As Ukraine’s President Flees in Overthrow, Lessons for Kyiv from the Arab Upheavals

(By Juan Cole)

The dramatic overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday, as he fled the presidential palace and it was occupied by extreme nationalists, recalls events in the Middle East in 2011.

The crisis in the Ukraine was provoked last fall when Yanukovych reconsidered earlier moves toward integration with Europe. He is from the east of the country, which has many ethnic Russians and which is economically, culturally and historically deeply entwined with Russia. The offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin of $15 billion in aid helped to make Yanukovych’s mind up.

In my view US aggressiveness in the past 23 years is part of the problem here. The US insisted on expanding NATO by absorbing former Warsaw Pact members and humiliating Russia. The rise of Putin is in part a reaction against that humiliation. Russia is reasserting itself as a great power, carving out spheres of influence in the old 19th century way. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Syria are in those spheres of influence. In the 19th century, wars often were caused by one country not respecting another’s proclaimed spheres of influence.

Both liberal and right wing youth in the west of Ukraine as well as in the southern capital of Kyiv (Kiev) were upset by the turn away from Europe. They hope for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union and entertain hopes that this step would improve their economic prospects. (Given the sad economic state of Spain, Greece and other EU members, including persistent unemployment of a quarter or more of the youth, this conviction is a little difficult to understand). The more extreme nationalists are reacting against what they see as Russian dominance (a mirror image of right wing Greek politics, which is anti-liberal and anti-EU).

Ethnolingusitic_map_of_ukraine (h/t Wikimedia commons)

Yanukovych was forced to give up the enhanced powers he had grabbed for himself and to restore the 2004 constitution. Parliament immediately acted with its renewed powers, and impeached Yanukovych. Street politics did the rest.

The country is now in turmoil. Formerly jailed opposition leader Tymoshenko has been freed from a 7-year jail sentence (she ran against Yanukovych in 2010 and when she lost he jailed her). She had played a role in the Orange Revolution a decade ago, but has high negatives and some charge she is corrupt. She has announced she will run for president in polls now scheduled for May.

Here are some parallels to the Arab upheavals of 2011 and suggestions for how Ukraine can avoid another failure in transitioning to democracy.

* It is good that the Ukraine military has declared neutrality. In Libya and Syria military intervention turned peaceful protests into a civil war. In contrast, in Tunisia, the military declared neutrality, which contributed to that country’s peaceful transition.

* Geographical divisions such as those in the Ukraine can be deadly to political progress. The grievances of the easterners in Libya have affected oil production. Likewise, in Yemen some of the post-revolution violence and protests have come from southerners unhappy at northern dominance. Despite their victory on Saturday, the western forces would be wise to seek a compromise with the east rather than simply attempting to dictate to the latter.

* The economy is key. People want employment and they want predictable currency rates for imports. Despite the severe economic problems in the European Union and in the US, the latter two must step up to help in a serious way or a limping Ukrainian economy could provoke further turmoil. Whereas in Tunisia modest growth was restored in 2012 and 2013, in Egypt a declining pound harmed citizens dependent on imported goods (including food, since Egypt can no longer feed itself). In Tunisia there was a successful transition to new elections. In Egypt, a vast popular movement challenged the elected president and then the military moved against him. Differing economic performance is part of the reason.

* Political compromise is necessary. Allies of Yanukovych may wish to run in the May elections They should be allowed to (I’m assuming that since parliament impeached Yanukovych he won’t be eligible to complete his term or run for a new one.) Tunisia’s elite hammered out and abided by difficult compromises.

* Extremists can play spoiler. The Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and other extremist groups have made it difficult for that country to move smoothly toward a new model– as, e.g. Brazil had done when it left behind dictatorship in the past two decades. The equivalent group in Tunisia, by assassinating two left wing politicians, roiled politics in 2013.

It turns out that it is easier to get rid of a government you don’t like than to actively acquire a government you do like.

