Ukrainians are clamouring for change—but the west is reluctant to helpby Chrystia Freeland / February 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
The Euromaidan in Kiev where “Ukrainians are proving to be willing to fight, be tortured and even die in defence of democracy” ©Getty Images
Here’s the irony of the struggle which began in Ukraine last November: the activists of the Euromaidan, as they have renamed Kiev’s central square, have shown that democracy remains an incredibly powerful domestic goal in countries that have never properly enjoyed it. But at the same time the fight has revealed how weak the world’s fully fledged democracies are when it comes to asserting their will beyond their own borders.
Democracy is being revealed as at once powerful at home, and feeble abroad. It is inspiring domestic protesters in a country where it has always been frail, and weakening the diplomats dispatched by nations where it has always been strong.
Let’s start with democracy in Ukraine. If ever there was a citizenry that had good reason to be cynical about democracy it is the people of Ukraine. The collapse of the “evil empire” brought Ukraine independence, and even relatively free presidential elections, but it also brought economic mismanagement, corruption and ultimately an effort, similar to Vladimir Putin’s in Russia a few years earlier, to bring back a more authoritarian form of government.
Ukrainians fought back, and with their Orange Revolution of 2004-5, they won. The aftermath of that precious victory was an even more powerful reason to become disillusioned. The democratic winners proved to be catastrophically ineffective rulers—so much so, that the the failed leader of the authoritarian revanche in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected president in 2010, in a relatively fair vote.
Yet when Yanukovych backtracked on a long-promised treaty with Europe last autumn, Ukrainians believed strongly enough in democracy—both as represented by Europe and as manifest in their own civil society—that they took to the streets. Strikingly, the unifying concern of the demonstrators is neither nationalist nor straight-forward economic self-interest.
This isn’t about Russian language and culture versus Ukrainian language and culture. It is about the authoritarian, clannish and corrupt form of government the Kremlin champions and represents versus the “normal” values of the rule of law and individual rights the European Union symbolises and demands. Looking across the border to Poland and beyond, Ukrainians are confident that in the long run, the European approach delivers a higher standard of living, as well as greater personal dignity. But they have no illusions about the short-term economic costs of alienating their massive northern trading partner and energy supplier.
Yet even as Ukrainians are proving to be willing to fight, be tortured, and even die in defence of democratic values, the western democracies that Ukraine admires are being trounced in their geopolitical tug-of-war over Ukraine with Russia. Putin’s first victory came with Yanukovych’s U-turn in the autumn: years of painstaking European diplomacy were undone by a weekend of bribes and threats in Moscow. As the protests in the Euromaidan grew, the Kremlin upped its game, offering Kiev a monster $15bn of support.
Even in the media war—something democracies are supposed to be good at—Russia has proven more deft than the west. Russia is energetically, and with some success, painting the protesters as puppetsof the west, despite the Kremlin’s own, massive involvement. Moscow has aggressively, and again with some success, sought to portray the demonstators as violent, ultra right-wing nationalists. Russia is almost certainly behind one of the propaganda masterstrokes of the conflict—the interception and release of an alleged phone conversation in which Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told her ambassador the US should “Fuck the EU,” a salty instruction which prompted a minor transatlantic spat. And all of this, it is worth remembering, happened while Russia was on its best behaviour as host of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
One reason that the Kremlin has outplayed Washington and Brussels is that it cares much more about Ukraine than they do. Forget the cultural and historic ties, which do matter, but are often exaggerated in the incense-scented accounts of Slavophiles. Ukraine has tremendous and self-evident geopolitical and political significance for Russia; $15bn is a very good deal.
But it isn’t solely Ukraine’s relative worth which has made the Kremlin such a formidable opponent. It turns out that the values which make the west such an appealing role model for the protesters on the Euromaidan also weaken us when it comes to exerting our power abroad.
