Thoughts from Kyiv – 13.04.2014

Apr 14th, 2014 | By | Category: In Depth, Opinion, Politics, Russia, Ukraine

According to Eastern Rite tradition, the dead are mourned for 40 days. Although deaths are commemorated annually thereafter, after forty days, the lives of survivors are expected to continue. Sunday 31 March happened to be the 40th day after the Yanukovych regime’s sniper safari of Maidan protesters on 20 February. For better or worse, I will consider this day to have been the final day of phase 2 of Ukraine’s revolution:

Phase 1 – Nov 21 to Dec 1 = 10 days of Euromaidan;

Phase 2 – Dec 1 to March 31 = 120 days of Revolution of Dignity.

Phase 3 – Systemic change: has now begun in earnest with the launch of the Presidential campaign, and certainly, there will be many pitfalls before this phase is over (it will likely last until the end of 2014). Now seems a good time to take stock of where we are, and what Phase 3 is likely to be all about.

I stress: Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity ended 2 weeks ago. Regardless of what the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would have the world believe, events in Crimea (which began on February 27), and in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts (ongoing) are not directly related to the strictly domestic agenda of the protest movement that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from the Presidency. Russia’s intervention into Ukraine should be treated/analyzed separately. As several observers have noted, although television images broadcast from the separatist demonstrations in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts seem similar to those of Kyiv’s Maidan (e.g. protesters in masks, burning tires, barricades, etc.), Ukraine’s revolutionaries sang their own country’s anthem, and carried their own country’s flag, whereas the separatists demand no domestic changes – they call for a change of international borders. Evidence is now mounting as to the real extent of clandestine activity by Russian agents in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts (apparently this evidence will be presented by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry in the coming days), and it is becoming increasingly clear that few within local business, intellectual, and political elites in Donetsk and Kharkiv support separatism (the Luhansk situation differs in this respect since local Party of Regions politicians and business leaders seem to be expressing support for the protests). According to opinion polls published this week, only 18-20% of eastern Ukraine’s population actually support the idea of joining Russia.

Thankfully, western governments (including Polish PM Tusk, US VP Biden, and EU Commissioner Ashton) seem to understand that the “crisis” in eastern Ukraine has been manufactured by Russia, and that it has little to do with genuine local demands. Furthermore, for these same governments, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine presents a huge challenge to the existing world order. This week I met with the Assistant Secretary General of NATO (in town for the 7th annual Kyiv Security Forum). She made it clear that EU countries, the US and Canada will not allow the Kremlin to impose its will on Ukraine by dictating the constitutional order of this sovereign state. Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic was quite clear on another point: Russia presents an immediate and clear civilizational threat to Europe – in the Huntingtonian sense. Although this is a controversial position, the fact that such a paradigm holds sway indicates that (whatever the results of the upcoming diplomatic negotiations between Russia, the US, EU, and Ukraine planned for April 17), the “crisis” in Ukraine will not be solved quickly.

This brings me to two points:

1) In my opinion, current events in Ukraine are not a “crisis”. This term connotes an event (or series of events) with a definite start and a potential completion date. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has no potential end: in late February, when Putin’s forces invaded Crimea, and later when his regime annexed the peninsula to the Russian Federation and intensified its subversive activities in the Ukrainian south-east (including massing troops on the border), the Kremlin demonstrated that it does not recognize the right of Ukraine to exist as a sovereign state. Only one other state on the planet has survived for an extended period of time with such an existential threat; only one state has received long-term infrastructural support from Western governments, consolidated in their desire to counter this threat; only one state has shown itself capable of building a uniquely successful economic and political (civilizational) model for its citizens while surrounded by mortal enemies. That state is Israel. Ukrainians, with their worldwide diaspora, and equally tragic 20th century history (see T. Snyder “Bloodlands”), have often been compared to Jews. During the coming weeks and months, it will become evident whether the successful model of Western support, coupled with domestic determination to build a unique civilizational outpost in an inherently hostile environment (similar to that developed and demonstrated as viable over decades in Israel), can be repeated in Ukraine.

I believe it can be, but the realization of such a project depends on a paradigm shift: Ukraine need not be seen as being in “crisis” because its existential threat from Russia will not disappear anytime soon. If the West sees Ukraine’s long-term survival as a sovereign state as being of value, the model of infrastructural support (i.e. assistance in defense, diplomacy, and access to markets) applied to Israel in the past should now be offered to Ukraine.

2) The role of “civilizational” outpost is not a natural condition for Ukraine, but rather one that has been forced upon it by Russia. According to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” a tectonic fault line between Catholic/Protestant Europe and Orthodox Russia passes through Ukraine; this “artificial country” is therefore doomed to either exist as an inherently unstable state, or eventually to break apart. The fact that the popularity of Huntington’s work seems to be reviving in certain western capitals (not without tacit Russian support since it justifies the break-up of Ukraine) is worrying. The recent revolutionary events in Kyiv certainly had a “civilizational” component: the essence of the protest was a clash of values – as most obviously reflected in the revolution’s discourse and imagery. However, whereas the “clash of civilizations” thesis is based on religious fault-lines, in the Ukrainian case, Russia’s objection to its (primarily) Orthodox neighbor’s existence is based on the latter’s embrace of democratic values, civil society, rule of law, and (most importantly for Russia) self-identification as a separate nation. Religion has little to do with it. Instead, the story is about expansionist nationalism countering a civil society that encourages self-actualization and natural law.

