European technocrat.  I'm not sure either is particularly competent, or particularly worthwhile as a ruler.  The ordinary man and woman in the street is probably regarded as 'cannon fodder' by both sets of technocrats - tools to be used, then discarded and ignored.  That's why electoral violence has been endemic in Ukraine for the last decade or more.  The people don't want to be discarded or ignored, but they can't find leaders who'll take that to heart.

Of course, there's more to it than simply ethnic loyalties and alliances.  Although I disagree with her dismissal of ethnic factors in the conflict, the Telegraph's Anne Applebaum makes a strong case for her analysis.

Appearances to the contrary, the conflict we are witnessing is not an atavistic, ethno-linguistic struggle between Russians and Ukrainians, or some kind of tussle between street thugs and police. There are no ancient ethnic rivalries at stake.

It is not even clear that the Ukrainian political struggle is really just a geographic dispute, as it is so often characterised, between the more “European” western half of the country and the more “Russian” East.

On the contrary, this is a political conflict, and one which is not that hard to understand. On the one side are Ukrainians (both Russian and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a “European” democracy with human rights and rule of law, one which is genuinely integrated with the European Union and the rest of the world. The supporters of this “European” option include students, pacifists, gay and environmental activists, as well as Right-wing nationalists and people motivated by memories of the terrible crimes that Stalin carried out in Ukraine 80 years ago.

On the other side are Ukrainians (also both Russian and Ukrainian-speaking) who support an undemocratic, oligarchic regime which is politically and economically dependent on Russia, more cut off from the European Union, and affiliated instead with the customs union controlled from Moscow.

Some of this regime’s supporters are the tiny elite who have made such massive profits from Ukrainian corruption, and who have famously purchased some of London’s most expensive homes (and, if rumours are correct, may have rapidly taken up residence in them this week).

Others without such wealth may fear the violent extremists they have seen on the television news, and the forces of general disorder. Still others may fear that even a trade agreement with Europe would entail deep reforms and economic changes, threatening their jobs.

Either way, this is not a fight over which language to speak or even over who controls Kiev’s main square. Historical allegiances are not an issue, either. Though both get bandied about, neither the word “fascist” nor the word “communist” is correctly applied to either side.

On the contrary, the fighting on the street this week was the latest manifestation of a deep national disagreement over the nature of the Ukrainian state, the shape of Ukraine’s economy, the status of the legal system, the country’s membership of international organisations. This is a legitimate political argument, and ultimately it can only have a political solution.

There's more at the link.  Worthwhile reading.

By all means, let's keep the people of Ukraine in our thoughts and prayers.  They're going through hell over there, and there's no guarantee this won't slip into full-scale civil war (or, worse, military intervention by Russia, which would destroy all hope of Ukrainian unity for generations to come).  That, in turn, might drag Europe and Russia to the brink of a conflict that can have no winners in the long term.



Tailwind said...

"... and ultimately it can only have a political solution." Highly doubtful but spoken like a true technocrat herself.

The level of violence already suggests this has moved beyond a political solution and is heading in a arguably more severe direction. One that will only be resolved with violent revolution and one the US should pay careful attention to for it might(?)be in our future too.

Larry said...

My sense is that Ukraine is really no more of a nation than Yugoslavia or Iraq. It's really a mish-mash of peoples and identities forced together in a kind of shotgun wedding. A break-up may be in the future, and how violent it becomes probably mostly depends on what Putin would be happy with. Would he be satisfied with an East Ukraine (with most of the resources and heavy industry) closely aligned with or even incorporated into Russia, with an EU-aligned West Ukraine? He might even like that, saddling the EU with another economic basket-case and letting them absorb most of the malcontents, while aiming to regain effective control in the future.

At least in eastern Ukraine, statues of Lenin are being pulled down all over the place. That's generally a good sign. Now if only Seattle would get rid of their's...