Saturday, January 25, 2014

On Ukraine's burgeoning revolution

As I wrote before, the U.S. should leave the hard work of national liberation to those nations who would be liberated. What I meant was, we cannot "gift" the fruits of a struggle like that to a nation that has never known what real liberty and self-governance are about. They won't accept it; they won't make the most of it.

I said this in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it could apply in some ways to today's war -- yes, it's a war for liberation -- in Ukraine. And Ukraine is the key to Europe.

For more than two months protesters in Kyiv, Ukraine waited in the ice and snow for some compromise, some negotiations with the corrupt, Russian-ass-licking government of President Viktor Yanukovych about an Association Agreement with the EU that he had promised and negotiated toward and then a week before signing in Vilnius... reneged on.

(Read here: "Myths about the Association Agreement – setting the facts straight" from the European Union Delegation in Ukraine.)

Meanwhile, the so-called political "opposition" representing the pro-EU protesters, a troika of party leaders, failed to achieve any results; they only shouted speeches and slogans to the crowds freezing and standing stalwart on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).  

After the Kyiv police attempted to clear Maidan and beat several protesters and journalists without punishment, and after Ukraine's Verhovna Rada (national parliament) passed a series of unconstitutional laws on January 16 to outlaw protests and free assembly, free speech in the media, free use of automobiles, restrictions on social media, allowed police to search homes without a warrant, put new burdens on NGOs, etc., the protesters had had enough. The protesters literally chased off the "Big 3" and went after the Cabinet of Ministers (the highest government executive body) and the Rada.

(Left to right) Vitali Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok and Arseniy Yatsenyuk

From there it turned into armed conflict on the main streets of Kyiv. As of today, that conflict has spread to at least 12 other regions (oblasts) of Ukraine, where protesters have seized government buildings and are declaring their separation from Yanukovych's central government.  

So far, 12 oblasts of Ukraine plus the Kyiv City Administration have been seized by the people.

Starting in November 2013, the opposition has somewhat naively called for the U.S. and EU to impose sanctions on Ukraine and revoke visas and freeze bank accounts of government officials. They haven't realized that international sanctions take months if not years to put in place; and the West does not go freezing accounts willy-nilly. Anyway, sanctions have never ousted a corrupt or dictatorial regime from power; it's usually the average citizens who suffer.

The protesters -- we can call them freedom fighters now -- are a small, active minority. (But aren't all successful revolutions carried out by an active minority?) In trying to overturn the last election, let's be honest, they are acting un-democratically. But in terms of recognizing Ukraine's democracy is broken, and neither the corrupt courts nor the State-controlled media can stop violations of Ukraine's constitution by the ruling Party of Regions, they are acting in the true best interests of liberty and democracy. 

This is a hard truth to swallow, especially for outsiders who cling to the norms and values of the West, revere the sanctity of fair elections, and oppose violent means to achieve political ends.

What I know, and what you should know, is that Ukraine's government has been employing violence for years now against its citizens. Armed groups of thugs backed by government officials routinely raid successful businesses, forcing owners to sell out at firesale prices. Citizens are regularly arrested and held without charges by police, where they are beaten and intimidated, sometimes dying in custody, or leaving as vegetables. Land is simply taken from its owners and new land titles drawn up for cronies. Corrupt officials selectively enforce the law. Bureaucrats demand tributes for the most trifling government services. Its parliament and executive posts, down to the smallest district, are filled by those willing to pay for the job. 

An investigation by the police of a real crime, a decision by a judge, a slot in a preschool, a bed in a hospital, a univesity diploma -- are all contingent upon bribes, and it's not hard to find out the asking price. [See my Update below to see what I mean, in a Ukrainian business leader's own words - J].

And all this has gotten worse since Ukaine's peaceful "Orange Revolution" in 2004.

Ukraine is smeared with corruption from end to end: from pro-European West to the pro-Russian East, North to South, from the hospital where children are born to the cemetery where they are buried, and everything in between. 

What's worse, everybody admits it. The ruling Party of Regions' supporters, the politically apathetic, the so-called opposition parties -- everybody. There is not even a pretense of disagreement on the sad facts of life in Ukraine.

It is a country that is coming to a screeching halt due to bad governance and corruption. Ukraine's economy has been in and out of recession since the 2008 financial crisis. Its state finances are an ongoing IMF-bailout basket case. Foreign direct investment is drying up. Ukrainian enterpreneurs are closing their businesses, and those who can are moving their assets and families abroad. 

