Ukraine staying put
President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine must have thought he was opting for an easier life when he decided last week to renege on his decision to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Staying connected to the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union had seemed a better choice. Ukraine is the second-largest Slavic-Orthodox state after Russia, and Russians have long looked to Kiev for the eleventh-century origins of their state and religion.
The late American scholar Samuel Huntington called the former Soviet Union, with some other Eastern Slavic states, an “Orthodox civilization.” President Yanukovich must have thought he had avoided a clash with the West, which is, in Huntington’s view, quite a different civilization.
It seemed economically safer too. Ukraine’s creaking industry and infrastructure, its often-opaque banking system and its rudimentary service sector would have been a massive undertaking in moving toward European norms.
If it was a safer choice, it was taken under duress. Russia doesn’t do soft power. It shook a big stick of trade embargoes and steep energy price increases, which “would have crippled and possibly crushed a Ukrainian economy only three weeks away from insolvency,” as James Sherr of the Russia and Eurasia Program put it.
Russia’s was a threat of immediate disaster. By contrast, the EU’s proposed agreement involved a long, slow and arduous rise to meeting European standards, with many bankruptcies, tens of thousands of unemployed Ukrainians and hard winters ahead. The government of Ukraine calculated that its severely depleted stock of political capital would not survive the disillusionment that would result when the costs of the transition were made evident.
But Ukraine is a schizophrenic country, divided between those who envision a European future (typically, but not exclusively those in West Ukraine) , and those (mainly in the East) who wish to remain close to Russia. Polls presently show that the former are more numerous. Some 50 percent of Ukrainians favor a European future, while around 30 percent say they want to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence and maintain a connection to their biggest customer.
It was the pro-Europeans who started the protests last week with large, peaceful demonstrations. Participants bore placards demanding that Yanukovich revert to his original plan to connect with the EU. But the temper of the protests changed near the end of the week. They became more violent, expressing not just a pro-European sentiment, but a stronger anti-regime anger.
The Yanukovich regime is a kleptocratic one. In a country ranked 144 of 176 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index, “the family” — as the group around Yanukovich is known — is said to either control or intervene in all business of any significance, and to ensure that business leaders are allied with the group. But now that grip may be loosening. The oligarch Dmytro Firtash, once a firm backer of Yanukovich, has in the past week swung his Inter TV channel — Ukraine’s most popular — toward the opposition, giving blanket coverage to the police violence that occurred this past weekend.
Several MPs resigned from Yanukovich’s “Party of the Regions.” They were influenced, like Firtash, by the widespread condemnation of the violence loosed against the demonstrators. Soon, the slide may become a rout. There isn’t much Russia can do to keep a government it wishes to keep as a vassal from crumbling.
Crumbling, to be sure, isn’t necessarily a prelude to democratic renewal. The last decade should have taught us this, at least. In the two great Slavic states of Russia and Ukraine, democracy had barely ever existed. The rulers of both countries observe forms of democracy, but they do not believe in it. They each see it as a kind of necessary hypocrisy both at home and abroad.
The people of Ukraine, lacking a history or a contemporary experience of the exercise of democratic choices, confuse emotional and idealistic impulses with political ones. To prefer a European alignment to a Russian one is, as the Russian analyst Vladimir Nikitin put it, “akin to a slum dweller (choosing) the Ritz over a slightly bigger cardboard box.” That is, many will have chosen the hope of a better material life — a prospect that can only materialize after long years of hard work and many painful reforms. The opposition in parliament, which failed to carry a no confidence motion on Tuesday this week, has little public trust.
The American analyst Thomas Carothers stripped away the optimism of the 90s that saw democracy spreading inexorably in post-Socialist areas. In an influential essay in 2002, he said that, insofar as there were transitions in the former USSR, Eastern Europe, and other regions around the globe, they were often not to democracy. Instead, countries got stuck in a grey zone that varied from a state with limited freedoms, to authoritarianism worse than before, as in Central Asia. The recent collapse of the “Arab Spring,” with its hopes for the creation of empowered people, emphasizes this point — most dramatically in the war zone of Syria.
The authoritarians seem to be winning. For all the warnings of economic overheating and ignoring the democratic yearnings of the population in China, communism under Xi Jinping still appears capable of renewal. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was named the world’s most powerful leader by Forbes for his control over his country’s politics, his neutralizing of his opponents and his mastery of the Syrian chess board. Now Putin has demonstrated a secure grip on Ukraine — a country whose people he, along with many Russians, regards as “nashi” — ours.
The defeat of Europe’s hopes for what would have been a great prize in the East adds to a dismal season for the world’s largest democracies. The continued economic, political and diplomatic stagnation in the European Union, the weakness of the U.S. presidency and faltering growth in India are a poor backdrop for the protests in Kiev.
But Europe’s soft power exercises more energy on the streets of Ukraine’s cities than the continued rule of the Yanukovich Administration, which human rights group Freedom House says erodes basic freedoms and increases corruption. It is not difficult to see in the preference for the EU — with all of its problems — a yearning for a more secure civic life; one not open to the actions of an arbitrary and unaccountable regime. It’s not difficult to hope that, fitfully, the countries like Ukraine that still may emerge from the rubble of the Soviet Union have it in them to create the governance structure for such a life.
PHOTO: People supporting EU integration attend a rally in Kiev, December 2, 2013 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich