Would anyone anywhere in the world be willing to take a truncheon in the head for the sake of a trade agreement with the United States?
This is the question we Americans might be asking ourselves these last few days, as we watch young Ukrainians being beaten in Kiev for protesting their own government’s decision not to enter an association agreement with the European Union. The accord, which was to be signed on November 29, offered Ukraine access to the world’s largest market. But more importantly, it seemed to hold out to Ukraine’s youth and middle classes a symbolic assurance that a future of normal, civilized, European life awaited. When that promise was not kept, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of their capital. After some of them were assaulted by riot police on November 30, hundreds of thousands more have gone into the streets, in Kiev and around the country.
If this is a revolution, it must be one of the most common-sense revolutions in history. But the desire of so many to be able to have normal lives in a normal country is opposed by two fantasies, one of them now exhausted and the other extremely dangerous.
The exhausted fantasy is that of Ukraine’s geopolitical significance. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych seems to believe, and he is not alone, that because Ukraine lies between the European Union and Russia, each side must have an interest in controlling it, and therefore that smart geopolitics involves turning them against each other. What he does not understand is that these are two very different sorts of players. For the EU even to reach the point of offering an association agreement, creative European leaders (Carl Bildt of Sweden and Radek Sikorski of Poland) had to make an insistent push to gain support from member states, and hundreds of constituencies had to be satisfied. Yanukovych seems to have thought he could simply ask the EU for cash, on the logic that Putin was offering him the same. There is a point where cynicism turns into naïveté.
The EU will not be offering loans until Ukraine makes the legislative reforms demanded by Brussels. Nor is it really very likely that Putin will come through with large sums unless Yanukovych agrees to join Russia’s Eurasian Union, which would amount to the end of Yanukovych’s power since it would amount to the end of Ukrainian sovereignty. Certainly no one in global financial markets seems to be counting on Russian assistance. Without financial aid from one side of the other, Ukraine will likely experience negative economic growth in 2014, which apart from everything else renders Yanukovych’s chances for reelection in 2015 slim. (Yanukovych flew to China during the protests, which makes a kind of sense. If what he wants to do is put his own country on the chopping block, the Chinese are eager to purchase its most interesting asset: its arable land.)
The dangerous fantasy is the Russian idea that Ukraine is not really a different country, but rather a kind of slavic younger brother. This is a legacy of the late Soviet Union and the russification policies of the 1970s. It has no actual historical basis: east slavic statehood arose in what is now Ukraine and was copied in Moscow, and the early Russian Empire was itself highly dependent upon educated inhabitants of Ukraine.
The politics of memory of course have little to do with the facts of history. Putin unsurprisingly finds it convenient to ignore Russia’s actual regional rival, China, and play upon a Russian sense of superiority in eastern Europe by linking Kiev to Moscow. But this move has its risks, which Putin must now consider. After all, can he be certain which way the influence will travel? If Ukraine can be a democracy, then why can’t Russia? If Ukraine can have mass protests, then why can’t Russia? If Ukraine can be European, then why can’t Russia?
Russian television is informing those who still watch it that the Ukrainian protests are the work of operators paid by Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania. The worrying thing about this sort of claim is that it establishes a pretext for “further” intervention. If the West is already “present,” then there’s every reason for Russia to be as well. If Yanukovych decides to declare martial law he will almost certainly fail to control the country. The riot police of Berkut can be counted on to beat protesters a few more times, but the behavior of the regular police, and the Ukrainian army, is far less predictable. Some reports have already indicated that policemen have supported the protesters, at least in the western part of the country. If Yanukovych tries force and fails, then Putin might claim that Russian military intervention is needed to restore order.
This would be the worst of all possible outcomes—for Ukraine of course, but perhaps above all for Russia. The absorption of Ukrainian lands by the USSR involved almost unbelievable levels of violence over the course of decades. Another Russian armed adventure in Ukraine now would likely fail, for all kinds of reasons. Russian soldiers cannot have much stomach for invading a land whose people speak their mother tongue and who, they are told, are brother slavs. Ukraine, for all of its visible political divisions, is a single country with a big army whose people generally believe in sovereignty. A Russian military intervention would bring bloodshed on a scale that people of the region know all too well.
Indeed, it is the simple desire for peace, and the achievement of peace, that makes the European Union attractive in Kiev and elsewhere. What might be done now to make peace and prosperity more likely in the Ukrainian future? The protesters have few options. They cannot force their own officials to sign a trade agreement. A vote of no confidence in the current government has already been called and lost. No elections are on the horizon, and Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless some sort of deal can be struck.
No matter what happens now, the Yanukovych presidency will likely be remembered as a disaster. He has more support in the south and east of the country than elsewhere, but nowhere near enough to make a credible run for high office a second time. His chances for reelection depend upon chicanery (one potential opponent, Julia Tymoshenko, is in prison, another, Vitaly Klitschko, has been excluded from eligibility by an obviously ad personam law). If Yanukovych were willing to cede power now, it might be less risky than trying to wait more than a year to lose the next elections. The winners of the next elections might not offer the kinds of guarantees to his own security and fortune that he could likely get now. But it seems unlikely, for the moment, that he would agree to leave office.
Short of that, however, the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out. The parliament could abolish the strong presidency that is currently in place. Far more in the interest of the country (and of course also the parliamentarians) would be a system of more conventional parliamentary democracy, in which the president would play a symbolic and ceremonial role while the prime minister would serve as a true executive. In general, countries with this form of government have been more successful at making democratic transitions. Such a constitutional transformation in Ukraine could allow Yanukovych to stay on and save face, while giving his de facto successor, the next prime minister, the chance to release Tymoshenko and sign the association agreement with the EU. In such a scenario Yanukovych can leave the scene as a statesman, and without fear that he will be pursued by a successor with the same kind of inordinate power that he himself has wielded.
The EU (and of course the United States) should support a dialogue that might consider resolutions of that sort. Western leaders must also condemn violence and consider personal sanctions upon those who were (or will be) responsible for the beatings of peaceful protestors. The EU should also invest where it has strength and will eventually win: in youth. Visa-free travel and university education are less dramatic than secret meetings and televised beatings, but they could be decisive in determining the future course of the country.
For now, all interested parties should do what they can to keep the discussion squarely on the basic issues of free trade, free speech, and freedom of assembly. The Ukrainian fantasy of geopolitics has played itself out, the Russian fantasy of Ukraine as part of its slavic sphere of influence perhaps has not. Putin is no doubt too canny to really believe in some fairy tale of fraternal assistance. But it would be wise to make very sure.