Cold War Revisited

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Democracy or something like it rules in the Ukraine. The tenacious efforts of hundreds of thousands Viktor Yushchenko supporters have paid off in another runoff presidential election scheduled for December 26. In an unprecedented ruling the Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified the election that named Viktor Yanukovich the winner by a mere 3 percentage points and by about 800,000 votes. The standoff sparked an international tug of war between Washington and Moscow over the legitimacy of the elections. Putin, who favored Yanukovich, quickly sent his congratulations, while outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly declared the results “unacceptable.” President Bush gave a more moderated statement that his administration was watching the process closely. In all, for about two weeks Ukraine, a state of about 80 million, about the size of Texas, and has only been independent from the Russian yoke for 13 years, was on the world stage.

Already Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” is getting top billing as one of the most significant developments in the former Soviet Union over the last decade. And in retrospect, there is no doubt Russian specialists in the United States will place it within the pantheon of other “colored,” that is peaceful, “democratic”, pro-free market, and most importantly, pro-Western, revolutions of Eastern and Central Europe. The way many Western commentators are narrating the events of the Ukraine, you would think the Cold War was won all over again. Take for example, the weekend edition of the Moscow Times (an free English language newspaper here in Moscow), where a columnist from Agence France Presse likened Putin’s opposition as stamping “the big paw of Russia’s authority and influence in the former Soviet Republic.” The NY Times, for example, wrote that a resolution to Ukraine’s crisis was “especially incumbent on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who, apparently forgetting that he’s no longer in the K.G.B., has been trying to ram last month’s fraudulent election results down the country’s throat.” I wish they would write something this forceful about Bush. Other headlines called Putin’s support for the pro-Russian Yanukovich his “biggest blunder” and his “Ukrainian dilemma.” Longtime Washington Post correspondent Michael McFaul wrote a long piece in the Weekly Standard, the neo-con equivalent of Bolshevik Party’s Pravda, declaring that Putin gambled and lost big and that his position on Ukraine should give Bush second thoughts on his relationship with Pootty-poot. It is hard not to read too much bravado in such swill. All I can say is, hey Condi, if you’re listening, Michael McFaul is looking for a job in the State Department. Such analyses could also be nostalgia on the part of the McFauls of the world for an enemy that you could locate on a map instead of the amorphous international terrorist network.

Whether the triumph of Yushchenko will actually mean a blow to Putin’s political capital is mere speculation. The reality is that whoever leads Ukraine cannot exactly ignore its Slavic big brother to the east. If anything, the situation in the Ukraine should make Putin more apprehensive and hard-line in reinforcing Russia’s sphere of influence. It should make him question his relationship with Bush. After all, it’s not Putin who is placing Russian military bases in and wooing America’s neighbors into a military alliance. Nor was it Putin who suggested the Bush Administration negotiate with Al-Qaeda after September 11, though the Bush Administration made such suggestions after Beslan. I can only imagine how the Bush Administration would act if such a situation happened in Mexico, and say the Chinese government made similar statements that Colin Powell made. What’s clear, is that many politicians, diplomats, pundits and experts still see the world as a bi-polar struggle between East and West. Despite the Bush Administration’s attempts to recast this global binary in religious-ethnic terms under the euphemistic “War on Terrorism,” Russia still remains that ambiguous midpoint that cannot be fully trusted. Russia continues to be almost Western, but not quite.

This is no defense on my part of Putin’s actions or policies. It is just to suggest how the narrative of the “Orange Revolution” is being written in the West. Nor is it to suggest that the situation in the Ukraine was not a triumph for Ukrainian democracy. It was, but not because Yushchenko will be any better than Yanukovich, but because the Ukrainian people stood up and stood firm against clear election violations. And election fraud there was. The Moscow Times reported on December 1 that the Ukrainian Central Elections Commission reported that there was a 9.1% voter surge in regions that supported Yanukovich. In Donetsk, one of the regions that threatened to succeed, voter turnout was up 18.6% to remarkable 96.7%! To think 96.2% of them voted for Yanukovich (Did they think that the 0.5% was going to be convincing?). An estimated total of 1.7 million votes were added by Yanukovich’s people. And Kathleen Harris and Jeb Bush thought they were good at rigging elections.

No, this was certainly a great victory for the Ukrainian people, though to call it a “revolution” is to engage in all sorts of Western hyperbole and self righteousness. As most level headed experts have noted, the difference between Yushchenko and Yanukovich is about as big as between Bush and Kerry. There is no indication that there will be any sweeping changes to the Ukrainian system. Nor is there any real indication that Yushchenko will risk poor relations for Russia in exchange for EU or NATO membership. Given the corrupt bastard that Yushchenko apparently is, there is no indication that anything will change. That is unless, of course, the protests in Kiev have really reinvigorated, if not revolutionized democracy from below. The people now have a sense of their power. As Misha Kolodiy, a brightly, orange haired Ukrainian 20-year-old, put it to the Associated Press, “It’s very cool to be Ukrainian now.” Yep, cooler than Jesus. Its seems there is a possibility that the forces Yushchenko unleashed to catapult him into power might force him make some compromise to the masses, who, it seems supported him because he isn’t Yanukovich.