Ukraine, after all, is geopolitically important for the west, too. The EU has a long border with Ukraine. A democratic, prospering ally on the other side of that dividing line would give Europe much more security than living next door to a satrap of an authoritarian Kremlin. Equally important is the demonstration effect. Just as the success of Poland’s democracy has emboldened the protesters on the Euromaidan, a free Ukraine would make the eventual democratic transformation of Russia more likely. That should matter not just to Europe, but to the entire North Atlantic alliance.
Pretty much everyone in the west who bothers to think about Ukraine understands this. The problem for the west is that we are experiencing democracy fatigue, both at home and abroad. The failures of the international democracy agenda, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with the Arab Spring, loom larger than the remarkably successful transformation of Eastern Europe, including, let’s not forget, what used to be East Germany.
Even more importantly, we are starting to worry, and with some cause, about how well capitalist democracy is working at home. Every western democracy is today dominated by one central political and economic fact: that middle-class incomes have stagnated for the past three decades (see p30), and show little sign of rebounding, regardless of wider macroeconomic trends. That dispiriting fact has turned voters sour and politicians inward. Indeed, one reason that Europe’s embrace of Ukraine has been half-hearted is that many western Europeans don’t see Poland as an astonishing triumph for democratic capitalism— instead, it is the source of feared immigrants who are driving down their wages.
Russia has experienced its own version of these problems. When it comes to Putin’s hope of building a neo-Soviet trading bloc, or even good relations with the former Soviet states the Kremlin likes to describe as the “near abroad,” Putin hasn’t met with unqualified success. That’s why Yanukovych, the most pro-Russian Ukrainian president since independence, nearly did a deal with Europe in the first place, and why the Euromaidan has been so successful. Nor is the Russian middle class particularly prosperous or content. Without oil, Russia’s economy would be stagnant, and even with it, it lags far behind other emerging markets.
But Putin is an authoritarian ruler. His people might be every bit as disgruntled as westerners, but he doesn’t need to worry about their opinions quite as much, and he can use his control over the mass media to distort what is happening in Ukraine, and to whip up nationalist support for his strong-arm approach. So that’s the paradox—democracy looks better than ever to people who don’t have it, like the protesters on the Euromaidan. But, especially when it comes to operating beyond their own borders, democratic leaders are hobbled compared to authoritarian ones.
The Euromaidan has revealed a second important faultline in the working of the global political economy today. We are seeing, in Kiev and the other cities of Ukraine where the protest has spread, how economic globalisation can reinforce authoritarianism, but also how it can help to shatter it.
Russian satirists have a powerful shorthand expression to explain how globalisation has improved the lot of its own authoritarian rulers. Putin, the joke goes, wants to rule like Stalin, but live like Abramovich. In the Soviet era, that wasn’t possible. Stalin and his successors enjoyed vast power, but, by the standards of today’s plutocrats, lived modestly.
The rise of the global super-elite, and the enthusiastic admission of the former Soviet Union’s oligarchs to its ranks, has changed all of that. Today, the strong-arm bosses of state capitalist countries and their business cronies exercise authoritarian power at home, while enjoying the perks of capitalist democracy on holiday. They own lavish pieds-à-terre in London and New York and homes on the Côte d’Azur and in Switzerland; their children go to Eton and to Harvard.
This membership in the global plutocracy makes authoritarianism more sustainable. The gap between the lifestyles of western and Soviet elites was one of the reasons that regime lost the confidence of its own apparatchiks. But today, Russia’s 0.1 per cent is part of the international super-class. As Ivan Krastev, the Bulgarian sociologist has pointed out, the oligarchs don’t need to fight for capitalist democracy at home to enjoy many of its fruits. They can simply take a quick trip west on their private jets. The Kremlin has found a way to outsource elite demand for capitalist democracy—what the protesters on the Euromaidan call European values—and that has made Russian authoritarianism more stable.
