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The Ukraine Contrarians

Dan Drezner's attacks on skeptics about the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine coming from some elements of the British left strike me as rather apt, but as Yushchenko seems to have uniform support in the blogosphere (for whatever little that's worth) I won't pile on with criticism, but instead try to tease out what value exists in contrarian arguments. For one thing, the contrarians are almost certainly right that realpolitik plays a large role in explaining the level of Western interest in and commit to reform in Ukraine (and some other recent developments in other post-communist countries). Unlike the contrarians, I'm not exactly sure what's wrong with that. In Eastern Europe (unlike Latin America, the Middle East, and Russia where the issues are more complicated), the concept of "imperialism" bears a Russian (or, for the more historically inclined, German) stamp, and democracy-promotion and mild nationalism have proven to be an effective tool for advancing American and Western European interests over the past 25 years. When ideals and interests are in pretty good alignment, that should be regarded as a good thing, not a reason to abandon interests and ideals alike.

The more apt contrarian point is that a single reformist victory (if it happens) does not a democracy make. Typically, you can't tell whether or not a given event was a democratic watershed until several years after it's happened when the putative reformists lose, and then again whenever whoever beats them loses. After a few peaceful transfers of power you can say democracy has really started to consolidate itself. That the more popular guy takes power after one disputed election isn't really here or there, especially under circumstances where neither side is squeaky clean. In many Eastern European countries the carrots of membership in NATO, the EU, or both have proven to be powerful incentives keeping countries on the path toward democracy even when many influential actors seem inclined to go another route. The presence of non-trivial opposition to the reform movement in the Russophile east and the Russian government's large degree of interest in preventing Ukraine from drifting out of its orbit will make this process much more difficult to undertake in Ukraine. If Russia itself were still moving toward liberalization, that might be a different matter, but things being what they are continues strife and crisis seem rather likely.

November 29, 2004 | Permalink


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» So is Fleet Street on crack or what? from Daniel W. Drezner
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Good point MY. One could also use what you said to make a good neo-conservative argument why the US should occupy Iraq indefinitely. Because we're good and righteous, we should be occupying there to promote freedom, justice, and the American way even if the Iraqis don't want us there to do that and that's why it's so worthwhile for 1231 servicepersons to have died to maintain the occupation.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Nov 29, 2004 11:27:32 AM

N.B. John Laughland (quoted by Drezner) is certainly not part of the British left, and the fact that he's published an article in the Guardian doesn't make him part of it.

Posted by: Chris Brooke | Nov 29, 2004 12:30:44 PM

The more apt contrarian point is that a single reformist victory (if it happens) does not a democracy make.

Democracy, schmonaricy. Just like Saddam Hussein was, apparently, enjoying support of about 30% of the Iraqi population, or, say, Bush has now support of 51% of the Americans - Ukranian Kuchma and his clique have a lot of their own followers. So, whether the wingnut sengment manages to amass 51% or to cheat and get by with only 45% - what's the big difference? There's just too many of them.

What good is your stupid democracy if it's used as a mechanism for troglodytes to exercise control over civilized and intelligent people? The world has become too complex and democracy doesn't work anymore, that's obvious, so shutthefuckup about democracy already; it's a reactionary form of government. Constitutional technocracy is the way to the future.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 29, 2004 12:52:24 PM

"Constitutional technocracy is the way to the future."

If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve. I would certainly accept rule by a network of well-programmed computers, if only I believed in Intelligent Design.

I got it! We turn politics, diplomacy, war and international finance into a massive online RPG, and let the geeks and nerds at it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 29, 2004 2:22:16 PM

Put aside terms like "neo-con" and ignore the fact that the contrarian reports are filed by the notorious Guardian. Post-soviet Russia and Ukraine do not fall into our neat western categories. The key to understanding what's happened there is grasping that the state barely governs, and what state institutions still function have been almost entirely criminalized.

What's happening now in Ukraine is not a velvet revolution in the making or a demonstration of "people power" but a battle of two kleptocratic clans, one of them slightly more western-oriented and better at mouthing liberal pieties, both of them profoundly hostile to principles of transparency and good governance.

