Nowadays bad governments can fall or come under massive popular pressure at the drop of a hat, regardless of whether the government concerned is a product of the formal democratic process or not. Such governments may be dictatorships or authoritarian regimes, or they might be corrupt, inept, elite-driven, or simply indifferent or unresponsive to the well-being of their own population.
But whatever the source of their unpopularity, few governments can take their power for granted in an era where mass mobilizations can take place very quickly, and can move from peaceful protest to armed opposition within an equally short time span.
These developments ought to be a source of optimism, for those of us who would like to see an alternative to the economic model that has wrought such social havoc on so many countries in the name of austerity in the last few years, driven by the new forms of popular power – were it not for the fact that so many of these upheavals have produced bad or even worse outcomes than the problems they were intended to solve.
Libya, Syria, and Egypt are all examples of this tendency. In Libya the NATO-backed overthrow of Gaddafi has wrecked the country. Syria also has become a destroyed state that may well disintegrate into warlord fiefdoms and rival statelets. In Egypt a popular movement overthrew a democratically-elected government only to pave the way for a military coup.
Now Ukraine looks set to join the list of revolutions and rebellions that have gone bad. Until December Ukraine was a virtually invisible country in geopolitical terms. Even when political attention was focused on Russia, Georgia or the Caucasus tended to attract more attention. In little more than two months, a popular upheaval, supported by European governments and the United States, has overthrown a once-popular democratic government in protest at President Viktor Yanukovich’s sudden volte face regarding an agreement with the European Union.
As a result of Russia’s quasi-occupation of the Crimea, Ukraine has now become a potential flash-point for a major war on the fringes of Europe, with the possibility of ethnic violence and state fragmentation that could make the former Yugoslavia appear tame by comparison.
The trigger for this cascade of events was an ‘association agreement’ which József Böröcz has argued, offered very little to Ukraine, either politically or economically, beyond the prospect of stepping outside of the Russian sphere of influence. It did not even offer full membership of the EU or allow free movement of Ukrainians within Europe – something that was only held out as a possibility in exchange for Ukraine fulfilling its role as another of the EU’s anti-immigration buffer zones.
Had it been followed through, Ukraine would have been required to implement an IMF-directed austerity ‘restructuring’ package, that would have inflicted the same social pain that was once inflicted on Russia and the former Yugoslavia, and which has been implemented in various forms in Western Europe as a result of the crisis.
Nevertheless, the European dream – fantasy? – was enough to bring thousands of Ukrainians into the streets, and the miscalculations and brutality of the Yanukovich government turned a crisis into a disaster, unleashing and empowering reactionary nationalist political forces that both Ukraine and the rest of Europe could have done without.
Russia may be overdoing it somewhat, when it portrays the fall of Yanukovich as a Western-engineered ‘fascist coup’, but nor are such claims entirely without foundation. The anti-Semitic and anti-Russian All Ukrainian Union Svoboda (freedom) party has a number of ministers in the new government and administration, including the deputy prime minister and the prosecutor-general. The leader of the Pravyi Sektor (Right Party), a far-right coalition that includes fascists and neo-Nazis, has been appointed Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, as a reward for its participation in the Euromaidan uprising.
Both parties belong – proudly – to the same tradition of Stepan Bandera’s vile Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (ONU), which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and killed hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles.
The participation of such forces in a blatantly anti-Russian revolution/coup was always likely to alarm both Russian-speaking Ukrainians and the Kremlin, regardless of the predictable eulogies to ‘people power’, democracy and human rights from the likes of John McCain, Timothy Garton Ash, and most Western governments.
These governments can lecture Russia’s ‘mafia-state’ all they like about the need to comply with the ‘international community’ and observe the UN Charter regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a laughable allegation considering Iraq and Libya, among others. But Russia was never likely to accept lightly the prospect that its principal access port to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean would pass into the hands of such a government – with the possibility of Ukrainian membership of NATO to follow.
This doesn’t mean that Russia has any moral or political ‘right’ to the Crimea – but what does ‘right’ have to do with geopolitics? Russia clearly fears NATO encirclement and regards Ukraine – or at least the Crimea – as a step too far. The result is that Ukraine has once again become part of the mosaic of Central and Eastern European states that English geographers of the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth once called the ‘shatter zone’.
Too weak to uphold itself against its more powerful neighbours, it has become part of a tug-of-war between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in a struggle with potentially catastrophic consequences, and not only for Ukraine itself.
Exactly what these consequences are is difficult to predict. Obama has warned Russia that there will be ‘costs’ if it occupies the Crimea, but it will take a lot of pressure to make Putin change course on this one, and I’m not sure if the US or Europe can provide it.
If there is a war between Ukraine and Russia over the Crimea, Russia will win, insofar as it will be able to take possession of the Crimea and other Russian-speaking enclaves and hold them. But it will not be able to occupy all of Ukraine, and most probably does not even want to. And war could well be extremely bloody and set off a cascade of ethnic violence that could spread up and down Ukraine and out into the ‘shatter-zone’.
No one in their right mind could want that. But then, as far as international relations are concerned these days, right minds are conspicuously absent, and Ukrainians may yet find that the dreams that they pursued in the Maidan will turn very sour indeed in the new ‘great game’ that regards Ukraine essentially as a chess piece.