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17 Responses

  1. Unfortunately the “Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine” does not include the Crimean Tatars as a minority. According to the 2011 Ukrainian census, Crimean Tatars number 248,200 and are the 5th largest ethnic group in Ukraine. The largest ethnic groups in Ukraine (in descending order) are Ukrainians, Russians, Belarussians, Moldavians, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Tatars [including Kazan Tatars?-US], Gipsies, etc. See: link to 2001.ukrcensus.gov.ua

  2. You write:

    “In my view US aggressiveness in the past 23 years is part of the problem here. The US insisted on expanding NATO by absorbing former Warsaw Pact members and humiliating Russia. The rise of Putin is in part a reaction against that humiliation. Russia is reasserting itself as a great power, carving out spheres of influence in the old 19th century way. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Syria are in those spheres of influence. In the 19th century, wars often were caused by one country not respecting another’s proclaimed spheres of influence.”

    So it is aggressive to permit countries which have liberated themselves from several decades of brutal imperial rule to join the alliance of their choice because it would humiliate the former imperial oppressor.

    You might argue that as a matter of realpolitik it was unwise to allow eastern European countries to Join NATO, but the word “aggression” carries with it moral and legalistic connotations which suggest that you would consider that continued Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe would have constituted a morally justified state of affairs.

    To propose that it is justified that ex-colonial states should continue to be subjugated in significant regards to their former imperial masters would suggest that you subscribe to some of the basic tenets of imperialist ideology.

    • Putin’s Russia is a part of the oil cartel, trying to keep the prices stable (both from rising too much or falling too much) and keep the oil bubble intact for years. This is why Russia is allowed to keep it’s spheres of influence at all. In the case of Ukraine it was not USA who took Ukraine away from Russia. The USA wanted stability. It was the work of Ukrainians who freed themselves as they are anti-authoritarian and wanted to be a part of the free Europe and support their families.

    • I agree, Nick, that “aggression” is a wrong, even risible, word choice.

      Nonetheless, it’s not as if NATO has merely sat back and watched these former Soviet-bloc nations come to us. We’ve actively courted them, and pushed for NATO expansion right up to Russia’s borders. Perhaps it would have been wiser to work for a demilitarized zone of neutrality.

  3. “Given the sad economic state of Spain, Greece and other EU members, including persistent unemployment of a quarter or more of the youth, this conviction is a little difficult to understand.”

    much less so if you consider actual standards of living in those countries; less so, too, if you look at former east-bloc countries now part of the EU, which the Ukrainians likely are. Also less hard to understand if you don’t like the idea of it being proper for another country to place you under an ‘influence” that dominates your political and economic life.. .

  4. “The presidential palace was occupied by extreme nationalists.”

    Juan,

    Respectfully, that is the most uninformed comment I have read.

    Please check the countless sources of information and news footage showing that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians calling for the overthrow of President Yanukovich are average, peaceful citizens, who want closer ties with Europe and to prosper in a country that is not rife with corruption and intimidation.

    Andrew Havryliv
    Sydney, Australia

    • Yes, Andrew. I agree. However, some extreme nationalists did occupy the presidential palace and it does no one any good to ignore that they are one element here.

      • Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya Estate was originally a “gift” from an admiring oligarch
        Being a kleptoligarch in waiting Yanuk parlayed his 100,000 Euro salary into snaring 20,000 gold taps over a bath..
        Can a “serious commentator” like Juan Cole be taken seriously again by asserting that “the Ukraine” should be sanguine in
        the embrace of the Russian bear.

        • Professor Cole did no such thing.

          It does not make him a proponent of Russian control of Ukraine that he chose not to push the opposition’s spin.

    • Sadly predictable that, in both cases, it is merely assumed, without any shred of evidence, that the eeeeeeeeeevil United States is behind the uprisings.

    • Keep in mind that the main figures of antiwar.com are apologists for the likes of the ethnocidal Serbian regime of Milosevic and the other worst figures of the Yugoslav wars, and they tend to see the hand of America absolutely everywhere.

      Granted, America has a very bad record– most prominently during the Cold War years– of meddling in other people’s countries (same with the SU), but there is no evidence beyond “American representatives support the demonstrators” of covert American actions. It’s largely the bleating of Maduro in Venezuela and others who seemingly are incapable of supposing that the post-Chavez government can make any mistakes at all ever.

      Note that the demonstrators in both cases aren’t calling for some “American hegemony” over their countries in any way, shape, or form.

