Thursday, May 26, 2005

On Putin's East-West Germany Comment, Tymoshenko's Tribulations, and Comparisons to Chavez's Venezuela

Greetings All,

The following thought below occured to me earlier today, and could be used as a talking point for explaining the difference between the Russian and Ukrainain languages and cultures, and for explaining why Ukrainians are so sensitive about not conflating the two as one, and why it is NOT nationalistic of them to be so thusly sensitive:


Russian talk about brotherly togetherness is as delusional as was the German insistence on forging a singular great German family. The Germans have learned to give up their imperialist delusions over their Germanic cousins; when will a government come to power in Moscow that respects the independence of Russia's East Slav cousins? When will Russia actively decolonize its mentality as the Germans have more or less done since WWII? The Putin regime shows no sign or will of taking Russia down that path. "The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe. . ."

But to shift gears a little to address a related topic, I listened to an interview with an editor of the Nation (on
; the interview was done back in February), a so-called Russia expert, who labelled Yulia Tymoshenko anti-Russian, which is code for "nationalist." Argh. As far as I am concerned, she is strongly demanding that Russia give up its imperial ambitions and imperial hubris and treat Ukraine as an equal. If that is nationalism, so be it--but it is not an anti-Russian stance. She is not against the Russian language, speaks it as her first language, is for the creation of the Single Economic Space with Russia (in a real sense and with an eye to fair trade and not just free trade, while what the Russian government thus far is really talking about is a mere customs union that will heavily benefit and favor Russia, of course; a NAFTA for Eurasia).

SO WHY do Eastern Europeans and Central Asians who stand up to the 800 lb. guerilla of the region so frequently get labelled "nationalist" by people on both the right and the left in the West?? That's a major topic for discussion that could have the following title (and I am actually working on a piece with this name): "The Post Soviet World: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it."

The Point therefore being:

If Yulia Tymoshenko was named Julia Rodriguez and was taking such a populist stance in Mexico as she is in Ukraine; and was standing up to American machinations in Mexico as she is standing up to Russian machinations in Ukraine; and was demanding more equality in relations between the US and Mexico as she is demanding there be between Ukraine and Russia; she would be praised by the left in the West (and demonized by the right)--much like how Hugo Chavez is at present.

For those who don't know, Hugo Chavez is, contrary to what some other Ukraine bloggers have been writing (, not a dictator but a popularly elected president of Venezuela who continues to enjoy widespread support, and who came to power backed by an anti-oligarchy movement that promised to stand up against the regional 800 lb. guerrila--i.e., the US--and to initiate social programs to help average Venezuelans rise out of poverty, in part by taking over and redistributing and in some cases outright renationalizing the assets of the oil oligarchy of that country. Chavez--or the policies for which he stands--is widely popular in Venezuela, as Tymoshenko is in Ukraine.

(I'm afraid that the bloggers on the aforementioned site have fallen prey to the propaganda of Chavez's opposition to the same degree that Jonathan Steele has to that of Yushchenko's opposition--for Chavez, although not perfect, just as Yushchenko certainly is not, and prone to making some errors like Yushchenko, is still a populist, and the opposition against him is as credible as is the bunch of oligarchs that are bunching together in opposition to Yushchenko.)

The situation in Venezuela is familier to the situation in Ukraine, except that the oligarchy in Ukraine has much of its basis of power and wealth in coal and iron while in Venezuela it is oil, and Ukraine's oligarchy was backed by Russia and Venezuela's was backed by the US. And both the US and Russia are becoming increasingly authoritarian states (Russia indeed is further along), and Ukraine is courting American support to get out from the Russian sphere, while Chavez courts Russia to get out of the American sphere. So of course the American and Western European left goes bizerk criticizing the Orange Revolution and Yushchenko-Tymoshenko team for Ukrainian acceptance of US help, labels Yushchenko a neoliberal and nationalist, and waxes gah-gah over the Chavez-Russia cooperation, while the right goes bizerk over Chavez's meetings in Moscow and calls him a dictator, and then strangely praises the US's work with populists in Ukraine who are pulling Ukrainian soldiers out of Iraq. And of course there are pundits out their complaining that the populist attacks on the roots of oligarchic power being led by Chavez and Tymoshenko are hurting growth in Venezuela and Ukraine--oh the oil industry is hurting, and all the talk about reprivatization is weakening Ukraine's industrial sector--and therefore are spouting off rumors of corruption within the ranks of the populists themselves in order to discredit them (although there certainly is a degree of corruption even within the populist camp, of course). . .

Its a dangerous game being played on all sides:

The US is supporting a populist regime in Ukraine that it may in the end not much care for, while Ukrainians are working with an ally that may set the propaganda and political machine working against them, as they already are against Tymoshenko (i.e., the recent Washington Post piece criticizing her populist government, which I will write about again later. . .).