The power of the Ukrainian protests seems to have been forgotten in the effort to narrate the “Orange Revolution” as yet another triumph for the Western values, as grave mistake on Putin’s part, and as the Cold War reborn. This is even true, and somewhat surprising, among the American Left. One would think that the successful protests in the Ukraine would be a shining example of the global power of slogans like “Power to the People!” and “Who’s streets! Our streets!” And perhaps there was some of this, but it was overshadowed by a mourning of the death of democracy in America. This is seen in the fact that most left commentators framed the Ukraine as the United States’ democratic Other onto which they could project all their hopes and dreams for a popular movement to raise similar questions about our recent Presidential election. The similarities of which, I noted a few blogs ago. Unfortunately, when the American Left held up the Ukrainian mirror and struggled to see their reflection cast in a Ukrainian key, all they got back was an atrophied visage, withering further despite recent calls against despair and for organizing and struggle. Perhaps the real blow came to the American left, when they realized that last week marked five years since the glorious Battle in Seattle, where anti-globalization activists facilitated the collapse of World Trade Organization talks. Yet this deeper irony, that five years after Seattle the American Left seems weaker than ever before, seems to have escaped many.

Instead, the Ukrainian elections and protests were harnessed as yet another opportunity to damn Bush. While I don’t disagree with this in principle—such incidents of Bush’s hypocrisy are just too good to pass up—the effort to cast US involvement in Ukraine as some sort of omnipotent force misses the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets longer and in worse conditions than any American Leftist, perhaps even including your humble writer, would ever spend. Many Leftists jumped on the article in the London Guardian that noted the presence of groups such as the Soros Foundation (hey didn’t he also bankroll, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Freedom House in Yushchenko’s camp after he got the United States’ public support. The masses in the streets were frequently portrayed as completely manipulated by the mystical powers of advertising, campaign spin, focus groups, and other nefarious American electoral mainstays. Ironically, the Left analysis sounded a lot like Putin’s camp, except they never made the connection between Yushchenko’s wife and her service in the Reagan Administration. Hell, even my khoziaka, Natasha, came home from work one evening and accused the US of being a hibernating snake. When you get it close to your warm body, it suddenly awakens and bites you.

Yet again the Left analysis was narrated in terms of two dueling states, the US and Russia, for little young Ukraine’s affection. US neo-imperialism with all its arms sales, IMF loans, WTO membership, and World Bank projects, seeped into the scene only to manipulate the poor Ukrainians who are too inexperienced to understand democracy. For example, Gary Leupp’s article, “Poll Results Aren’t the Real Issue: Ukraine and Inter-Imperialist Rivalry” on portrayed the Ukrainian crisis as imperialist rivalry and that the Ukraine was part of the US larger campaign to get control of Central Asian oil. A Yushchenko victory would open the possibility of Ukraine opening oil deals with its Caucausian neighbors to bypass Russia. Leupp then went on to place Ukrainian “democracy” in a Cold War context with a reference to Henry Kissenger’s statement about “irresponsible democracy” in Chile after that nation elected the soft Marxist Salvador Allende in 1973. Now I don’t disagree with the gist of Leupp’s article. However, there is no need to overdetermine US power. Plus all of this is predicated upon Yushchenko doing the bidding of his western masters at the risk of pissing off Putin. Overall, the narcissism of the American Left analysis where all roads go through Washington is almost too much to bare. It seems that according to the Leftist view, Ukrainians are almost democratic, but not quite.

I would suggest that even if Yushchenko was bankrolled by the West, his victory is a good thing. Not because he will be in power, but because of the means he came to power. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets for days to challenge the electoral system, and not leaving until something was done, is a positive development. We don’t know how much this really galvanized the political grassroots of Ukrainian society, partially because no one has bothered to report on it. Moreover it is one of the few times mass protest actually worked. If American Leftists want to learn something, perhaps they should take a gander at how their Ukrainian comrades did it. What was it about this election that made some many people get personally involved? How were these protests organized and sustained? How much pressure did they put on the Ukrainian government? What was the binding ideology? Was it Yushchenko or something else? How did it sustain its peacefulness? What happened to the police?

Perhaps more important is not what Western organizations came to Yushchenko’s aid, but how and why? Would this have occurred if they didn’t? What exactly was their role? Is this really an inter-imperialist rivalry or the Cold War revisited as the pundits would have us believe or is this how democratic “revolutions” now occur? What exactly is the local context of the Ukraine and how it tied to the global?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I certainly will be looking for them in the coming weeks and months.