Pro-Russian majority MPs argue with pro-EU opposition MPs during a parliament session to debate the 2014 state budget in Kiev on January 16, 2014. The Ukrainian government approved a programme of cooperation with former Soviet states that have joined the Customs Union, although rapprochement with the Russia-led bloc has fuelled continuing pro-Europe protests in Kiev. By Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.
One of the biggest victims of the Ukrainian protests has been Lenin:
Large protests continued in Kiev, Ukraine throughout the weekend in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovich and his government following the abandonment of a pact with the European Union. In the most visually impressive show of disdain for their leader, protesters tied electrical cable around a statue of Vladimir Lenin and toppled the statue, then broke it up into pieces with a sledgehammer (which had been blessed by an orthodox priest). The statue, first erected in 1946, was replaced on its plinth by a flag of the EU as well as a sign that read “Yanukovich, you are next!”
Uri Friedman chronicles the “remarkable history” behind the statue and its ilk:
What’s most surprising is that the statue withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and remained in Kiev’s Bessarabska Square until today (“Ukrainians are not very hotblooded people,” one man in the central city of Uman explained in 2004, when asked about the improbable staying power of Lenin statues in the country). You’d be forgiven if your first reaction to the news out of Ukraine was, ‘Wait, Kiev still had a Lenin statue?’
In recent years, however, the monument had become a fierce battleground between nationalists, who detest Lenin and Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs, and communists. In June 2009, a month after the pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called for the country to “cleanse itself” of communist symbols, nationalists chopped off the statue’s nose and arm, sparking skirmishes and even an effort by Communist Party supporters to volunteer as guards and defend the sculpture around the clock. With the statue looking increasingly imperiled, one art historian made a plea to preserve the monument.
The fight over the Lenin sculpture in Kiev mirrors a larger battle in Ukraine over monuments to the country’s communist past—one primarily waged between the traditionally nationalist west and pro-Russian east. In August, RIA Novosti noted that at least 12 Lenin statues had been defaced in Ukraine since 2009 as part of a “statue war” between communists and nationalists. In perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this conflict, a promotional video for the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Kharkiv edited out a Lenin statue from a shot of the city’s main square to avoid showing “images of a commercial and political nature.
The problem is that many in the West see “balance of power” and “spheres of influence” as antiquated and less-than-legitimate concepts and therefore largely ignore them. Rather than viewing international politics as driven by competing interests, they see it as driven by the process of ever more countries adopting Western-style democracy. Accordingly Western leaders assume that East European states integrating with the West is a natural process in the post-Cold War world and that anything running counter to this integration is a perversion of that process. This disregard for traditional power politics and the assumption that European integration is a natural development are significant blind spots for Western leaders. And these blind spots hamper their ability to realize the very worthy goals of European integration and democratization.
Larison argues that Western analysts have the opposite problem:
This may apply in some cases, but my impression is that American and European advocates for the eastward expansion of Western institutions and alliances are only too happy to see everything in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in terms of balance of power and spheres of influence. Many Westerners may ridicule the concepts by name, but they think in these terms just as much as anyone else. If that were not the case, there would not have been so many overwrought Western reactions to Ukraine’s decision.
If Ukraine turns down a deal with the EU that wouldn’t have given it very much in the near term, many Westerners treat this as an extremely meaningful event rather than the perpetuation of the status quo that it actually is. As Western institutions seek to expand their sphere of influence, Westerners are annoyed that there is any resistance to this, and they complain about Russian efforts to retain influence with lectures about the obsolescence of spheres of influence.
Tim Snyder zooms out and suggests that “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 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.
President Viktor Yanukovich turned down an EU trade agreement, under pressure from Moscow, to do a deal with Russia instead. Over the past several days, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have protested the decision. Frum warns against letting Putin strong-arm Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence:
Since Putin’s entry into power, Russia minus Ukraine has sought to influence and corrupt the democracies of Europe. A Russia that reintegrated Ukraine would possess the power — like the Soviet Union of old — to intimidate and bully democratic Europe. Russia minus Ukraine can aspire to become a normal nation state, a democracy, even a liberal democracy. A Russia that holds Ukraine by force must forever be a militarized authoritarian regime, a menace to its own people as much as to the rest of the European continent and the democratic world. Upholding Ukrainian independence is thus a deep concern, not only to the Ukrainians, but to all the free countries of Europe — and thus to the United States, free-Europe’s security and trading partner.
Larison pushes back:
Ukrainian political independence is not imperiled, and European security certainly isn’t. Ukraine’s economic dependence on Russia would not have been ended by the EU’s association agreement, and it was this dependence that ultimately made it impossible for Ukraine to finalize the agreement over Russian opposition. More to the point, as Mark Adomanis points out, “the idea that Ukraine is the secret to some geopolitical great game is anachronistic nonsense.” The only thing at stake in this dispute is whether Ukraine opted for a closer relationship with the EU at very high short-term cost or accepted something very much like the status quo for the foreseeable future. It’s just not that dramatic or significant for any countries except Ukraine and perhaps its immediate neighbors. The “future of the European continent” definitely does not hang in the balance.
