When is an invasion not an invasion? When is sovereignty not sovereignty? When is an unelected regime more legitimate than an elected government? The answer, it seems, is when we are discussing Ukraine. The crisis in Ukraine has swiftly turned into a global stand-off. It has also become the focus for a war of words about the meaning of freedom, democracy, legitimacy and sovereignty.
For many in the West, Russia’s operations in Crimea bear comparison to Hitler annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Others fear that Vladimir Putin is launching a new Cold War. Russian commentators, in the meantime, accuse the West of helping overthrow an elected government in the Ukraine, and of supporting a fascist putsch. They insist that Russia is merely defending its interests in Crimea and that Crimeans have every right to secede if they so wish.
The war of words has become a means of painting the conflict in black and white, and to force it to fit onto old political maps. There are aspects of the conflict that we should certainly view in back and white terms: the desire for democracy and to be free of authoritarian rule and of foreign interference. And yet the conflict is far messier, less black and white, than many wish to paint it. Consider, for instance, three of the key questions that lie at the heart the struggle:
1. Were the events in Kyiv that led to the crisis
a revolution or a coup?
Many Western commentators see the protests that led to the overthrowing of president Viktor Yanukovich as a revolution. Russian commentators view it as a fascist putsch. Neither is the case.
Yanukovich’s government was corrupt, authoritarian and brutal. It was also democratically elected, winning 49% of the popular vote in 2010. The fact that Yanukovich was democratically elected does not mean that he should not have been challenged outside of the ballot box. Democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot paper. We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy by acting collectively. This requires the creation of a robust public sphere, of a polity that is contested as much in the streets and the workplace as in the polling station.
The protests against Yanukovich that erupted in Kyiv’s Maidan, and that eventually led to his downfall, were as much part of the democratic process as was the election of the president in the first place. They were expressions of popular unrest, no different to the mass protests against President Mohammed Morsi that engulfed Egypt last year. But the weakness of Ukraine’s liberal and leftwing opposition allowed the far right take a leading role in the opposition, just as in Egypt a similar weakness of liberal organization put the military in the driving seat, and indeed led many to look to the army as the agent of change. The paramilitary street thugs of Pravy Sektor or ‘Right Sector’ – a collection of hardcore neo-Nazi groups – were particularly prominent. They gained support among moderate factions as the hardest fighters and were lauded in the local press as the new ‘heroes of Ukraine’. In normal circumstances Western commentators would have denounced their presence on the streets of Kyiv; because they played a useful role in the overthrow of Yanukovich, the fascists thugs have this time been come to be almost accepted with a shrug.
If the protests were, at least partly, progressive and democratic, the regime that has replaced the Yanukovich government is neither. It took power partly through the efforts of the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France who helped organize the negotiations between Yanukovich and the opposition.It has shown itself to be deeply authoritarian. One of its first acts was to deny regions the right to give official status to languages other than Ukrainian. The prospective law was eventually vetoed by the interim president; it was, nevertheless, a hugely symbolic move in a nation in which 40 per cent of the population speak Russian, and another 5 per cent another non-Ukraine language.
While the overthrow of Yanukovich was clearly no fascist putsch, the new government is, nevertheless, disproportionately influenced by the far right. Representatives of two neo-fascist parties, Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, now occupy seven ministerial posts, including that of deputy prime minister and national security.
Svoboda (‘freedom’) is a party that traces its roots to a Second World War partisan army allied to the Nazis and, till it rebranded itself in 2004, was known as the Social National Party. It is part of the far-right Alliance of European National Movements, whose members include the British National Party, Jobbik, the Hungarian neo-fascist, anti-Semitic organisation and the French Front National. Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok has denounced in parliament the ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’; in 2005 he published an open letter calling for the government to halt the ‘criminal activities’ of ‘organised Jewry’, which was working to commit ‘genocide’ against the Ukrainian people.
Ukraine’s fascists are not simply on one side. Pro-Russian newspapers and websites have been pouring out anti-Semitic propaganda, claiming that the protest leaders are all Jews, and that if European liberalism gains sway, their children be ‘turned gay’. There are fascist paramilitaries menacing for the Russians. After a recent spate of attacks on synogogues, Jewish leaders, who had previously demanded that Svoboda be banned, were unsure who to blame, but were as fearful of pro-Russian militias as of the far-right anti-Russian nationalists.
It is bad enough that fascist groups and anti-Semitic ideas should gain ground as they have been doing. What is particularly troubling, though, is that those who support the supposedly progressive, pro-European cause can acquiesce so easily to the presence of fascists in their midst.
2 Should Crimea be allowed to secede from Ukraine?
Russia insists that this week’s referendum in Crimea to determine whether or not it wishes to join the Russian federation is an expression of democracy and self-determination. Western commentators condemn it as an illegal vote contrary to international law and the Ukrainian constitution.
The referendum takes place against the background of what is effectively a Russian invasion of Crimea. The presence of Russian forces, government control of the media, and the background of a tense conflict in a divided nation all make unlikely the possibility of a clean vote.