But exporting the demand for democracy isn’t foolproof. Some oligarchs find that Mediterranean yachts do not make up for subordination to a wilful and domineering autocrat at home. This is the Magna Carta impulse, when the barons, who have benefited from the status quo, decide they want dignity, too. That was Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s demand in 2003. It is one reason that Yanukovych’s support among the Ukrainian oligarchs is ambivalent at best.
The bigger danger that globalisation poses to authoritarian regimes is its effect on the middle class. In Ukraine, particularly Kiev and the west, and in Russian cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, much of the middle class has joined what you might call the global middle. Ukrainian and Russian professionals in these regions travel and study in the west, they receive remittances from family members abroad, they may, like tens of thousands of Ukrainian computer programmers, work in industries whose chief, and often only, clients are in the west.
These human contacts, amplified by the international loudspeaker of the internet, mean the middle class is as familiar with European values as the plutocrats are, but is in less of a position to fully enjoy them. The middle class demand for democratic capitalism can’t be exported to One Hyde Park and the south of France. It can only be achieved on the Euromaidan, which is why so many people are there.
The good news for this global middle is that the rise of the international plutocracy gives the west a new diplomatic lever, if we can summon the will to use it. Ruling like Stalin is ultimately a domestic issue and a domestic fight, but it is up to us whether authoritarian rulers and their cronies can simultaneously live like Abramovich.
Imposing sanctions has traditionally been a morally fraught choice, requiring us to balance the need to pressure a regime against our reluctance to punish its people. Banning autocrats and their oligarchs from travelling, studying, banking and partying in the west poses no such dilemma. We don’t need to allow autocrats to outsource the domestic demand, and their own desire, for the perks of democratic capitalism. Without them, they may find that ruling like Stalin loses some of its allure. The Euromaidan is an inspiration. It shows that democratic values and democratic networks have become a powerful part of Ukrainian society, stronger, in some ways, than our own tired attitude
Yet it is hard to foresee a velvet conclusion to the protests, at least in the short term. Even the very best case scenario—a complete political victory for the maidan, the election of one of its leaders as president and an association agreement with the EU (the political and economic ties first proposed in 2012 but currently suspended)—will bring some disenchantment. Democracy in government is never as pretty as democracy in the streets.
That’s especially true in Ukraine, where the growth of civil society has outpaced the development of government institutions. It is no accident that the leaders of the Orange Revolution, whose personal mandate was stronger than any one leader of the maidan could today claim, failed so completely in office. The worst case scenario is a lot grimmer, and it is sadly easy to imagine. Alone, Yanukovych is unlikely to succeed in suppressing the Euromaidan. He is doubly constrained. Every time he has used force, civil society has rallied in greater numbers and with deeper conviction. Meanwhile, his domestic allies are wavering— he may well want to rule like Stalin, but he doesn’t have enough local supporters willing to help him do so.
Putin is a different story. As we saw with Georgia in 2008, he is willing to use armed force to try to bring uppity countries in the “near abroad” into line. He could be tempted to do so in Ukraine. That would be a disaster. One of the great triumphs of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that this vast, nuclear armed country did not descend into Yugoslav-style civil war. Russian military intervention in the Euromaidan would risk triggering precisely that type of conflict.
Ukraine matters so much to Putin not only because it is a juicy territory. His bigger concern is the demonstration effect. If Ukrainians, whose history and culture are so similar to Russia’s, can successfully build democratic capitalism, it would be hard to deny that possibility for Russia, too. Poland’s example is an inspiration for the Euromaidan. A democratic, rule-of-law Ukraine, closely integrated into Europe would have the same iconic appeal in Russia.
That’s why Putin will fight so hard to thwart the Euromaidan, and why we should all hope the west manages to shake off its democracy fatigue and act more forcefully in Ukraine. Precisely because Ukraine matters so much to Putin, it should matter more to us. This is a fight about the domestic viability of state capitalism and the international resolve of western democracies. This is 1956, 1968, 1981, 1989 and 1991. Let’s be sure we are on the right side of history.