The ever-changing drama in Ukraine makes speculation futile. Overnight, a former leader with a pro-Europe reputation has emerged from prison, and the man who put her there has fled to parts unknown. But before we celebrate, consider three developments that should give us pause: the early American attempt to control the outcome of the protests; the reliance on elections to produce democratic governance; and the unpredictability of what will happen next. The overall lesson: We should lower our expectations and resist support for interfering in a chaotic political process.
On the first point: The tape recording of a four-minute conversation between two US diplomats about how to orchestrate the Ukraine situation reveals much more than disdain for the European Union (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSxaa-67yGM#t=89). It shows once again the arrogance of a superpower in believing it has the right and responsibility to orchestrate a change of another country’s government. The Russians, who probably did the taping, were upset about US “meddling” in its backyard; and Germany’s Angela Merkel came out with a blistering attack on the diplomats for dismissing the EU as a relevant partner in piecing together “moderate democrats” to form a new Ukraine government.
The Russians of course are as meddlesome as the Americans and therefore have nothing to complain about. But Merkel is right to be pissed off at American arrogance. “Fuck the EU” are the exact words the US assistant secretary of state used in the conversation. But the larger issue is what gets me, and of course it’s hardly a new one: the preparedness of the US to intervene in a country’s politics in an attempt to manipulate a favorable outcome. These folks think they have a right to determine another country’s leadership; think they know best who should be in and who should be out of a new government; and think only the US—in this case, with the UN allowed to play a supportive role—should be in charge of the restructuring project.
My guess is that few Americans would blink at the idea that their government is once again trying to put Humpty Dumpty together somewhere abroad. It’s just what we do. The media obliges by calling such interference “brokering” peace. Poor Ukraine; nobody there can deal with a political crisis without us.
Well, things haven’t worked out precisely as these diplomats hoped, which brings me to the second development. It turned out to be mainly the Poles, the EU, the Russians, and the Ukrainian opposition leaders themselves who orchestrated an agreement to end the violence and lay the conditions for new elections in December. That agreement lasted only a few days; the Ukraine parliament removed President Yanukovich, rescheduling the elections for late May. But we should not lose sight of post-Cold War history: Elections are no guarantee of democratic—or, to be more realistic, responsible—government. Elections often bring to power, as Ukraine has already shown, leaders who become infatuated with power, who are corrupt, who couldn’t care less about constitutions and the rule of law, and who will sell the souls of their people to foreign interests if the price is right. And the alternative to freely elected leaders may be no better—another post-Cold War reality that is often forgotten. Look at Egypt, from Morsi to the military; or Libya, from Gaddafi to warlords. Look at Thailand, where two consecutive democratically elected presidents (the latest is the sister of the first) have deeply divided the country, leading to near-civil war in Bangkok. Will Ukraine turn out differently, so that however the new elections turn out, the will of the majority will be respected? Will the US or Russia keep hands off, or will Ukraine become the setting for a Cold War-style standoff?
The third point comes down to this: Be careful whom you root for. By tradition we favor the oppressed opposition as it seeks to overthrow the despots, as in Iraq, in the countries that experienced the Arab Spring, in Syria, and now in Ukraine. But then it turns out that “the opposition,” which was united in what and who it opposed, is heavily divided over what it wants or will tolerate after victory. In Ukraine, I expect we are going to see gangs that won’t give up their guns, radicals who will demand retribution, splinter groups that will demand a share of power, Ukrainian speakers who will want to minimize the role of Russian speakers, and new and old members of the power elite who will hitch their wagons to the US in quest of support. We may also see the pro-Russian eastern part of the country reject the new leadership and even seek outright separation, perhaps with Putin’s help.
All these new sources of tension will be magnified by difficult economic questions. For example, who is going to bail out the Ukraine economy? It looks like the International Monetary Fund at the moment, which will mean sacrifices by ordinary Ukrainians under so-called austerity programs. What assurances are there—as though there really are any—that the billions of dollars in IMF aid won’t wind up in the bank accounts of the elite? (An excellent beginning discussion is in www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/world/europe/with-presidents-departure-ukraine-looks-toward-a-murky-future.html?hp&_r=0.)
Consider the leadership issue too: When then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who may become Ukraine’s next president, was sentenced in 2011 to 7 years in jail on trumped-up charges, a key reason apparently was that she had negotiated a natural gas deal with Russia that cost Ukraine far too much. When she was jailed, Putin joined the EU in protesting, calling her arrest “anti-Russian.” President Yanukovich, on the other hand, was leaning toward Europe at that time even as he had freed his hand to crack down on opponents within. Tymoshenko reportedly has strong support today and is expected to reach out to the West. Buyer beware! The United States and other outsiders should resist the temptation to embrace any one group or individual, particularly when the main game is jockeying for power, not building accountable rule and promoting social justice. Ukraine needs an honest broker, not poker players.