This is what the freedom fighters have recognized: Ukraine is too far gone for elections to fix -- elections that would probably be rigged anyhow. Moreover, the opposition parties are only marginally better than the ruling party, controlled by competing clans of oligarchs. The sickness in Ukraine goes deep, down to the roots. That is why the freedom fighters want to tear up the the system and start over. 

As I said, Westerners don't like to tell others to use violence to solve their problems. ("Do as I say, not as I do.")  But so far -- violent opposition is working. Finally President Yanukovych has called for negotiations. Personally I'm doubtful those negotiations will lead to anything that will please the protesters. But we'll see. For now, the only lesson is that violence is the only language this two-time convicted thug of a president understands and respects. 

Protester Mikhail Gavrilyuk: stripped, beaten and humiliated by 'Berkut' special police in Kyiv

As somebody who loves Ukraine and admires the bravery of those fighting for liberty, I am conflicted. But I know that, realistically, the U.S. or EU will not agree to come and save them; and morally, it is not the place of outsiders (including Vladimir Putin's Russia!) to decide Ukraine's fate.  

We can offer moral support. We can tell them their struggle is just. We can remind them that many of our countries were born in the blood of revolution. Maybe further armed conflict and bloodshed are inevitable, I don't know yet. Nevertheless, we Americans especially should not be so quick to scold those brave Ukrainians risking their lives to secure their compatriots' inalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Glory to Ukraine! To the heroes glory!

UPDATE (26.01.2014): Last night the opposition rejected President Yanukovych's power-sharing offer with Arseniy Yatsenyuk (as new PM) and Vitali Klitschko (as new deputy PM). Not only that, protesters in Kyiv seized Ukrainian House (former House of Lenin) on European Square, located strategically between Maidan and Grushevskogo street where most of the clashes are taking place: "Ukraine opposition turns down president's power-sharing offer."

UPDATE (26.01.2014): Anne Applebaum, who's supposed to be an expert on Eastern Europe and the former USSR, seems slow on the uptake in her latest WaPo op-ed, "Ukraine shows the ‘color revolution’ model is dead." See what I mean:
... once Ukrainians realize that the ideal of the color revolution is dead and the West has no tools to revive it, there may be consequences. If peaceful demonstrations don’t work, after all, some may logically conclude that it’s time to use violence. Ukrainians have indeed constructed violent resistance movements more than once in the past century.
First of all, nobody in Ukraine's opposition ever believed the U.S.-Russian construct about colored revolutions financed and organized by outsiders. (I was there for the Orange Revolution and I know the colored revolution theory is hooey: nobody "trained" or paid hundreds of thousands of people to stand out in the freezing cold for weeks and start loving each other and their country, just like nobody is pulling their strings now.) So there is nothing for Ukrainians to "realize;" only the Anne Applebaums of the Western media and diplomatic corps. Indeed, the hardcore protesters on Maidan realized weeks ago that violence must be met with violence, so Applebaum's fretting is moot. Maybe Applebaum is pretending violence hasn't happend because it so offends her Western sensibilities, and because the escalating conflict -- now a burgeoning revolution -- rejects America's conceit that it somehow has a handle on events in that part of the world?... Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

UPDATE (26.01.2014): Lately, I'm reading about quickly unfolding events in Ukraine so you don't have to. This op-ed on a Ukrainian news site really struck a chord. I think it tells those not familiar with Ukraine most everything they need to know about why these protests are happening -- indeed, why conflict with the corrupt government has been years in the making. It's by a banker who says he manages 1,000 employees in the southern "pro-Russian" port city of Odessa. Here's my translation of part of his article, "Why I go to Maidan and Grushevskogo:"
1. In the first place for my family. I want my children to grow up in Ukraine and not "Little Russia" [historically, a condescending, imperialist Russian term for Ukraine - J]'; I want them to be told at school about European, not post-Soviet, values; I want them to go to university for knowledge and new contacts, and not for teachers/bribe-takers to issue them grades; I want my children to work in any international organization in any country, and not dream to be state bureaucrats. I do it for the future. 
2. Second, for my country. It is my inner conviction that the current regime is criminal. We are not a monarchy, and I, as a citizen of this country, want to have the right, the instruments and the opportunity to change the government in this country. Anybody who takes away these instruments from me and my fellow citizens, anybody who limits our freedom, is my enemy. I am ready to fight this enemy by all means available. 
3. Finally, for myself. I do not want to be afraid. I am a cultured adult, and on the inside I'm disgusted to think that I should be afraid to go to a public hospital, afraid to contact the police, afraid to go to court. It's disgusting to think about bribery and "Untouchables" in my favorite city. About the Range Rovers of police chiefs, and Mezhigorie [President Yanukovych's palatial presidential residence -- "lawfully" leased to him at taxpayers' expense - J]. 
UPDATE 1 (28.01.2014): From CNN: "Ukraine's parliament scraps anti-protest laws, Prime Minister resigns," and President Yanukovych accepted PM Azarov's resignation.

