02 December 2013

High stakes in Ukraine

Nine years after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is in upheaval again.  Yesterday over three hundred thousand people marched in the capital Kiev, occupying government buildings and sweeping aside the police, chanting "revolution!" and calling for the downfall of President Viktor Yanukovych (pictures here).

To understand what's happening, it's useful have some background on the country.  Until the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine had been under Russian rule (Tsarist until 1917, Soviet thereafter) for centuries.  Culturally, Ukraine and Russia are very similar, but many Ukrainians do not view their giant cousin as a friend; millions of Ukrainians died under the brutal repression and collectivization famines under Stalin.  Today Ukraine is a bilingual country, with about 60% of the population speaking Ukrainian and 100% speaking Russian.

After independence in 1991, Soviet-style authoritarian rule continued until the 2004 Orange Revolution which brought real democracy.  Since then, politics has been dominated by the split between pro-Western (about 45%) and pro-Russian (about 33%) elements of the population.  Western media reports usually depict this split as a geographical one; however, while it's true that the west and north lean more pro-Western while the east and south lean more pro-Russian, in fact the situation resembles our Democrat-Republican split.  Supporters of either position can be found all over the country.  Both factions have had their turns in power; both have produced divided and ineffectual governments which left the country economically stagnant and the people frustrated.  Yanukovych belongs to the pro-Russian faction.

Recently Ukraine has been negotiating an "association agreement" with the European Union, a deal strongly opposed by the Putin regime in Russia; Putin is trying to draw Ukraine into Russia's own power bloc, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.  Ukraine is by far the most important of the non-Russian states formerly part of the USSR (its population is about one-third as large as Russia's); drawing it into the Russian bloc would practically achieve Putin's goal of reconstituting the USSR.  At the last minute, Yanukovych changed his mind and refused to sign the EU agreement.  This led to protests by pro-Western Ukrainians who suspected him of bowing to Russian pressure, and want to safeguard the agreement which would strengthen Ukraine's status as a European democracy.

These protests started small, however.  What precipitated the real explosion was an incident Saturday, when riot police brutally cleared away an encampment of demonstrators in Independence Square, Kiev's public center.  Pro-Western Ukrainians fear that being dragged into the Russian bloc would doom their democracy; Russia is well on the way to becoming a police state and Belarus is a flat-out dictatorship.  Saturday's thuggery confirmed their fears that Yanukovych is following Putin's example -- and the country erupted.

The Orange Revolution's photogenic leader Yulia Tymoshenko isn't involved this time; she's in prison on trumped-up charges (another sign of the way the Yanukovych government is heading).  The politician most associated with the new rising, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, is at least a genuine outsider to the discredited establishment.

It's unclear what the outcome will be; the 2009 uprising in Iran was even larger than this, but failed to bring down that regime.  The stakes are very high, though.  It's not in the West's interest to see Putin's empire strengthened as massively as the addition of Ukraine would accomplish.  And a successful popular rising and repudiation of authoritarian rule in Ukraine would provide an example and inspiration to the Russian people themselves -- something which is no doubt an increasing concern for Putin.

On a personal note, the image at the top of this post (click to enlarge) brings back a lot of memories -- Independence Square has not changed very much since I was there in 2007.  If only I could be there now!


Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

An interesting post. Over the last few years, I've been reading a bit about some of the former Soviet republics, but still don't know much about Ukraine beyond the fact that that country suffered greatly under both Hitler and Stalin (oh, and that the nuclear reactor which caused the Chernobyl disaster was located there). What was it like to visit the country? Did you know either of the two languages spoken there, and, if not, did the language barrier cause any problems? (I've a brother who tried to learn Russian, but gave up because he found it way too difficult a language to learn.) Unfortunately, about the only other people I've heard of who have visited Ukraine have been idiot PUA-types who have gone there because they think the local women are "easy". What a waste of an opportunity to learn something about what I'd imagine would be a fascinating country!

02 December, 2013 04:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: I posted about the trip here, here, and here. I learned some Russian before going (Kiev is Russian-speaking), but I wasn't very successful at it -- it's the most difficult language I've ever studied. Most people in Kiev didn't speak any English, though some did.

On the plane coming back I sat next to one of those PUA types, who described how he had been picking up local women by inviting them to the McDonald's on Independence Square. Not sure how much success he had.

02 December, 2013 05:41  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Agreed. This was a great post for enlightening me on the Ukrainian upheaval. I know very little about this country, except for the talented surgeon who is from there and who operated on a family member this past fall.

I studied Russian years ago. I was learning their alphabet and could say a few phrases. If I ever get there, I'll be able to tell people my name, ask them what their name is, and ask for a glass of water or milk. Also, "please," "thank-you," and "friend."

After that I'm in a black hole.