Julia Gray analyzes the situation:
[W]hat’s primarily in the balance is Ukraine’s image. The company a country keeps can change its reputation, as I’ve argued. Reputations can, of course, translate into material gains – greater access to capital on financial markets, if portfolio investors perceive you to be more likely to honor your debt obligations. I’ve shown that international agreements can often serve as a seal of approval to portfolio investors.
This particular case is no exception.
Caught between one club it doesn’t particularly want to join (the Russian-led customs union) and another that won’t let it come much closer (the EU), Ukraine is currently taking heat from both sides as well as in the international press. Tying itself to the EU might make Ukraine look more attractive on the international front in the long term, but if Russia cuts Ukraine off, the short-term economic consequences could be devastating – particularly since it’s far from clear that Ukraine can get any closer to the EU than it already is. At the same time, any further crackdowns on protesters will only make them seem less like a country that belongs in Europe.
Daisy Sindelar looks at the personalities leading the massive “EuroMaydan” demonstrations:
Some Maydan protesters are motivated by their longing for the West. Others, like nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok, are motivated by the loathing of the East. Tyahnybok is the 45-year-old head of Ukraine’s Svoboda (Freedom) political movement, which stormed Kyiv’s city administration building on December 1 and has since called for a national strike. “A revolution is starting in Ukraine,” said Tyahnybok, who has accused Russia of “waging virtual war” on Ukraine; he has called for a visa regime with Russia and argued against the introduction of Russian as a second state language.
Tyahnybok, who has had a long, slow-growing career, may also see the protests as a political opportunity. Tyahnybok first entered parliament in 1998 and eventually won reelection as a member of Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc. But his nationalist views eventually saw him ousted from the bloc, and have routinely set back his political progress, with critics regularly accusing him of anti-Semitism.
Mary Mycio wonders whether Yanukovich can maintain control:
When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious oligarch’s may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant. The next telltale sign will be if the oligarchs—or their media monopolies—begin to call for new elections or political consensus in parliament that freezes out Yanukovich. What would have been unthinkable a short time ago could now be in the offing. Five members of parliament associated with Lyovochkin have quit Yanukovich’s party. There are rumors that at least 20 more may be ready to follow. Pressure from the street might make all the difference.
Leonid Bershidsky notes that “Putin is watching the Kiev events with apprehension”:
The raw power of the Ukrainian protests could re-energize the Russian opposition movement, which he successfully quashed last year. “The events in Ukraine resemble a pogrom rather than a revolution,” Putin said. “The opposition is trying to topple the legitimate authorities. These are well-prepared actions.”
Putin is wrong about the preparation. What’s happening in Ukraine is a spontaneous outpouring of indignation with a rotten, corrupt, bungling regime very much like Russia’s own. The main difference is that high oil prices provide Russia’s leaders with enough money to keep opposition at bay, while Ukraine is nearly bankrupt. If Russia’s already stagnant economy falters, Moscow could see similar outbursts.
Ioffe doubts that Russia will follow in Ukraine’s footsteps. Among her various reasons why:
Russia is a police state; Ukraine is…not quite. According to Bloomberg, Russia is the most heavily policed country in the world, Ukraine is 12th on the list. (The U.S. is 32nd.) Moreover, the security services have much more political power in Russia than they do in Ukraine. This is in part why, when a cry went up about police brutality, the Kiev police chief resigned (though his resignation wasn’t accepted). When this happened in Moscow, in May 2012, injured policemen were rewarded for their suffering with apartments and the unarmed protesters who attacked them were arrested and hauled to trial.
Drezner looks at the bigger picture:
It seems highly unlikely that the current Ukrainian government will resort to massive repression at this point — which means the worst-case scenario is that Ukraine doesn’t join either economic bloc. The only way this ends as a win for Putin would be if he was able to use force to seize control — or coerce the Ukrainian security apparatus to do the same. I seriously doubt that he is either willing or able to pull off such a coup d’etat
Stepping back, let this be an important lesson about the limits of economic power.
(Photo: An opposition rally packs Independence Square in Kiev on December 1, 2013. Some 100,000 Ukrainians chanting ‘Revolution!’ swarmed the central Kiev square Sunday in a mass call for early elections meant to punish President Viktor Yanukovych for rejecting an EU pact. By Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl takes part in a rally of the opposition on the Independence Square in Kiev on December 2, 2013. Ukraine’s prime minister on Monday compared pro-EU demonstrations in the country to a coup, branding them illegal and “out of control”. Tens of thousands have been protesting in Kiev, occupying City Hall and blocking entrances to the government headquarters, in an ongoing standoff after the government failed to sign a key EU pact. By Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images.