Yulia Tymoshenko is a combination of Boris Berezovsky and a Salinas/Collor-style pseudo-reformer, a thuggish thief on a grand scale who's not to be trusted anywhere near the reins of power. The massive scam that Tymoshenko and Pavel Lazarenko, former Ukrainian PM recently convicted in California for money-laundering and other crimes, pulled off is one of the great crimes of the last century.

This isn't a matter of left or right. No one should think for a second that the thieves who strong-armed the entire Ukrainian energy industry into funnelling all cash flow and profits through a bogus company controlled by themselves alone-- income totaling about 20% of the entire Ukrainian GDP-- will transform themselves into liberal democrats ruling in accordance with law and the public interest. Of course Tymoshenko still has her hand in the pie, and will plunder every state asset she can dig her talons into once she's back in power.

And of course this unbelievable-- to us, anyway-- record of grand larceny, fraud, and initimidation bespeaks a deep contempt for liberal democratic values. Bizarre that this needs to be pointed out. Shameful, really, that it's left to the nutjobs at the Guardian to point out what's obvious to anyone who's ever done business in Ukraine of Russia.

Sorry to piss on everyone's parade, but we've been duped before. Remember Yeltsin and his reformist "dynamic duo" of Chubais and Nemtsov? Yeltsin's re-election and Zyuganov's defeat were made possible by the theft of ca. 40% of Russia's GDP by seven pro-Yeltsin clans. Yeltsin trashed the Duma, did little to build an independent judiciary, did absolutely nothing to build anything like a banking system (how can you have capitalism without real banks?), and handed power over to an FSB stooge in exchange for complete protection from prosecution. This is what Ukraine can look forward to when the Yushchenko/Tymoshenko clan get their hands on power.

At a minimum we should show our contempt for fraud of both the electoral and the economic variety, and demand that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko unwind the scam that was Yulia's national energy "holding company" before we provide any carrots or aid to their government.

Posted by: lex | Nov 29, 2004 2:44:13 PM

This is all a ploy to bring civil war into Ukraine. The Ukrainians probably deserve it for being so gullible.

Posted by: captainblak | Nov 29, 2004 4:16:15 PM

"In many Eastern European countries the carrots of membership in NATO, the EU, or both have proven to be powerful incentives keeping countries on the path toward democracy even when many influential actors seem inclined to go another route."

Not carrot but an aid, which certainly helps make the transition easier. If you really thought "carrot" then you underestimate the base for democracy in Eastern Europe.

Of course the old proletarian mindset dies hard (for example amidst the mineworkers of Donetsk), especially for Russians and USSR-nostalgics, but the proportional size of that contingency highly varies from country to country.

Posted by: CE | Nov 29, 2004 5:57:51 PM

So lex, we should turn a blind eye to the hundreds of millions that Putin has given to Ukraine to get his guy in? Turn a blind eye to an election that was stolen in broad daylight? I don't think so.

Either Yushchenko or Yanukovych will be president there soon. And the popular outpouring is genuine, surprising and vast. Which side do we want to be on?

If we wait for a perfect leader to support, we will be waiting a very, very long time indeed.

Posted by: Doug | Nov 29, 2004 6:14:41 PM

Here's "what's wrong with that":

First of all, the kind of "democracy" that's generally promoted by U.S. foreign policy is a centralized, "professional" spectator democracy in which the people periodically choose which group of men in suits will be taking orders from the World Bank and IMF. And of course, it's associated with massive "privatization" (i.e., crony capitalist looting) on the pattern prescribed by Milty Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs.

Second, anything that hinders or weakens the emerging Eurasian Bloc as a counter-weight to U.S. hegemony is bad for the people outside the Ukraine. Anything that serves to contain or deter the "sole remaining superpower" is objectively good for most of the world, the American people (aka the host organism) included.

As much as my altruistic impulses may cause me to pity those stuck under a corrupt Ukrainian thugocracy, my self-interest still causes me to dread living in a world where the PNAC inner party finally gets its wish of Oceania completely supplanting Eurasia.

Posted by: Kevin Carson | Nov 29, 2004 7:01:15 PM

Count me as one of the skeptics. When are the neoliberal "democracy-promotion" patsies going to wake up?

