Ukrainian blues

By on March 13, 2014

Stratfor’s George Friedman has written the best thing I’ve seen on the developing situation in Ukraine. I liked it because it put its finger on something that had nagged at me.

Like most of us, my instinctive reaction was – and is – to identify with the opposition to the former Yanukovych government. After all, he’s a corrupt thug who wished to turn Ukraine towards Moscow rather than Europe. And if I was living there, that certainly wouldn’t be my concept of an attractive future.

Then again, corruption is apparently endemic in Ukraine, and Yanukovych was elected in what’s generally seen to have been a fair vote. Call me old fashioned, but elected governments succumbing to passionate crowds makes me uneasy. And that discomfort doesn’t go away even when, as in this case, I sympathise with the aspirations of the crowd.

Friedman’s piece is insightful on the dynamics of it all. It’s as if we’re primed to see “a passionate crowd massed in the square as the voice of the people.”

But who do the Kyiv demonstrators represent. Obviously, they represent themselves, and presumably the overwhelming majority of opinion in western Ukraine. But there’s scant evidence that they represent the bulk of people in eastern Ukraine, let alone Crimea.
The powerful televised images from Kyiv notwithstanding, a look at the electoral map from the 2010 election is illuminating. What it displays is a picture of severe regional polarization. Eastern Ukraine went heavily for Yanukovych – for instance, he pulled better than 70 per cent in Crimea – while the western part of the country went the other way.

And as the BBC notes, “The areas where a significant proportion of people speak Russian almost exactly match those that voted for Mr. Yanukovych in 2010.” Put another way, the fault lines are ethnic, cultural and linguistic. Sometimes it seems that nothing changes.
To me, there are several takeaways from this mess.

First, it underlines how the diversity is our strength mantra can become very hollow very quickly. Whether it was the Sudetenland in 1938, Sarajevo in the 1990s, or Ukraine today, the combination of ethnically-linked identities and related grievances, real or imagined, can have very nasty consequences.

Here in Canada, enthusiastic multi-culturalism is perceived as a general purpose inoculant against problems of this sort. And hopefully it is. But as columnist Robert Fulford pungently noted with respect to Sarajevo, “multi-cultural richness didn’t keep them from killing each other when the opportunity arose.”

Second, there’s the reminder that democracy truly is a fragile flower, one that does best in a culture that recognizes limits and honours restraint. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the modern Western version took root in an era of limited government.
When government doesn’t reach into every nook and cranny of life, you can afford to have your faction lose an election. Life will go on. But as government’s reach extends, what American journalist Peggy Noonan calls the “politicization of everything” dramatically raises the stakes.

Third, some supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration are starting to wonder whether it’s as smartly sophisticated as they thought it was. Despite being a generally Obama-friendly paper, the Washington Post’s March 2 editorial pulls no punches, opining that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy.”

Indeed, as exemplified by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous reset button, better relations with Russia were to be a prime example of this sophistication in action. But as the Post now observes, it was a policy “based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality.”

The Post’s point is that Obama has been remiss in not credibly structuring costs and benefits so as to deter other global players from undesirable action. Maybe they’re right. Then again, as Obama did make clear from the get-go, an assertive American foreign policy wasn’t his particular cup of tea. So perhaps it’s a bit late for their being surprised.

Finally, there’s the matter of power and the will to use it. In the current Crimean context, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to possess both in abundance. And while we rightly deplore his actions, our disapproval makes little difference to the facts on the ground.
To borrow a phrase from the author V.S. Naipaul, “The world is what is.” And it’s cold outside. In fact, it’s very cold. -TroyMedia

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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