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Photo Credit/Aleksej Leonov

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This Wednesday, June 9, the Munk School of Global Affairs, in conjunction with the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine, hosted Sir Suma Chakrabarti, the President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to discuss his work on Ukrainian political-economic development.


Chakrabarti was introduced and congratulated by Toronto Centre Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, whose riding will include U of T’s St. George campus in the next federal election.

 

Though officially Freeland was just a host for main attraction Chakrabarti, the two together formed an interesting political partnership, with Chakrabarti playing the role of near apolitical motivational speaker and Freeland playing the role of impassioned political populist. The result? Freeland got to pander for votes from part of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, while Chakrabarti was able to dodge any flack he could earn by coming off in too ideological a light. Together, they awed most of the crowd all while speaking from a fairly narrow political perspective.

 

Freeland introduced the talk by discussing her long-held passion for Eastern European development, noting she had been in Ukraine to study democratization in the mid-’80s. She failed to mention whether Boris Yeltsin’s undemocratic dissolution of the U.S.S.R. undermined that learning experience, but I digress. Freeland also introduced a recurring theme in the discussion—the so called “Polish path,” which is in essence the hope that Ukraine should develop and integrate itself with Western Europe as successfully as Poland.

 

Chakrabarti then took the podium for roughly twenty-five minutes. He bemoaned how much Ukraine has suffered, noting that when it gained independence from the Soviet Union it was more prosperous than Poland. He acknowledged the continuing struggles the country has faced, including having its currency drop in value 50 per cent in 2014 and losing production due to civil war in the highly industrial east. That said, he is very optimistic for the country’s current government, which he described as the “most reform-minded” government Ukraine has had and the most professional government the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has worked with.

 

Chakrabarti briefly highlighted a few efforts the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has made in Ukraine, including helping improve gas pipeline technology on the condition that reforms be made to improve industry transparency, and helping with the continuing effort to cleanup for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. His rhetorical goal, however, was to heap arguably fluffy praise on Ukraine’s government, noting his organization’s goal was to “help Ukraine, help itself.”

 

Chakrabarti’s speech was followed by a question period. While most of the questions were politically friendly, one questioner asked Chakrabarti to respond to the fact that Ukraine was a failed state with neo-Nazi ministers in its government. The questioner also suggested Ukraine should recognize the right to self-determination for its Russian-speaking separatist regions. This particular question allowed the unofficial Chakrabarti-Freeland alliance to flex its political muscle. Chakrabarti dodged most of the question, simply arguing that Ukraine is not quite a “failed state.” A few minutes later, Freeland added an ideological punch to Chakrabarti’s passivity, again bringing up the red herring of the term “failed state,” to denounce it as sneaky Putinist propaganda.

 

Two of Chakrabarti’s other answers in the Q&A period were particularly striking. When asked whether he supported shock therapy (rapid economic privatization), Chakrabarti argued that he did not, suggesting privatization has been wrongfully given a bad name as a result of it being applied in countries (like Ukraine) with underdeveloped legal institutions. The question was notably raised by someone who used Poland (see a pattern here?) and Russia as examples of states that were, respectively, more and less successful with shock therapy.

 

The other notable Chakrabarti answer was also on the topic of institutions. Chakrabarti argued Ukraine had some good structures in place and that good progress was being made, but that ultimately Ukraine had to push towards developing incorruptible public institutions.

 

So what message could be drawn from the combined effort of Freeland’s Ukrainian-aimed populism and Chakrabarti’s Ukrainian cheerleading? One could argue that Ukraine’s foremost problem is corruption, and that corruption, to cite a point only Freeland was willing to speak to directly, is the result of a supposed ideology known as Putinism.

 

There’s a problem with that logic, however. Corruption is by definition acting without principle for one’s self-interest. Corruption is the opposite of ideology, so anyone who sticks to ideological principles, no matter how deplorable that ideology may be, is not technically being corrupt.

 

And thus we find corruption in all political systems, no matter what context they operate in or what institutions are in place. In the United States for instance, a recent study found half of all retiring U.S. Senators become lobbyists. While perhaps it can be argued that legal institutions can stop some forms of corruption (i.e., the Russian-Ukrainian associated approach of favoring some oligarchs while jailing others on semi-legitimate corruption charges), they cannot stop processes like lobbying, which can be corrupt in spirit but aren’t recognized as such by law in capitalist societies.

 

So why then were Freeland and Chakrabarti cheerleading the demise of Putinist ideology without even beginning to show that Putinism was an isolated, coherent entity? This is where geopolitics comes in. Putin’s regime may be anti-egalitarian, reactionarily-nationalist and homophobic, but even if the Kremlin was a hippie commune, Western political figures like Freeland and Chakrabarti would still have reason to oppose it, because it remains a geopolitical rival to NATO. When bringing up Poland (sigh) for a final time, Freeland challenged the audience to imagine how much worse the world we live in would be if Poland had followed the path of 1990s and 2000s’ Ukraine, noting it would mean a Russian ally would be on Germany’s border. In making this statement, Freeland not only successfully pandered to (the presumably strong) anti-Putin sentiment in the crowd, but she also made a point that was oddly indifferent to people living in Ukraine and, for that matter, Poland.

 

Yes, today Poland is staunchly in the NATO camp and thus a good neighbor for the West. As noted in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, however, its post-Soviet transition was hardly the miracle Chakrabarti and Freeland made it out to be. By 2003, 44 per cent more Poles were below the poverty line than there were when Poland’s socialist period ended.

 

Should Ukraine aim to be Poland, or something better? That was an option that the Freeland-Chakrabarti tandem did not challenge their audience to consider, just as voting for the Ukrainian Communist Party is not an option Ukraine’s “democratic” government would like voters to consider, as they are moving to ban it. While it is easy to agree with Sir Suma’s closing call for Ukraine and its supporters to “keep the faith,” can’t that faith be for something a little more inspiring than an imitation of neoliberal Poland?

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