Put simply, Ukraine’s existence outside of a Russian sphere of influence is intolerable to the Kremlin because it represents a rejection both of “managed democracy”, and of the pan-Slavic myth of a “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) whose historical greatness is traced as a direct line beginning with the 10-13th century Kyivan Rus, through the 18th-19th century expansionism of the Russian empire (including its literary golden age), up to the joint victory of the Rus/Soviets in the “Great Patriotic War”, and into the post-Soviet revival represented by the Sochi Olympics. Ukraine’s very public rejection of the Kremlin’s Eurasian integration project represents a death blow to this myth. After-all, if Kyiv (the nominal birthplace of Rus) cannot be included within a Russian sphere of influence, then can that sphere be considered viable at all? In fact, Ukraine’s very existence as an independent state is objectionable within this paradigm: for Putin, there can be no “Ukrainian nation” – only a “Little Russia”. There can be no possibility (for Putin) for this bastard child of Russia to integrate into the EU or NATO, nor can the model of bottom-up regime change enacted by Ukrainians be allowed to become legitimized within a truly independent and prosperous nation-state. It is imperative for the Kremlin that the broadly “European” values represented by the revolution must not become an institutionalized reality in any state in Russia’s “near-abroad”.

In 2013, what became known as “Euromaidan” (Phase 1 of Ukraine’s Revolution) turned out to be a catalyst of massive and mind-bogglingly rapid change on both the domestic Ukrainian and international European scenes. The social effect of the initial public demonstrations could have been negligible had the Yanukovych regime and its Kremlin allies allowed the protests to simply fizzle out. Instead, Berkut riot police were ordered to attack peaceful students in the dead of night. That act was a violation of the dignity of those few young people, but its symbolic effect was much broader: the regime had publicly demonstrated contempt for the values of Ukraine’s truly “post” Soviet citizenry. I am referring here to the segment of Ukrainian society that identifies itself with “middle class values” (although their incomes and spending habits are often far from middle class levels by western standards). For these people, self-actualization, individual rights, transparency, rule-based government, and (perhaps most importantly) dignity of the Person are principles for which they are willing to make sacrifices. As it turned out, the price to be paid for these principles (for many) amounted to 3 months of private lives and careers put on hold, many terror-filled evenings and nights of protest in sub-zero temperatures, mobilization of all possible resources – all for the sake of demonstrating the importance of Dignity.

The Revolution of Dignity was about 3 things:

1) National liberation – completion of the de-colonization process that had begun in 1991 (itself a continuation of the nation-building process rooted in 1918-21 and 1939-52 insurgencies and wartime proclamations of Ukrainian independence).

2) De-feudalization – revolt against a thoroughly corrupt, neo-feudal, oligarchic regime that had privatized and monopolized large sections of Ukraine’s economy, and had created an economic and regulatory environment that was hostile to both independent business and to foreign investors.

3) Justice – a battle to restore (or perhaps construct) a social order that Ukraine’s population accepts as legitimate; where the state is responsive to a full range of popular demands (i.e. from a very basic demand for safety – citizens are not beaten and shot by police in the streets – to a more complicated demand for “voice” in decision-making).

The above characterization of the three programmatic imperatives of the past 4 months conveniently maps onto the developmental logic of the “transitions to democracy” academic literature. During the late 1990’s, sociologists observing the collapse of state socialist regimes in eastern and central Europe (e.g. Higley and his colleagues, Przeworski, Lane), extrapolated from observations of the previous establishment of relatively stable democracies in Mediterranean Europe and Latin America, and suggested that systemic stability depended on elite consensus as to the basic “rules of the game” of politics. Specifically, consensus within a polity needs to be established regarding three questions, with each being a prerequisite for tackling the consequent issue:

1) Who are we as a community? This (essentially) identity question subsumes finding answers to questions regarding the legitimacy of borders, state symbolism, historical myths, in-group acceptance criteria (e.g. ethnicity, language,).

2) Who is to rule and how? This question involves legitimization of elite recruitment systems (including recognition of elite universities, companies), systems of elite rotation (political parties, elections), and systems of checks and balances within government institutions (e.g. separation of powers, role of legislature/presidency, (de)centralization)

3) How is wealth to be distributed? This question involves defining the boundaries of legitimacy of government in economic and social matters (e.g. health care, education, consumer protection, regulation); balancing the demands of labor with those of capital; legitimizing a system of social inequality (i.e. taxation levels, opportunity structures, symbolic hegemony)

Since the collapse of the USSR, in a gradual process, Ukraine’s elite seems to have come to some level of consensus regarding the above three questions:

1) In 1996, with the adoption of the Constitution, political consensus was achieved as to the Ukrainian “political nation”: established within its Soviet-era republican borders, with state symbols adopted from the 1918-1919 Hrushevsky and Petliura governments, and with a single official state language as the mechanism for long-term Ukrainianization in the context of short-term linguistic pluralism. Clearly, not everyone within Ukraine (nor in its diaspora) accepted such a liberal definition of Ukraine’s identity-project, but for almost 20 years, its basic tenets were not questioned by the country’s political elite.