  5. I read recently that the pundits say “third time is a charm” when it comes to “successful” regime change and “democratization by upheaval” (with or without ‘encouragement’ by sneaky-petes and jackals from whichever Empire). What number is Ukraine on now?

    We see ordinary, wondering Ukrainians walking over the enormous estate that Yanukovych had built for himself on his 100,000 Euro stipend, and whatever else he could steal, erected and maintained by people glad to have a job, to be opportunely near the orifice that suctions in all the real wealth to convert into excesses like these: “A walking tour of Mezhyhirya, formerly Yanukovych’s opulent estate,” link to kyivpost.com A nice bit of context is here: link to telegraph.co.uk
    The kind of living “enjoyed” by a very few kleptocratic Robber Barons in other places, too, like Putin, link to bornrich.com ,and “Wall Streeters,” link to dailymotion.com , and of course the capi de tuti capi of the military-industrial Internationale, like these dudes: link to content.time.com And it’s nothing new, either the over-the-top grandiosity based on looting, or the attitudes of the denizens: link to cnn.com

    And near Kyiv, “militant nationalists,” apparently the kind of organized paramilitary that you see all over, these days, controls the Presidential Palace and stuff, and since “the military” does not seem to be as “invested” in the larger economy as in, say, Egypt, the troops may stay in their barracks, as the saying goes.

    All this for what? To make better lives for the common man and woman who labor to make the Real Wealth, maintain their communities, feed their families? Any bets on what the next round looks like? Making a healthier and more stable and less consumptive (and hence less species-suicidal) place is so very tough, when all the vultures and jackals whose life ambitions are to live like Yanukovych on his estate, with bribes and the national treasury open to his whims are constantly circling, looking for a way to bring this population into an “alliance” or bring “development” and “contracts” and “deals” whereby the extractable wealth can be more quickly and efficiently gutted out of the place.

    The jackals and vultures have binocular but fixated vision, on stripping wealth and subjugating and controlling the ordinary people, by all the stratagems that aggressive, there’s that word, colonial and Imperial and now supra-post-national corporate “interests” deploy. They “win” by have an organizing principle that has nothing to do with “general welfare,” and if you look at what Shell and BP and Big Coal and the Global Network-Centric Battlespace Managers are strategically up to, positively slavering about the “opportunities” that are being “opened up,” like the chance to strip the Arctic and Antarctic regions of extractables, and link up all the world’s predatory militaries “interoperably,” including Ukraine. Want a taste of grasping cynicism of the the worst (from the ordinary person’s standpoint) kind? Lookie here, and related sources: link to slate.com So what’s next? Shell’s “Blueprints,” or more likely “Scramble,” or a mashup of “Soylent Green” and “Mad Max” and “The Postman?”

    So where, and more important, will, the ordinary people of Kyiv and Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk and the rest of us find an organizing principle to counter the greed-driven consumption that so many of us are so ardently pursuing ourselves? How to lay a course to something other than over the cliff (except, of course, for the very few who will float away, maximally titillated and scot-free)?

  6. “It turns out that it is easier to get rid of a government you don’t like than to actively acquire a government you do like.”

    Say what you will about the old Soviet system, but it created effective, strong, even independent (in the sense of not being based on personality) institutions that could be reoriented and repurposed by new regimes. Former Soviet client states and “republics” didn’t have to build the institutions of state from the ground up, the way the poor Libyans are struggling to do in the aftermath of the fall of the Gadhaffi kook-ocracy.

    The Ukrainian military has declared neutrality, which is good. When the dust settles, that neutral military will swear its allegiance to whatever government takes over, and will effectively keep the peace.

  7. While I, too, am skeptical of the extent of the NATO expansion project, let’s not work too hard casting about to explain why the right-wing nationalist in the Kremlin wants to maintain the client-status of the countries that were traditionally part of the Russian empire.

    Hans Morganthau had the right of it in the early Cold War era: this is what Russia does. Russia is Russia, whether it’s a monarchy, a communist state, or a nominal electoral republic.

    Russia wants Ukraine in 2014 for the same reasons they wanted it in the previous century, and the one before that, and the one before that.

  8. Me thinks that the pro EU factions are more anti Russia that they are enamoured of the EU. Kind of more an “anything but Russia”. And for the reasons joe from Lowell stated above. A history of bad vibes from Russia.

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