by Rhodri C. Williams
Simply amazing. The Ukrainian boat of state looked set to capsize just five days ago as the Russian Sochi supertanker bore down. Miraculously, she righted herself in its wake, her un-beloved Captain spilling his cooked logbooks left and right as he dashed for his armored lifeboat. But now there is dissension among the crew and the tanker still lurks nearby in the fog, its commander brooding imperiously and sending out his cabin boy to mutter imprecations. It looks better, in other words, but could all be a prelude to getting dramatically worse.
One issue is the engagement of the West, which is now enjoying a windfall opportunity to support the Ukrainian opposition, despite earlier performances so lacklustre that historian Anne Applebaum was moved in January to lament the death of “the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe and the United States is an important part of it.” Having negotiated the initial truce that eased Yanokovich out (see this fascinating BBC account of the role played by Radislav Sikorski, Polish foreign minister and Applebaum’s husband), Western actors are now frantically engaged in attempting to shore up an interim government composed of the bewildered former opposition.
It is not clear that they are always doing themselves great favors. First, whatever the merits of Russia’s ostensible concerns about Ukraine, airily dismissing them is unlikely to calm the waters. Writing for Stratfor, for instance, George Friedman notes that the ‘truce agreement’ was achieved in part through sidestepping Ukraine’s constitution, but argues that the latter “didn’t have the patina of tradition that a true constitution requires, and few will miss Yanukovich.” In a similarly blithe manner, the US has gone on to dismiss Yanukovich as President and proclaim the non-existence of East-West tensions in the country.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the political split between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West is overstated, beginning with the lack of any groundswell of popular support for union with Russia or its “Eurasian Union” anywhere outside the Crimean Peninsula. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Daniel Bilak asserted that the population of the East are “confused and uncertain” but increasingly joined to the West by joint rejection of the Russian-oriented oligarchs that have compounded their economic misery:
Mired in poverty, the people of Eastern Ukraine have been cynically manipulated by regional political and economic (a.k.a. oligarch) elites for the past 22 years of Ukrainian independence. As they enriched themselves through the cheap acquisition of decrepit Soviet-era assets (a phenomenon common throughout the former Soviet Union), these clans have exercized virtual total economic and political control over the lives of their electorate/employees, who are tied like serfs to the large enterprises that dominate their towns and cities. Fear of losing jobs and pensions makes these people easy to manipulate at election-time, something the ruling clan has used to great effect.
The “eastern narrative” in the age of globalization and the internet is not sustainable. While they may be more passive than passionate, Mr. Yanukovych’s 20 per cent approval rating shows the degree to which Ukrainians from the east are united with the rest of the country against what most see as endemic bureaucratic racketeering at all levels of government. Anti-Maidan demonstrations have been fleeting at best. On the other hand, “Euromaidan” demonstrations in the eastern oblasts recently gained ground by the thousands, driven by a growing social network-friendly middle class of small entrepreneurs and youth.
On Thursday, this trend reached an apex when Ukrainians of all ages showed solidarity with their compatriots on the Maidan by stopping on roadways busloads of thugs hired by the regime (often burning their buses) and lying on railway tracks to prevent police and troops from reaching Kiev.
In essence, socio-economic problems make all Ukrainians brothers-in-arms. With an economy on the verge of collapse, Ukrainians are facing up to theft of Homeric proportions, as they wonder how Ukraine’s debt went from $36-billion to $72-billion in four years, with no improvement in their livelihoods. Eastern Ukrainians are also patriots of their country – they feel as much cheated by this regime, as their brethren in western Ukraine felt betrayed by the previous government.
On the other hand, it will be important for Western actors to pressure the new interim government to avoid moves that could be seen as unnecessarily provocative. By rushing to strike down legislation recognizing Russian as an official language, for instance, the Parliament has met genuine demands to roll back the Yanukovich legacy with a measure that could unnecessarily alienate potentially sympathetic members of the country’s Russian-speaking community. Meanwhile, major concerns have been raised by the apparent mobilization of the Russian-speaking majority on the Crimean Peninsula, who have threatened to secede, and allegedly sought a Russian intervention.
Russia itself appears bewildered, furiously condemning the new authorities while repeatedly affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Where the Beijing Olympics provided useful cover for the 2008 war in which Russia disciplined Georgia, another former Soviet Republic, the Sochi Olympics constituted a distraction that prevented a more assertive response to the rumblings in Ukraine. Likewise, the penumbra of corruption and human rights abuses that overshadowed Sochi’s glitz hardly constituted an advertisement for closer ties.
As argued here in the BBC, it is quite likely that Moscow has realized applying further pressure at this stage is only likely to burn whatever bridges it has left to Kiev without bringing tangible gain. Still dangerous circumstances, but Yanukovich’s corruption, repression and abrupt abdication may have left the best possible legacy – a set of incentives for all actors to allow Ukraine to fumble its way forward to cleaner and more representative government.