2) The question of Ukraine’s governance model was hotly contested prior to and during the Orange Revolution of 2004 (as reflected in multiple drafts of Constitutional Amendments tabled in the pre-Orange Verkhovna Rada). The 1996 Constitution had established a unitary state with a strong Presidency which, in the context of complete economic and institutional collapse during the 1990’s, may have been necessary, but with the rise of regional elites, and structuration of several strong political parties (largely based on these regional elites and their leaders), some degree of decentralization was clearly required. The exact model for such decentralization, and the balance of power between the various branches of government was hotly contested throughout the Yushchenko Presidency. However, after the 2010 election, Yanukovych rejected these debates in favor of extreme centralization. Eventually this resulted in a slide into authoritarianism, and ultimately to a revolutionary reaction.

3) The question of wealth distribution has been rarely dealt with seriously by Ukraine’s politicians except in populist discourse. Ideological political parties have not formed because traditional (for western democracies) issues of taxation, extent of government intervention in the economy, labor relations, etc. have simply not been on the agenda. Prior to the 2014 revolution, Ukrainian politicians and voters were preoccupied with settling issues related to the country’s governance model, and (less vocally) identity issues – socio-economic issues never really made it to the top of the political agenda.

Had Ukraine’s revolution been allowed to proceed without external intervention from Russia, we would today be witnessing a rapid resolution of the “governance question”, and an evolution of discourse within the context of the ongoing Presidential election campaign into a more recognizable (for western observers) right/left ideological spectrum. Such a post-revolutionary election campaign would probably have been divisive with multiple candidates representing a variety of socio-economic groups realistically vying for power. As it stands, the Presidential campaign seems to be (almost) a foregone conclusion with Petro Poroshenko enjoying a solid lead in opinion polls, even though few voters have really examined his policy platform. In the context of Russia’s agression, the electorate simply seems to see Poroshenko as the best option for the position of “commander-in-chief”. And given this one-sidedness of the campaign, the expected post-revolutionary debates on economic issues (particularly salient given the current state of Ukraine’s public finances and currency) have not yet materialized. Furthermore the expected focus of debates on experience vs. elite renewal has remained peripheral to the political agenda.

Post-revolutionary house cleaning and natural social progress have clearly been interrupted artificially: the Kremlin has insisted on returning Ukraine to the discursive frame of question 1 in the schema of democracy development – i.e. to a debate on identity. On the one hand, this forced step backward has laid bare the latent identity cleavages that naturally arise in a country the size of Ukraine. On the other hand, deep identity cleavages have not materialized to the extent expected by many observers of Ukraine. Specifically, there has been virtually no support for separatism (or even federalization) in the southern oblasts (Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson), nor in the east-central industrial heartland of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia – both regions that voted heavily for Yanukovych in 2010, and are primarily Russian-speaking. The separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk has adopted the regional Donbass identity (traditionally strong) rather than calling for annexation to Russia along the Crimean model. This makes it likely that any Russian intervention into the region during the coming days will eventually result in the creation of an Abkhazia-like unrecognized buffer state, rather than in the direct territorial expansion of the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, Russia seems intent on destabilizing Ukraine over the long term. Whereas in March it looked as though the Kremlin’s strategy was to rapidly invade and split the country into two (or more) rump states, the Kyiv government’s restraint in Crimea, coupled with the unexpectedly mooted support for separatism in all areas except the three eastern oblasts, seems to have sobered Putin’s ambitions somewhat. At the moment, he seems intent on biting off small chunks of territory at any given time, and therefore extending the advance on Kyiv for as long as necessary. On the one hand, this can be seen as a blessing to Ukraine: nothing congeals a linguistically diverse political nation as much as a very real external threat. On the other hand, Russia has made it eminently obvious that it itself is a rogue state (with nuclear weapons!) that presents a long-term existential threat to its neighbor(s). That fact changes the developmental dynamic of Ukraine – both domestically and internationally.

During the coming weeks, the cold war between Ukraine and Russia will inevitably turn hot. Indeed, many reports suggest that Russian special forces have already penetrated into Donetsk oblast, and are actively supporting the armed rebels in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Tonight’s press conference by former President Yanukovych, former Interior Minister Zakharchenko and former Prosecutor General Pshonka from Rostov-on-Don, during which each speaker described the post-revolutionary Kyiv government as illegitimate, and foreshadowed “civil war” in the Donbas, indicates that direct and open military intervention is coming soon. The Kremlin has not amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border for nothing.

I guess we must simply get used to it… The new reality for Ukraine is that of existence under permanent existential threat. Others have survived and prospered in such conditions, so we can too!

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy


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