Everything you know about Ukraine (and Crimea) is wrong

Mark Ames and the War Nerd cut through the bullshit and static regarding the current goings-on in Ukraine in their typical clear manner. Both of the pieces should be read and appreciated to the fullest, in particular since they lay out the motivations of everyone involved and show that most Ukrainians themselves have very understandable reasons for doing what they’re doing. I’d still like to highlight some passages.

Mark Ames:

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.

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.

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.

War Nerd:

Unlike many Eastern Ukrainians, who speak Russian and consider themselves culturally but not politically Russian, Crimeans identify strongly as Russians, politically and culturally. They were very unhappy when Yeltsin let Crimea go to Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR. Nobody’s mentioning it, but the fact is that there was already a referendum in Crimea on staying with Ukraine or rejoining Russia.

On January 20, 1991, Crimeans voted to restore their ties with Russia by almost the same percentage (93.2%) we saw in today’s election—where, according to the BBC, 93% of Crimean voters once again voted Russian.

That’s a remarkably consistent vote, considering what a lot of chaos and poverty have encompassed the region since 1991. Back then, of course, no one in the West took the results seriously, because everyone knew the USSR was evil and anyone defecting from it was good. But it might be worth remembering that election now–because with Russian economic and military power backing them, the Crimeans’ vote might actually count.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Crimea voted to return to Russia. Even the demographics made that an easy one to predict. According to Ukraine’s own 2001 Census, 58.3% of Crimeans consider themselves Russian, with only 24.3% identifying as Ukranian.

On Sunday, the Crimeans voted to join Russia in huge numbers—80% turnout, 95% for joining Russia according to reports. That result tracked with the BBC exit polls, which took into account the fact that most of the peninsula’s ethnic Tartars—about 14% of the population—boycotted the vote. That means a lot of ethnic Ukrainians (and maybe even a few ethnic Tartars) voted with the Russian bloc, and it’s not likely they did so because they’re rabid Russian nationalists. More likely, it reflects the fact that Ukraine is a very poor country, while Russia seems to be doing pretty well, for a “gas station masquerading as a country.” Ukraine is sort of the opposite: A country without the money to buy a tank of gas. The history of Ukraine in the 20th century is so horrific, such a non-stop nightmare, that it’s impossible to blame anyone who wants out.

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