Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong
Although I'm deep into the reporting of my next story about the Silicon Valley Techtopus, it’s hard for me not to get distracted by events in Ukraine and Russia.
I haven’t lived in that part of the world since the Kremlin ran me out of town, so I’m not going to pretend that I know as much as those on the ground there. Still, I’ve been driven nuts by the avalanche of overconfident ignorance that stands for analysis or commentary on the wild events there. A lethal ignorance, a virtuous ignorance.
Virtuous ignorance about world affairs used to be the exclusive domain of neo-con pundits, but now it’s everywhere, especially rampant on the counter-consensus side — nominally my own side, but an increasingly shitty side to be on.
Nearly everyone here in the US tries to frame and reify Ukraine’s dynamic to fit America-centric spats. As such, Ukraine’s problems are little more than a propaganda proxy war where our own political fights are transferred to Ukraine’s and Russia’s context, warping the truth to score domestic spat points. That’s nothing new, of course, but it’s still jarring to watch how the "new media" counter-consensus is warping and misrepresenting reality in Ukraine about as crudely as the neocons and neoliberals used to warp and Americanize the political realities there back when I first started my Moscow newspaper, The eXile.
So, yes, I wanted to comment on a few simplifications/misconceptions about Ukraine today:
1. The protesters are not "virtuous anti-Putin freedom fighters," nor are they "Nazis and US puppets"
In fact, the people who are protesting or supporting the protesters are first and foremost sick of their shitty lives in a shitty country they want to make better—a country where their fates are controlled by a tiny handful of nihilistic oligarchs and Kremlin overlords, and their political frontmen. It’s first and foremost a desire to gain some control over their fate. Anger at Kremlin power over Ukraine is not necessarily anti-Russian—although the further west you go in Ukraine, the more this does become about nationalism, and the further east you go—including Crimea and Odessa—the more the politics are a fearful reaction against west-Ukraine nationalism.
This is kind of obvious to anyone who’s spent time in that part of the world. I’ll quote from Jake Rudnitsky’s great piece about the Orange Revolution published in The eXile nearly a decade ago, which aptly describes both what an awful political figure Yanukovych is, what role the US played in that "revolution," and the aspirations of most Ukrainians who took to the streets. It’s amazing how little has changed in this dynamic:
"Almost all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are from the east or Kiev, and they almost exclusively lined up in support of Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. There are a few exceptions, notably Petro Poroshenko, the owner of car and candy factories and a ship-building yard. He also owns Channel 5, which was an invaluable tool in helping Yushchenko [the pro-West leader of the Orange Revolution] compete....A large part of [Channel 5] programming consists of watching Yanukovych’s team make asses of themselves. They often repeat a speech Yanukovych gave where he was gesturing with his fingers in the air, "paltsami," a classic bandit gesture. Still, the biggest and most powerful clans are still behind Yanukovych, who is their man.
"Yanukovych is a truly loathsome character. Most Ukrainians agree that if a more palatable candidate had been given the nearly unlimited access to "administrative resources" that Yanukovych had, he would have won handily. But Yanukovych twice served jail time in the Soviet Union, he has no charisma, and is obviously a tool of powerful Russian and Ukrainian interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, is considered by most western Ukrainians to be something between Gandhi and Christ, while many people in the east worry he has it in for everyone who speaks Russian. Many people who voted for Yanukovych did so out of suspicion of Yushchenko, not because they like Yanukovych (except perhaps in his home turf, Donetsk)." As for the US role in the Orange Revolution, what Rudnitsky wrote in 2004 applies to the US/EU role today:
"The protests have come under fire as an American-funded coup, particularly in the Russian media. And there’s some truth to it — the US has been bringing in Serbs and Georgians experienced in non-violent revolution to train Ukrainians for at least a year. One exit poll — the one finding most heavily in favor of Yushchenko — was funded by the US. The smoothness and professionalism of the protest, from the instant availability of giant blocks of Styrofoam to pitch the tents on to the network of food distribution and medical points, is probably a result of American logistical planning. It’s certainly hard to imagine Ukrainians having their act together that well. The whole orange theme and all those ready-made flags also smack of American marketing concepts, particularly Burson-Marstellar.
"But the crowds in Kiev, which can swell up to a million on a good day and are always in the hundreds of thousands, are there out of their own homegrown sense of outrage, not because some State Department bureaucrats willed them there. The meetings that happen every day in virtually every city in Ukraine (and in literally every western Ukraine village) are not the result of American propaganda. Rather, they are the result of the democratic awakening of a trampled-on people who refuse to be screwed by corrupt politicians again." 2. About Ukraine’s neo-fascists:
They’re definitely real, they’re a powerful minority in the anti-Yanukovych campaign—I’d say the neo-fascsists from Svoboda and Pravy Sektor are probably the vanguard of the movement, the ones who pushed it harder than anyone. Anyone who ignores the role of the neo-fascists (or ultranationalists, take your pick) is lying or ignorant, just as anyone who claims that Yanukovych answered only to Putin doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The front-center role of Svoboda and the neo-fascists in this revolution as opposed to the Orange Revolution is, I think, due to fact that the more smiley-face/respectable neoliberal politicians can’t rally the same fanatical support they did a decade ago. Eventually, even the co-leader of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, moved from "respectable" pro-EU neoliberalism to rehabilitating western Ukraine’s fascist mass-murderer, Stepan Bandera, which I wrote about in The Nation.
