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Ukraine: the view from the west

What is happening in Ukraine has provoked outrage and shock in the west. But do we really understand what we’re talking about?

 

David Marples
20 February 2014

Following the failure of the Ukrainian Government to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union at the Vilnius summit last November, the world witnessed the protests termed the Euromaidan. Reminiscent of the Orange Revolution, the crowds soon swelled to hundreds of thousands at their peak. The western media described it as a quest by Ukraine’s young people for democracy and a European path. Today, however, young people no longer comprise the majority.

Following the failure of the Ukrainian Government to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union at the Vilnius summit last November, the world witnessed the protests termed the Euromaidan. Reminiscent of the Orange Revolution, the crowds soon swelled to hundreds of thousands at their peak. The western media described it as a quest by Ukraine’s young people for democracy and a European path. Today, however, young people no longer comprise the majority.

As an observer from afar, I found myself watching a live video stream of the confrontation between Berkut riot police and demonstrators in Maidan [Independence Square], and silently cheering when the former failed to break through the barricades. Nonetheless, I find several factors related to more recent western reporting of the Euromaidan phenomenon disturbing.

Uncritical support

The first is the overt and uncritical support for the civic uprising in the western media and social networks. On Facebook and Twitter, reports from sources such as Ukrains’ka Pravda simply abandoned any pretence of objectivity, from the outset. I have received various emails and social media requests to sign petitions or in other ways express solidarity with the protesters. In short, many western reporters and academic analysts have become supporters and advocates rather than critical observers.

Many western reporters and academic analysts have become supporters and advocates rather than critical observers

A second concern is the intrusion into the protests of extremist elements, as symbolised by the huge portrait of Stepan Bandera hanging outside Kyiv city hall, alongside the slogan “headquarters of the revolution.” It coincided with a parade on January 1, 2014, the birth date of Bandera, the former leader of a branch of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the views of which are a far cry from the sort of principles embraced by Eurocrats in Brussels. The red-black flag of OUN is displayed prominently whenever the demonstrators re-congregate en masse. The Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and soccer fan ‘ultras’ have been responsible for the most violent responses to the Berkut.

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Pictures of Stepan Bandera have been spotted at recent protests in Ukraine. Bandera remains a controversial figure both in Ukraine and internationally. Photo CC: wikipedia

Some scholars — and they include friends of mine — maintain that the influence of these extremists is exaggerated, and that the majority of the protesters are ordinary folks who sincerely seek an end to corruption, and are looking to democratic western Europe for support. Yet it is the members of the far right who are maintaining the barricades at night, and who have taken over government buildings. Dmytro Yarosh, who operates from the fifth floor of the seized Trade Union building, is the leader of Pravy Sektor, and describes his forces as “soldiers of the national revolution.” He has little or no interest in preserving democracy. His forces have occupied government buildings in at least ten cities of Ukraine. It need hardly be added that no one has voted for Yarosh, nor would he likely win a seat in a free election.

The goals

The second issue is the goals of the protesters. From the west, it has never been clear exactly what these are, other than a desire to be part of “Europe,” and, latterly, a wish to remove the current government. The swelling of the crowds has coincided precisely with the irrational and clueless responses of the leadership — shootings, kidnappings, etc. In other words, the issues arise instantaneously in response to events or perceived events. We do not see a premeditated and clearly thought out programme of action with clear goals, from the majority of those who have been in Maidan.

The swelling of the crowds has coincided precisely with the irrational and clueless responses of the leadership

This second question is linked to the first because it raises the question of what will be the makeup of any replacement regime if it includes substantial representation from far right political parties like Svoboda, which could not hope to be part of the leadership effected through the ballot box. Ukraine’s more moderate parties and their leaders have not so far distanced themselves from the radical extremists. The Government has already tried to exploit such ambivalence with its (abortive) introduction (January 16) of changes to the Criminal Code, imposing penalties for the public denial of the crimes of Fascism. That it failed does not negate the fact that it was presented with the opportunity.

Brutal but democratically elected

Third, and conversely, it is nevertheless plain that the Yanukovych regime is corrupt and brutal, and does not hesitate to use violent and deadly force against peaceful protesters. It has demonstrated in recent years that it is willing to subvert the law courts, beat up its enemies, enrich its friends, and generally purloin the resources of the country it is supposed to rule. On those grounds, without doubt, the protests make sense, and it is time for change.

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The west is clearly unsure about how to handle Yanukovych, a brutal but democratically-elected president. Photo CC: wikipedia

But should we in the west support the removal of an elected president by force? Isn't this an admission that the current electoral system in Ukraine is unworkable? Yet the most recent 2012 parliamentary elections in the country reflected very closely the results of opinion polls. Moreover, and not so long ago, most polls (before the events of the recent days, however) were still suggesting that if there were to be a presidential election today, Yanukovych would be leading in the first round, but would lose to most opposition leaders in a second-round run-off. The elections will be held early next year, so why not wait and remove him by popular vote? Have those Ukrainians who are frustrated by what they perceive as the lack of positive support from Brussels for the Maidan protests forgotten what happened in Egypt, or Libya, and, perhaps especially, Iraq when unsavoury leaders were removed by force?

Should we in the west support the removal of an elected president by force?

Different opinions

Fourth, throughout the protests, opinion polls have been circulated, which suggest that support for and opposition to Euromaidan is distributed fairly evenly (40-50% in favour; and about 40% opposed).Russian intervention and Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, Ukraine itself is bitterly divided, but few in the western media are speaking with those on the other side of the divide. It is facile to suggest that most or all of them are supporters of the Party of Regions or Communists. It is even more simplistic to suggest that Donetsk-based Regionnaires would rather be part of the Russian Customs Union when for many of them that would mean the curtailment of a lucrative and freebooting lifestyle based in part on trade with Europe.

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There is no such thing as an average Ukrainian. People think differently about both Yanukovych and the protesters. Photo CC: oxlaey.com

Is there such a thing as an average Ukrainian resident?

Is there such a thing as an average Ukrainian resident and, if such a person exists, could he or she possibly comprehend the prism through which western analysts observe Ukraine? It would be naïve, I think, to believe that this imaginary figure would necessarily stand firmly either behind those at the barricades or the corrupt regime, and one could be fairly sure that he/she would wish to keep a healthy distance from either the Ukrainian oligarchs or the machinations of Moscow. The portrait of Bandera would likely induce similar concerns.

Keep your eye on the grey

Unfortunately, it seems, the era of objective reporting, insofar as it can exist or ever existed, is over. It has been replaced by simplistic evocations of the virtues of western democracy versus the perils of Russian authoritarianism, illustrated by the evil president (Vladimir Putin) and the bloodied journalist (Tetiana Chornovol) or opposition leader (Yuri Lutsenko). In taking such stances, western observers insert their own beliefs as the ones best suited for the people of Ukraine; their cause is our cause. But we need to adopt a broader perspective, one that encompasses the views of all residents of Ukraine. Revolutions are complicated affairs, and there is always more grey than black and white.

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