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Pure Onsense

What's at Stake in Ukraine

Scott Zuke

(1/2014) Since November, hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in Ukraine's capital city of Kiev to express their anger with the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych. Mass street protests have taken place so frequently across the world in recent years that Ukraine's could easily fall under the radar, especially since the policy that sparked it isn't something that readily excites the imagination of an international audience.

The Arab Spring and the ongoing demonstrations in Egypt since last summer's 'democratic coup' were dramatic, easily romanticized showdowns between democracy and authoritarianism. Ukraine's protests, on the other hand, are ostensibly in response to the president's decision not to sign a free trade deal with the European Union--not exactly the makings of the next Les MisÚrables.

Although, on the surface, the trade deal lacks the poetry of universal values like liberty, justice, or equality, it would have had a very real impact on Ukraine's economy and the daily lives of its people. The country was rocked by the global economic downturn in 2008, and had never really landed on its feet since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Instead, successive leaders contributed to forming what analyst Andrew Wilson calls a "parasitic economy," stuck in a low-income trap in which economic gains are captured by a small group of wealthy oligarchs. The resulting income disparity is stunning: "Ukraine's fifty richest citizens control almost half the country's GDP," Wilson says. "Even in oligarch-heavy Russia, the fifty richest people control less than 20 percent of GDP."

It's not only the wealth that found its way into the hands of a select few, but political power as well. Ukraine has had multiple democratic elections, and various leaders have tried to address corruption by altering the laws and constitution. Nevertheless, almost every move has turned out to benefit the oligarchs in the end.

The last time Ukraine captured the world's attention was in 2004's "Orange Revolution," which drew thousands into Kiev's central square to rally against what they claimed was a fraudulent presidential victory for Russia-backed Victor Yanukovych. The negotiations that brought the demonstrations to an end left Viktor Yushchenko as president and Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister, as well as the members of the Orange Revolution feeling victorious.

They were quickly disappointed. Tymoshenko's government collapsed within a short time, and President Yushchenko appointed his rival, Yanukovych, as her replacement. A year later, Yushchenko feared Yanukovych was consolidating power for himself and forced him out of office, reappointing Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.

Yushchenko fell severely short of fulfilling his promises to the Orange Revolution, leaving the people so disillusioned that he was easily defeated in the 2010 election, and was replaced by Yanukovych, who moved quickly to centralize power, manipulate the justice system, and send his other rival, Tymoshenko, to prison on politically-motivated charges.

There are, of course, other political players involved in Ukrainian politics, but the fact that so much recent history can be covered by only mentioning these three underscores just how small the group of empowered elites really is, and it's hard to know who to root for.

As in the time of Cicero during the late Roman Republic, most of the political elites seem to be being charged with, and likely guilty of, corruption or other violations of the law at any given time. This is partly by design. As Andrew Wilson explains, the law is structured so that the entire population is constantly, unavoidably in violation of it, leaving those in power with the ability to selectively prosecute those they wish to suppress, or to grant clemency to those from whom they seek favor.

So far, then, we have seen that Ukraine is severely lacking in the "universal ideals" of both equality and justice. What about liberty? Larger even than the narrative about Ukraine's economic suffering or problems with corruption has been the storyline of how the nation sits on the fault line between Russia and the Western world, and has therefore become a proxy battleground for the escalating standoff between Russian President Vladimir Putin's neo-authoritarianism and Western democracy.

This aspect of Ukraine's fate really matters most to Putin and Russia, who view it as a Russian territory perhaps in the same way that Americans view Alaska or Hawaii. That is, they're not critical to the economic well-being of the continental states, but we would be seriously disturbed if they decided to pursue closer independent ties with Russia or China, in effect casting their ballot that their economic and political systems are superior to our own. Putin's response to the long-negotiated trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, then, was to bully Yanukovych into killing the deal by threatening sanctions, and offering a no-strings-attached bailout instead.

That bailout turned out to be a $15 Billion investment and cheaper oil prices. The IMF has voiced concerns that, without requiring Ukraine to undertake financial austerity measures, that money is as good as wasted. Putin, however, is not making a financial investment like the IMF, but rather an investment in political capital. If his bailout gets Ukraine's leaders off the hook with demonstrators and reelected in 2015, he will have gotten what he wanted.

It's unclear how much the democracy vs. authoritarianism or Russia vs. the West debates really do or should matter to the average Ukrainian citizen. Having lived in a hybrid system of government for the past two decades, their faith in either the Western or Russian models is understandably thin. "Only 5 percent of young Ukrainians express the desire to become involved in politics," Wilson says.

Violent suppression of dissent could change that. There have already been at least three instances of security forces assaulting rallies since November. As one protester told the New York Times when asked why he's chosen to remain in the streets: "I have no choice. I fought the police. If I go home now, I will go to prison." For him, and many others, this is no longer just about a missed trade deal.

Read other article by Scott Zuke