What role the neo-fascists and descendants of Bandera will play in the near-term future is the big question. Their role in the protest’s vanguard is definitely scaring a lot of people in the east of Ukraine and Crimea, and could precipitate a violent split. On the other hand, by far the most likely scenario is that the neo-fascist/ultranationalists in Svoboda will be absorbed into the pro-West coalition and politics, as they’re still a minority in the coalition. Neoliberalism is a big tent that is happy to absorb ultranationalists, democrats, or ousted president Yanukovych.
The power that the neo-fascists already have is bad enough, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of bullshit hype and propaganda about the neo-fascist threat. A perfect example of fascist-hype propaganda was recently published in Ha’aretz, headlined: "Ukrainian rabbi tells Kiev’s Jews to flee city":
"Fearing violence against Ukraine's Jews, the Jewish community asks Israel for assistance with the security of the community.
"Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday.
"‘I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too,’ Rabbi Azman told Maariv. ‘I don't want to tempt fate,’ he added, ‘but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.’" Sounds scary in a Schindler’s List sorta way, doesn’t it?
Later that day, Ha’aretz published this correction, admitting it’d been duped by a Kremlin tool:
"Correction (Feb. 22, 4:20 P.M.): An earlier version of this report incorrectly described Rabbi Azman as the chief rabbi of Ukraine. Azman is not the country's chief rabbi, but one of two rabbis challenging the official chief rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, in Kiev, and like most Chabad rabbis, is aligned with the Kremlin."(If you want to read more about Chabad, read Yasha Levine’s investigative report on the right-wing Jewish cult, and its role in Cory Booker’s rise to power.)
The point is this: What’s happening in Ukraine is not a battle between pro-fascists and anti-fascists. There are fascists on both sides; the opposition happens to like fascist costume parties more, but watch this video of Yanukovych’s snipers murdering unarmed protesters and tell me who the real fascists are in this fight... [WARNING: BRUTAL VIOLENCE]:
3. Everything you think you know about Ukraine is wrong.
Everyone looking for a proxy side to support or oppose in the Ukraine political dynamic will be disappointed. Ukraine politics go by their own rules. Today’s neoliberal ultranationalist could be tomorrow’s Kremlin ally, and visa-versa. Just look at what happened to the Orange Revolution—nothing. To wit:
a) One Orange Revolution leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, wound up turning against her partner Viktor Yushchenko and allying with Yanukovych to strip Yushchenko of presidential powers; later, Tymoshenko allied with the Kremlin against Yushchenko; now she's free from jail and the presumptive leader of the anti-Yanukovych forces.
b) The other Orange leader—the pro-EU, anti-Kremlin Viktor Yushchenko—wound up allying with pro-Kremlin Yanukovych to jail Yulia Tymoshenko.
c) John McCain has been the big driving force for regime change against Yanukovych, but McCain’s 2008 campaign chief’s lobby firm, Davis Manafort, managed Yanukovych’s political campaigns and his lobbying efforts in the US.
d) Anthony Podesta, brother of President Obama’s senior advisor John Podesta, is another Yanukovych lobbyist; John Podesta was the chief of Obama’s 2008 transition team.
4. Yanukovych was not fighting neoliberalism, the World Bank, or oligarchy — nor was he merely a tool of the Kremlin.
There’s another false meme going around that because the World Bank and IMF are moving in to "reform" Ukraine’s economy — for the umpteenth time — that somehow this means that this was a fight between pro-neoliberal and anti-neoliberal forces. It wasn’t.
Yanukovych enthusiastically cooperated with the IMF and pledged to adhere to their demands. Six months after Yanukovych was elected president, the headline read "International Monetary Fund approves $15 billion loan to Ukraine". As the AFP reported,
"President Viktor Yanukovych had made restoring relations with the IMF a major priority on taking office."Later that year, the Wall Street Journal praised Yanukovych's neoliberal reforms as "truly transformational" and gushed that Yanukovych "may soon become Europe's star economic liberalizer."
The problem was that last November, the Kremlin offered Yanukovych what he thought was a better deal than what the EU was offering. He bet wrong.
The point is this: Ukraine is not Venezuela. This is not a profoundly political or class fight, as it is in Venezuela. Yanukovych represents one faction of oligarchs; the opposition, unwittingly or otherwise, ultimately fronts for other factions. Many of those oligarchs have close business ties with Russia, but assets and bank accounts—and mansions—in Europe. Both forces are happy to work with the neoliberal global institutions.
In Ukraine, there is no populist left politics, even though the country’s deepest problem is inequality and oligarchy. Memories of the Soviet Union play a big role in turning people off to populist-left politics there, for understandable reasons.
But the Ukrainians do have a sense of people power that is rare in the world, and it goes back to the first major protests in 2000, through the success of the Orange Revolution. The masses understand their power-in-numbers to overthrow bad governments, but they haven’t forged a populist politics to change their situation and redistribute power by redistributing wealth.
So they wind up switching from one oligarchical faction to another, forming broad popular coalitions that can be easily co-opted by the most politically organized minority factions within—neoliberals, neofascists, or Kremlin tools. All of whom eventually produce more of the same shitty life that leads to the next revolution.
[Image credit: Public domain]