UPDATE 2 (30.01.2014): The U.S. is considering financial sanctions against members of President Yanukovych's government, and does not rule out sanctions against leaders of Maidan, if they can be shown to be involved in violent action by activists: (Reuters): "Exclusive: U.S. readies financial sanctions against Ukraine: congressional aides".

UPDATE 3 (30.01.2014): Good article in Al Jazeera on the militancy of the protesters by the Kyiv Post's long-time editor Brian Bonner: "Ukraine front-line fighters dig in for escalating battle with government". Is it OK to call them revolutionaries yet??....

UPDATE 4 (20.02.2014):  Ukraine's revolution is still going, now looking more like a civil war. Western regions like Lutsk, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Zhytomyr, Cherkassy and Ternopil are in open revolt, forcing pro-government officials to resign, burning Interior Ministry and Security Service (KGB) buildings, burning buses emptied of "titushki" (hired thugs) headed for Kyiv, etc., etc.. For its part, Berkut and Interior Ministry troops are using live ammunition, snipers, stun grenades and deadly force on the streets of Kyiv. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded.  

Today President Yanukovich and the opposition leaders agreed to a "truce," but the looks on Kyiv's streets don't seem peaceful.  The truth is that nobody is in control of the situation. The U.S. has imposed visa bans and the Congress and Senate are writing bills to impose targeted sanctions on Ukraine. (Reuters): "Ukraine president agrees to truce with opponents as U.S. imposes visa bans." 

UPDATE (22.02.2014): Too much happening! Yesterday President Yanukovych and the opposition agreed on an interim government, and a return to the 2004 constitution. Today, the Verhovna Rada (parliament) voted on a new speaker, voted Yanukovych out of office (!), voted for new presidential elections in May, voted on a new Interior Minister (the old one has fled), voted no-confidence on the Prosecutor General (who has fled), and voted to free opposition leader Yulia Tymoschenko from jail. President Yanukovych says he's not leaving, called the protests a Nazi coup. He was in Kharkiv today, where pro-Russian deputies from the East and South gathered to strategize and show their strength. Meanwhile, his palatial mansion with infamous "golden toilet" has been taken over by pro-Maidan forces; it was like a state park, with families touring the grounds in the hundreds. (CNN):  "Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych says he's not leaving."  Notably, hardcore activists have not left Maidan, have not taken down their barricades, and are continuing to "guard" many administrative buildings!

UPDATE (23.02.2014): Here's a pretty comprehensive update of the last few days from the New York Times: "Archrival Is Freed as Ukraine Leader Flees." Pretty ominous quote ending the article:
“Nobody wants to end up owning all the problems that Ukraine faces,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “the country is bankrupt, it has a terrible, broken system of government and insane levels of corruption.”
The big question for many and yours truly, what will the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol do now? A delegation of about 100 deputies and officials from Crimea attended a meeting Saturday in Kharkiv with Party of Regions and Communist Party members, where they declared they would take control locally of ensuring the constitutional order.  Over the past few weeks, the speaker of Crimea's supreme council (parliament) Konstantinov has been making noises about independence for Crimea, and/or joining Russia. Today the Verhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine is asking the new Interior Minister what he's going to do about burgeoning separatism. So the threat of civil war is not over. Mostly it depends on the resolve of Crimea's (former) ruling Party of Regions members to risk the wrath of Kyiv.... But their political power is on the line, and they may be willing to risk anything to hold onto power, especially if Russia will throw in with the South and East of Ukraine.

UPDATE (25.02.2014): The Western media is not picking up on it yet, but the rumor is that President Yanukovych, who is now a wanted man, is hiding in Sevastopol under the protection of the Russian Naval Fleet. On Sunday the mayor of Sevastopol resigned and the people tried to nominate a Russian citizen (!) as their new mayor. If Russia is going to make trouble in Ukraine -- the bad, bad kind, Georgia-style -- it will probably start in Sevastopol, where its fleet is based, where many residents are Russian citizens and/or very pro-Russian....

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