Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

In playing geopolitics, don’t forget the people have been the real agents of the changes in Ukraine

Among the many negative consequences of Putin’s move in the Crimea, one has remained somehow under the radar: the shift from interactions in which the people – the activists of the maidan, the protesters – were active participants, to a game of high politics. To a certain extent and when we think of the much needed readjustment of perspective on Russia, this is welcome. As Techau noted in an insightful commentary, the EU noticed too late that it was in a geopolitics game and brought the low politics toolbox that it uses for Association agreement negotiations to a high politics construction site. After Putin brought Russia back into the picture with the help of the so-called volunteers and the actions of the Crimean parliament, the voice of the people is being drowned in the new propaganda war. The problem with this is not only that there has been so much disinformation around that we are really coming to a Cold War-like fog of confusion. The bigger problem, as far as I am concerned, is that the ethnic politics aspect of Ukrainian politics has come too much to the fore and obscures the drive of Ukrainian citizens of all ethnicities towards a less oligarchic, more transparent, more pluralistic and equal political regime. As Chrystia Freedland has written in an opinion piece in last Sunday’s NYT and as I have written in my commentary at Crooked Timber, the struggle of Ukrainians to depose President Yanukovich was not primarily an ethno-cultural fight, it was a political struggle against corruption and the fusion between oligarchic economic power and political power. In moving our attention to ethnicity, we – and those advising the new Ukrainian government – lose sight of the demands and energy of the people that kept the Ukrainian revolution going when everyone thought Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the Association agreement was the end of closer Ukrainian-European ties. The people were really the ones that disrupted the predetermined scenario last time and their desire for a more just democracy in which rule of law prevails should not be forgotten. I believe that what many Ukrainians liked about the EU agreement was not primarily the trade or the adoption of EU’s regulatory approach, but the EU’s insistence that formal rules and institutions be observed and enforced. The short term implications of my argument may not be great, except for the need to look more carefully at the appointment of business entrepreneurs as political appointees of the new government. In the long term, any support measures from the EU or the US should not target the economy without consulting and empowering those who started the changes and wanted a different kind of democracy in Ukraine.

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One thought on “In playing geopolitics, don’t forget the people have been the real agents of the changes in Ukraine

  1. good point. but the impression I got (through the fog of disinformation) is that it was precisely the nationalistic groups that ousted the regime. Granted, the protests started as mass opposition against corruption and bad governance , but it was the nationalists who changed the character and strategies of the protest (which eventually led to its ‘success’). In the absence of the nationalistic groups, the citizens protesting against corruption would still be at the maidan, if they had not gone home yet. Think about how the protests in Bulgaria and Turkey last year, which started due to similar disgust with bad governance but lacked the nationalistic ‘edge’, disintegrated.
    So I think the shifting of focus from corruption to ethnic/nationalistic issues is as much due to internal developments in Ukraine and the nature of the protest as it is due to the switch to high geo-politics.
    On a side-note, I cannot help getting the impression that radicalization is a necessary condition for the success of mass anti-government protests these days. Radicalization can come from nationalists, religious fundamentalists, etc. but from the cases observed over the past few years, it does not seem that mass protests alone, fueled by concerns about corruption, democracy, justice, equality, or the environment, can lead to change. Which is really sad as the agenda of the ‘radicals’ is quite different from the agenda of the mass protesters AND because it the absence of mass protests the radical groups would have lacked the legitimacy and the numbers to get in a position of power. To end on a really gloomy note, it all appears to be a lose-lose game – either the protests fail, or they bring a radical group to power.

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