Ukraine: The Weather is Changing

Photo: Christiaan Triebert (CC BY 2.0)

I’m devastated and grief-stricken by the violence on the Maidan in Ukraine. An outburst of political violence in the core of the old Soviet bloc reminiscent of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. The administration has completely renounced its responsibility to the citizenry, and pursues its fruitless policy of confrontation and escalation. Scores are dead or dying. Blood, cobblestones and ashes cover the streets. Molotov cocktails and bullets fly. Hotel lobbies have been converted to makeshift medical centres or morgues.

In a blistering piece in the New York Review of Books today, Timothy Snyder – the historian and author of Bloodlands – describes the situation leading up to the clashes:

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

I urge you to read the whole piece. It’s remarkably clear, and the best I’ve read so far on the situation in Ukraine and the new Russian power dynamic.

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While the impetus is on the dominant, government forces to back down from their undemocratic attempt to quash dissent, we should also acknowledge that the protesters who are fighting the police are also perpetrating political violence which should be condemned. The riot, as Martin Luther King said, is the language of the unheard. And it is quite clear whose fault the clashes are.

As much as our thoughts should go to the dead, the wounded and the afflicted, we should be as concerned with the precipitous decline in the political and democratic culture. Not just of Ukraine, but of what the shift in the Ukraine signals for the region.

In the past weeks, with the Sochi Olympics simultaneously revealing and obscuring the vast, authoritarian bulk of the darker Russia, I’ve become aware of how intensely the geopolitical dynamics of our relationship to Russia is shifting. While the sheer, jackbooted absurdity of someone being beaten by paramilitary goon squads for singing a song in public in neat outfits is in a way almost funny, we should be chilled to the bone by what we are seeing.

As Russia descends faster and faster into authoritarianism, it grows its own, independent sphere of culture, values, flows and economies that separate it and its peoples from democracy and human rights. It begins to demand a more undiluted loyalty from its neighbours, which gradually grow more like satellite states. We are seeing the Putin administration trying to organically reconstitute its sphere of influence in a way reminiscent of what the Soviet Union once did.

A protester plays the piano in the Maidan, before the current clusterfuck began. Photo: Christiaan Triebert (CC-BY 2.0)

Timothy Snyder aptly portrays the new situation in his piece:

The future of this protest movement will be decided by Ukrainians. And yet it began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union …The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

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The new dynamics which particularly concern me are these two:

First, that loyalty to the Soviet Union has become a zero-sum game. Either Ukraine orients towards the EU, or it orients towards Russia. There is no middle ground. You are either with Putin, or you are with Merkel. You are oriented towards Moscow or towards Berlin, Paris and London. This is a frightening and polarising dynamic.

The second, related change is a shift towards the ideological. Towards “value politics” and trying to create a “value bloc” in the Russian sphere of influence.

Suddenly homosexuality, religion, abortion, minorities and tolerance have become politically supercharged. Putin’s Russia used to be a machiavellian affair, completely predictable in classic realist models of foreign policy thought. The new Russia which we see emerging has found a new voice as a traditional values power.

This is major, increasingly and newly dominant political theme from a Putin increasingly dependent on the church and the conservative population to rule. The new ideology emerges if you read between the lines in the following three paragraphs in his State of the Nation address in December, where Putin sketches out a role as a world leader in “values”:

We have always been proud of our nation. But we do not claim to be any sort of superpower with a claim to global or regional hegemony; we do not encroach on anyone’s interests, impose our patronage onto anyone, or try to teach others how to live their lives. But we will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identityThis is absolutely objective and understandable for a state like Russia, with its great history and culture, with many centuries of experience, not so-called tolerance, neutered and barren, but the actual common, natural life of different peoples within the framework of a single state.

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

[bolding mine]

Someone I met once said: when fascism finally comes it won’t be wearing jackboots and brown shirts. It will come as a change in the weather, something barely noticeable, like the wind shifting in October. We’re seeing a similar kind of political shift happening to the East of Europe now. The new dynamic reminds me of the early days of the Cold War. If the current dynamic in Russia isn’t altered, we might very well end up seeing the democratic culture of the region overpowered by the corrosive forces and eventually overrun.

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