The Ukrainian Crisis and Liberal Nationalism
Ukraine lies sandwiched between East and West, Russia and the European Union. The very name of the country, Ukraina, means “country on the edge” or “borderland.” Ukraine was colonized by both Poland and Russia, and then the Soviet Union. After a brief period of independence and devastating conflict -- described so movingly by Isaac Babel -- Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union and suffered famine under Stalin. The Ukraine’s “population is similar in size to that of England or France, and contains very little place in the history books. For many years, they were usually presented to the outside world as ‘Russians’ or ‘soviets’ whenever they were to be praised, and as ‘Ukrainians’ only when they did evil. They did not recover a free voice until the 1990s,” writes Oxford historian Norman Davies.
The early 1990s witnessed a period of revival in Ukraine. Universities underwent renewal; the media obtained limited independence; minorities began to gain some recognition; and NGOs operated. Then the country’s emergent civil society collapsed beneath post-communist repression and the kleptocracy of regional robber barons. National depression, economic and ideological, followed. Moreover, Ukraine was hard hit by the HIV/AIDS crisis.
But Ukraine means far more than its contemporary Western associations with a massive state in collapse. Davies also comments that Ukraine’s Slavonic name is “a close counterpart to the American concept of ‘the Frontier.’” Ukraine and its warriors, Cossacks, kindled the imagination of Romantic writers and artists such as Byron and Gericault, who were willing to overlook the propensity for violence against Jews and other minorities that these warriors represented. The Romantic imagination seized on Ukrainians as freedom fighters, wild rebels, and desperados.
There are ironic echoes of this imaginative history in the current headlines in the Western media, especially given that no other nation of its size receives such negligible political and media attention. Attention seems to turn towards Ukraine largely when it assumes its narrative function as a radical cauldron of freedom. There is little doubt that, as Ukrainian political observer Roman Kabchiy phrases it, there is “revolutionary enthusiasm” on the streets today. However, the conjoined halves of that phrase need to be interrogated. Is this public enthusiasm revolutionary, or is the ‘revolution’ an artifact of enthusiasm? Answers to these questions remain ambiguous. The presence of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators on the streets and their demand for fair elections is passionate and just. The Kuchma government had employed state power blatantly to deprive the country of free media debate, transparent government, and fair election procedures. Opposition to the manifest cooption of elections, however, does not necessarily translate into more profound social reforms.
Yushchenko now appears in the mold of a liberal democrat, a late-arriving version of Havel in the Czech Republic or Walesa in Poland. The politics inaugurated by these figures have been directed towards assimilation into a neo-liberal global order characterized by ‘market economies’ where education, health and social welfare systems have been ruthlessly de-funded in the name of national economic competitiveness. Privatization has benefited social elites who have employed their command of legal and governmental mechanisms, together with access to capital, in order to confiscate public capital investment. The neo-liberal economic program in eastern Europe largely has concerned the establishment of ever more favorable terms for foreign investment capital to profit from the region’s low wages, good technical skills, and its consumer demand.
Liberal democratic converts like Yushchenko, who today adopts that posture despite his previous history of service within the Kuchma government, have been central figures in this economic assimilation. For this reason, as The Guardian has documented, US diplomatic strategy has focused on using NGO campaigns to support candidate branding and marketing campaigns. If on the one hand there is a genuine outpouring of popular support for a liberal democrat and constitutionalist politics that adopt civil rights as a fundamental standard, on the other hand it must be recognized that same public outpouring draws on a huge pool of poverty and unemployment. To recognize only a protest against civic disenfranchisement without recognizing a parallel underlying protest against economic disenfranchisement is to disconnect phenomena mistakenly. For liberal democrats, the core issues lie in creation of the instruments of a civil society and transparent modes of government, as if these alone provided resolution to economic issues. The unemployment, poverty, social atomization and disempowerment of working classes that have characterized post-communist economies in eastern Europe are direct results of this neo-liberal drive towards integration into global economic institutions.
This political conundrum concerns more than Ukraine. It is only one of the eastern European nations – Belarus under the Lukashenko government being another example -- where a liberal democratic opposition oriented towards the European Union and its model of capitalism is confronting a corrupt strong-arm government. Western media tend to break this conflict down into a question of orientation towards the EU or towards Moscow, a reading that largely depends on cultural background and geographic location within Ukraine. But this is a broader question than Ukraine; it concerns an opposition that is systemic in its orientation, that speaks to many more instances and issues than the immediate vote-rigging and subversion of democracy.
While it may be a necessary vehicle towards a reform program, liberal nationalism in eastern Europe during the past decade has functioned incessantly to create new class hierarchies. And yet it also carries the germ of its own undoing, one that lies in its post- and anti-communist emphasis on a clear and legitimate popular mandate as the necessary foundation for exercise of government authority. In the absence of that mandate and facing illegitimate exercise of authority, as the Kharkiv Human Rights Group argues in support of the demonstrators, the popular voice and the constitutional voice are one: “At this political moment, decisive for the fate of Ukraine, we also state that defence of the basic civil rights can also be conducted by the means of a democratic uprising, which is [a] quite legitimate, even if extreme, element of an international constitutional culture.” As liberal democracy in eastern Europe continues to prove itself inadequate to guarantee basic civil rights – including income security, free health care, accessible public education, and the right to productive work – then there exists an equal right of non-violent democratic uprising.
Tomasz Kitlinski, a frequent Bad Subjects contributor, is a lecturer in philosophy at Marie Curie University in Lublin, Poland. Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.