Is Ukraine’s fight for democracy led by democrats?
A Nov. 21 fallout in Ukrainian–European Union relations has led hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to protest the alleged autocratic rule of President Viktor Yanukovych and his failure to reach an economic deal with the EU. Yanukovych has expressed interest in European integration since his 2010 presidential campaign, but wanting to avoid EU austerity demands has reverted to his party’s established connections with Russia.
Ukraine’s protestors have faced violent police repression. Unsurprisingly, pro-European, anti-Russian, liberal Westerners, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have chided the Ukrainian government for oppressing demonstrations. While it’s right to call out this violence, liberals should not identify too closely with the Ukrainian opposition, which is peppered with a range of corrupt and reactionary political tendencies.
The centre-right UDAR and Batkivshchyna parties head Ukraine’s opposition. Batkivshchyna’s leader, gas-tycoon-turned-politician Yulia Tymoshenko, helped lead the 2004 Orange Revolution, a movement that briefly empowered pro-EU parties but then failed to improve living standards, mediate ethnic divides, or quell corruption. She is now in jail on politically tainted, but somewhat legally and popularly legitimized, corruption charges.
Another leading group in Ukraine’s opposition is Svodoba, a far-right party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has raved about the threat of the “muscovite-Jewish mafia” and “Jewish Bolsheviks.”
The far-right showed its influence when demonstrators pulled down a statue of Lenin; neither Viktor Yanukovych nor Vladamir Putin follow Lenin’s socialist example. From a Russophobic, fascist perspective, however, all three are equally involved in a conspiracy to destroy Ukraine.
But Ukrainian opposition is winning the propaganda war in the West because of two key cognitive biases.
One of these biases is the natural tendency to side with proponents of Western-style liberal values—people who protest for free speech, democracy, etc. This not only applies to Ukraine, but also to the recent cases of Libya and Syria.
While liberal principles can serve a diversity of people for many reasons, the struggle for pure liberalism is not at the heart of Global South conflicts. The ideas of liberalism resonate in the West because many affluent Westerners can sustain the blow of having a political party come to power that does not serve their interests. The same cannot be said in countries where economic crises hit harder and ethno-religious divides manifest more directly.
In Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, supposed freedom fighters proved to be reactionary, religious militias. In Ukraine, where people’s voting interests often align with their ethnic background and leading political parties are accused of large-scale corruption and varying degrees of reactionary nationalism, it’s also a mistake to present conflicts as simple fights between liberals and oppressors.
Western political perceptions tend to view the enemies of “liberal” movements as distinct evils. While there is certainly reason to denounce the Ukrainian government’s crackdowns on protests and its links with various oligarchic financial structures, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions should be viewed in the same way as loathed domestic politicians.
On Nov. 30, riot police performed what has been described as the most violent police crackdown in Ukraine’s history. Armed with tear gas and truncheons, they reportedly injured 79 people and arrested nine. As abhorrent as this sounds, it is not an act our own governments could not have committed: according to a police report on the anti-G20 demonstrations in Toronto, 1,118 people were arrested and 39 arrestees reported being injured.
By viewing the Yanukovyches of the world not as cartoon villains but as Stephen Harpers (or any flawed Western politician of your choice), one can form nuanced conclusions about their political legitimacy. This kind of analysis, for instance, makes it possible for one to sympathize with some demands of the Ukrainian protesters while still maintaining due concern about the role of Svodoba and other reactionary political forces in their movement.
Ukraine’s Orange revolution won great praise in the West despite its ultimate failure to satisfy even its most ardent domestic supporters. Westerners who are willing to learn from history should continue to ask questions about Ukraine’s demonstrations and learn to scrutinize their support of popular movements, no matter how liberal they may seem.
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