It's *all* about realpolitik. The Cold War might be over, but what we have now is the Cool War - a lower intensity continuation into the weakened Russian sphere of influence of the old Cold War economic and power struggle. Most of the major geopolitical events of the past 13 years are the result in one way or another of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, followed by opportunistic Western predation to gobble up the economically valuable pieces and from Russian attempts to regroup, consolidate power and recoup the losses. The struggle has much more to do with trading blocs, economic ties, business interests and their associated military protectors, and political influence than ideology and 'reform', democratic or otherwise. Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Georgia, the Ukraine are all countries on the periphery of the former Soviet empire - it's one long cleanup of the Soviet aftermath. Interestingly enough, the so-called "arc of instability" across the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Caspian basin, and around the Russian frontier, happens to be the place where most of the world's remaining oil is.

We and the Europeans play our games and Putin plays his. The American side has shown itself willing to work with just about anybody in its Cold War and Cool War battles - The Afghan Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Islamist hoods and opportunistic bandits in Chechnya, ex-Yugoslav spooks and and noveau riche oligarchs and criminal kingpins in the former Soviet Republics.

"Liberalism", "reform", "democracy" - get real. It's about wealth and power. What is going on in the Ukraine has a lot more to do with who will control Ukraine's gas industry than with democracy and elections.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Nov 29, 2004 8:22:10 PM

Second, anything that hinders or weakens the emerging Eurasian Bloc as a counter-weight to U.S. hegemony is bad for the people outside the Ukraine. Anything that serves to contain or deter the "sole remaining superpower" is objectively good for most of the world, the American people (aka the host organism) included.

True, but the 'new' Ukraine will supposedly join Europe, not the US (the challenger guy promised to take Ukranian troops out of Iraq, for example) and Europe, IMO, would make a much better counter-weight to the US hegemony than a USSR-style entity.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 30, 2004 3:13:06 AM

All of the US-haters here need to get a grip on reality. Ukraine's contribution to Iraq was about as meaningful as Ukraine's role in the global economy (see "pochti nichego" "next to nil" etc). Iran and Iraq are a hundred times more important to the US and the world than Ukraine.

This is a struggle between two groups of grasping thugs, one of which seems a bit more rational and slightly less contemptuous of law and liberalism than the other. We'd like the poor Ukrainian people, like their abject neighbors to the north, to have something like a decent shot at living in what the Russians longingly call "a normal country." Which means rejecting your pathetic little geopolitical fantasies and simply having a government that is not a kleptocracy, courts that actually promote justice, police that actually enforce the law, professors that actually teach instead of extorting bribes, and companies that actually make and sell value-added stuff rather than serve as cash cows for ex-communist "red directors" seeking to add another villa to their Costa del Sol and Cote d'Azur hoards.

Posted by: lex | Nov 30, 2004 11:48:50 AM

Sitting and working here in Kyiv for the past 3+ years, some of that time trying to help small NGOs develop some modicum of civil society reform, and now doing what I normally do, which is practice law, I find some of the comments about Ukraine, the 'revolution' of the past ten days and the general lack of knowledge about the players and forces involved to be astounding. Reading the Guardian (which I do every day) does not help.
The mass protests over the clearly fraudulent election have been supported by a vast array of people. Perhaps most importantly, by the growing middle class, but also by pensioners, students and many, many political parties. The Verhovna Rada has acted with professionalism and decorum in an extremely explosive situation. Their debates and votes are broadcast on every TV channel (now that they freed themselves from government intervention, at least in Kyiv) and onto the street, live. The Supreme Court is hearing a very serious case brought by the opposition and that too is being broadcast. All of this would have been unthinkable one month ago.
The ridicule and easy trashing of politicians and the society here, so obvious in some of the posts, is sad - particularly since I am willing to bet that those finding fault with people trying to find a way to live democratically and have their voices heard have never spent a day living in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia. I have. For 11 years. The Guardian, in this instance is full of crap and seems to enjoy demeaning a massive show of protest merely to score points against the United States.
Thants my rant. From Kyiv.

Posted by: Richard Sheaprd | Dec 2, 2004 5:44:18 AM

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