The break-up of Ukraine would be potentially disastrous, threatening bloody sectarian violence and entrenching ethnic animosities. Many groups in Crimea, Muslim Tartars in particular, are rightly fearful of the Russian embrace. A referendum at this point in time, especially one as politicized, not to mention militarized, as this can serve not to take the democratic pulse but only to entrench divisions and to provide more cover for Russian occupation.
Yet, the Western condemnations of the Crimean referendum miss the point. For a start, foreign governments that recently helped circumvent the Ukrainian constitution to get rid of Viktor Yanukovich and install an unelected regime possess little moral authority to dismiss the referendum as ‘unconstitutional’. Nor does it help that those Western powers now insisting on the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine and defending Ukrainian sovereignty from foreign interference are the same nations that in a series of conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond have themselves helped undermine notions of national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the name of a greater good when it suited them to do so. It is not surprising that Russian president Vladimir Putin should use the language of ‘protection’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘opposition to fascism’ to justify his military intervention in Crimea. Putin’s absurd self-justifications should, of course, not be taken seriously. But the fact that he can use such justifications reflects the way that Western actions over the past two decades have helped shape the language of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.
Western politicians fail to recognize the strong sentiment that exists in large parts of Ukraine in support of close ties with Russia. A poll conducted by Kyiv’s independent Razumkov Centre in January last year revealed that only a third of Crimeans viewed Ukraine as their ‘homeland’, while a half regarded their homeland as Crimea. This is in sharp contrast to those in western Ukraine, 90 per cent of whom saw Ukraine as homeland, and virtually none named their local region. 70 per cent of Crimeans wanted closer ties to Russia, compared to 20 per cent who wanted closer ties to the EU. This is almost the reverse of the case in western Ukraine, where almost 70 per cent wanted closer ties with Brussels, and barely 10 per cent with Moscow. More than 90 per cent of Crimeans wanted Russian as an official language, compared to almost 80 per cent of west Ukrainians who opposed such a move. Very few Crimeans actually wanted to join Russia, but recent events may well have further polarized opinion.
Such sentiments are not exclusive to Crimea. The same poll found that more than half the population in eastern Ukraine wanted closer ties with Russia, whereas fewer than one in five favoured the EU. More than 60 per cent of east Ukrainians speak Russian at home, and more than half wanted Russian as a state language. More than 70 per cent of east Ukrainians thought of Ukraine as ‘homeland’, but most clearly also favour closer ties with Moscow rather than with Brussels.
Ukraine is a divided nation. If many in western Ukraine express their disenchantment with corrupt, undemocratic governance through greater support for the EU, many in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea do so through a yearning for closer ties with Moscow. Such pro-Russian sentiment is as important a part of Ukraine’s democratic voice as are the calls for greater integration with Western Europe.
The break-up of Ukraine would be in no-one’s interests. The Tartars would face victimization and worse in a Russian Crimea. The brutality to opposition that Putin has demonstrated elsewhere in Russia would be extended to any new territory. Far-right ultranationalists are likely to gain ground on both sides of any divided Ukraine.
But it does not make any sense, either, to ignore, in the name of protecting Ukrainian territorial integrity, the fears and anxieties – and the sense of identity – felt by many in Crimea and in the eastern regions. The population here will only give its allegiance to a Kyiv government if they feel their fears and anxieties are being addressed and identities respected. Western politicians’ refusal to take seriously the pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions, and their steadfast support for an unelected government in Kyiv that many, not just in Crimea, despise and even fear can only exacerbate tensions and make more likely the break-up of the nation.
3 Is the struggle in Ukraine a struggle between
Russia and the West?
The roots of the immediate conflict lie in the struggle between Russia and the West for influence in Kyiv. Many have come to see that struggle for influence as synonymous with the struggle for liberal democracy against authoritarian rule. Greater Russian control is certainly likely to lead to greater repression. It is far from clear, though, that greater Western influence will in itself necessarily lead to greater liberty and democracy.
Western powers, while often being the loudest voices in proclaiming the virtues of democracy, have often taken an instrumental view of its desirability, preferring to prop up dictators when it suits their needs. Take, for instance, the West’s attitude towards Bahrain, a state that has, with considerable bloodshed, and not a little help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, viciously suppressed the local movement for democratic change. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are, however, important Western allies, particularly in the ‘war on terror’. So the Bahraini opposition movement has been largely ignored, while a regime far more dictatorial than that of Victor Yanukovich continues to be showered with Western favours.
The key struggle in Ukraine is not between Russia and the West. It is for democracy and for those values often associated with the West, but not always promoted by the West. That is why, while we need to oppose Russian strong arm tactics, we need also to be skeptical about Western interference. The danger in viewing the conflict in terms of Russia vs the West is that we may end up defending not the values vital for the people of Ukraine – democracy, liberties, free speech, self-determination – but whatever happens to be in the interests of Brussels or Berlin or London or Washington. The two do not necessarily coincide. What is black and white in Ukraine is the need for a liberal democratic society, free from corruption and external interference. But the reality of the conflict on the ground is shrouded in many shades of gray.