02 December, 2013 09:46  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Thanks for the links. From reading the relevant posts, I could see why a lot of guys would go to Ukraine in search of sex. If I went there myself, though, I think the biggest vice I'd indulge in would be drinking the cheap beer! The final entry, on Babi Yar, was suitably sobering. Surprisingly (or maybe not given how irrational people can be), I've heard of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (as well as neo-Nazis in other predominantly Slavic countries); it sounds like some people need a history lesson! Ironically, as you probably know yourself, the Nazis were initially greeted as liberators by the Ukrainian people (at the time, probably anyone would've seemed better than Stalin!); indeed, it's sometimes said that Hitler's fortunes in the USSR would have been better had he not squandered the welcome the Soviet people gave his forces.

On the subject of the Russian language, I knew some guys from a local heavy metal band who were going to do a few shows in Russia, and said they'd all be relying on the one member of the group who could speak a bit of the local language! He'd picked up a bit of it by osmosis while living in the country for several years; he said that if you want to learn it, you have to forget pretty much everything you've learned in English about how letters sound (as letters in the Cyrillic alphabet that look like letters in the Roman one usually sound nothing like them).

I remember hearing that one of the professors in the chemistry department at my old Alma Mater, Adelaide University, died after being stabbed to death while on holiday in either Russia or another part of the former Eastern Bloc. That was back in the '90s, though, when I gather that things were a lot crazier in that part of Europe than they are now.

04 December, 2013 01:49  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

(A few more thoughts on the OP)

I was interested to read that the new power bloc Russia is trying to drag Ukraine into also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. After Russia, those other three states seem to be the only ones of any significant size in the former Soviet Union; from a size perspective, most of the former Soviet states were actually quite puny (and presumably valued more for their strategic locations and natural resources). I read once that Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan also all gave up the chance to be nuclear powers after the breakup of the USSR, those countries the only Soviet states outside Russia in which Soviet nuclear weapons were deployed. Instead of hanging onto those weapons, however, they surrendered them to Russia (no doubt for reasons that were more pragmatic than idealistic).

BTW I noticed that you refer to Ukraine simply as that, rather than "the Ukraine", an odd little construction that a lot of people still use. I used to use it myself; indeed, it still feels a little strange not to!

04 December, 2013 02:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: I've seen the Slavic neo-Nazis too. Grossly ignorant, but then there are neo-Nazis in the US whom the real Nazis would have rejected just as much. Such people are generally drawn from the most ignorant and unreflective.

A lot of Cyrillic letters do look like Roman ones but have different sounds -- "B" is actually V, "C" is S, "P" is R, etc.

Most eastern European countries have, or used to have, high levels of violent crime. Ukraine was the exception when I went there, mostly because the government had worked hard to curb it to encourage tourism.

Putin is trying to draw in Armenia as well. The Baltic states are gone irrevocably (they've been in NATO for years) and the Muslim republics were always an economic drain; Kazakhstan is still of interest because it has a large Russian population. I don't think the other republics could have used the nuclear weapons on their territory -- they didn't have the launch codes.

Neither Russian nor Ukrainian even has a definite article, but I've heard that Ukrainians prefer the article to be omitted in languages which do, as it sounds more like the name of a separate country that way (the name originally just comes from the Russian for "borderland").

04 December, 2013 04:06  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Putin is trying to draw in Armenia as well. The Baltic states are gone irrevocably (they've been in NATO for years)[...]

As I understand it, the Baltic states only became part of the Soviet Union during World War II, their absorption into the latter country coming about as the result of a deal between Hitler and Stalin (during the brief period when those two were allies). They were probably the most reluctant members of the USSR, and the first republics to try and break away from it.

[...]and the Muslim republics were always an economic drain; Kazakhstan is still of interest because it has a large Russian population.

It also has a lot of oil, from what I hear. From what I've read about Central Asia (another part of the world I'm very interested in), I gather that the former Soviet states there were originally part of the old Russian Empire, which I'm guessing was how they ended up in the USSR.

05 December, 2013 04:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes, the Russian Revolution was a revolution within the Russian Empire, and the borders stayed the same except for the changes in the west at the end of World War I. There was more continuity than discontinuity between the Russian Empire and the USSR.

By the way, since in your autobiographical post you spoke of a "terror of death", you might find this of interest (I mentioned it in a reply on an earlier post, but I'm not sure whether you've been back there).

05 December, 2013 07:21  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Thanks for the link, and for reading my little autobiography! One of the things I've always liked about your blog has been your interest in life extension and your refusal to buy into the sentimental claptrap that surrounds aging - given that the last thing is really nothing more than one's body engaging in an act of slow suicide, there's really nothing "beautiful" or "wonderful" about it as I've heard far too many people claim. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll eventually eliminate this scourge; I just hope it doesn't happen when it's too late for me to benefit from it! At the very least, I hope that, by the time I'm old, we'll have found effective treatments for some of the worst diseases that come with advancing years, especially Alzheimer's Disease. During the course of my work, I've seen far too many people who have been struck down by that revolting disease; it truly is an abomination.

06 December, 2013 03:40  

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