On the other hand, Chavez is already ten thousand times the democrat that Putin is, but Venezuela's progress definitely does not stand to be checked by Russia if the relation goes sour as the US can start to trump Tymoshenko. (And I am very concerned about Yushchenko's comments about her, but again more later. . .)

In either case, both Yushchenko and Chavez and the governments and the movements of which they are the nominal leaders are still much more concerned with building democracy and with serving the interests of the average citizens of their nations than either governments and leaders in Russia and the US. The Putin and Bush administrations serve the corporate interests of their nations and then leave the rest of their peoples to scramble for what might come trickling down. As Bush once joked at an annual meeting of top business people and politicians, "Some call you guys the elite; I call you my base." Hence pundits of certain persuasions complain about the social programs supported by Tymoshenko and Chavez; they are not so good for the profits of elites, especially of foreign investors.

Interesting (perhaps enraging) to see, in this case, Yushchenko trying to reign Tymoshenko in a bit: perhaps he is doing so just to make the US and foriegn investors a little less nervous and jumpy, but still has a populist heart like Tymoshenko (or Chavez). I hope so--he proved himself to be quite shrewd in playing such political games in the course of the OR. But I still am not sure what to make of him yet--a true populist, or a neoliberal in the end.

(And by the way, publius pundits, if you are reading, one of the pillars of your argument that Chavez is a dictator is your accusation that Chavez is stacking his administration full of loyalists; well, I agree in general that this is a bad thing, but I must point out to you that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have done the same thing, and that the Bush administration is exhibiting itself as perhaps the most billigerent of any administration in terms of demanding the right to stack the federal government full of loyalists everywhere, to such an extent that it sought to put an end to the filibuster--the final check on any administration's ability to stack the government with loyalists.)

So back to Ukraine and Russia, what the Left needs to learn regarding the situation in Eurasia is:

1) Not to begrudge the people of poor nations for accepting US assistance. Activists in the West may be able to get jobs to support their livelihhod and fund their efforts, but the people of Eurasian nations suffer from an unemployment rate of 30-55%, depending on season (which comes from unofficial statistics that are more reliable). They also get paid $30-60/month on average, while in the past in Ukraine, one could either not get paid some months, or not in the total amount. Furthermore, the average person (at least I can say so in Ukraine) is not a mere stooge of the US. Attitudes toward the US tend to be more like those of other European nations: healthy skepticism about its real intentions. But thank you for the money, anyway!

2) Start learning what the real, grassroots sentiments are on the ground in Eurasia, and start learning the real historyof grassroots resistance to authoritarianism in this part of the world. The peoples of Eurasia want regime change, and will use whatever help they may get. Popular sentiment was not engineered via US manipulations such as media campaigns and organizing. The anti-authoritarian movement, I know for sure in Ukraine, has a very long history that one might argue goes back to the mid 19th century. The groups that were active in Ukraine--PORA! (It's Time!), Znaju (I know), Chysta Ukrajina (A Clean Ukraine), Svoboda Vybory (Freedom of Choice Coalition) did not emerge from a vacuum; the people who led the charge in organizing them were not hand-picked by the United States; the people who joined and supported the anti-authoritarian movement and participated in its actions did not do so because they were nationalist extremists nor Islamic fundamentalists (now talking about Central Asia), and neither were they convinced by US propaganda to join the anti-authoritrian, pro-democracy movements. They simply had had enough: DOSIT! (The Ukrainian equivalent of the slogan ENOUGH! or BASTA! that one hears at populist rebellions around the world.)

3) Many on the Left, especially in the EU, need to stop looking at Russia as a buffer against US interests in Eurasia. The Russian state has historically been just as, if not more, authoritarian and manipulative in its "sphere of influence" in Eurasia as the US has been in Latin America. Furthermore, Russia under Putin is heading in an even more authoritarian direction, and is looking backward nostalgically on Russia's lost empire and influence. Russia is governeed by an increasingly authoritarian regime nostalgic for Empire: it is not presently ruled by a democratizing regime willing to encourage the decolonization and democratization of its nation's instiutions and mentality. However, there is a real pro-democracy movement in Russia that needs our attention and support, and let's hope that this movement will also be predominantly anti-imperial or anti-chauvinist.

4) Thus, in a connected issue, segments of the Left must stop defending Russia's right to a sphere of influence. I have listened to far too many comments in which people defended a supposedly poor, bullied Russia's right to a sphere of influence against US and Western manipulations. Is anyone complaining about Chavez's attempt to cooperate with Russia against a US sphere of influence as they complain about Yushchenko's cooperation with the US against Russian manipulations? Why for some Lefties is Russia deserving of a sphere, but anyone or nation in Latin America who resists the US is a hero? Does anyone on the Left defend the US's right to a neo-imperialist "sphere of influence?" So why do such resistors of Russia in Eurasia so oftenly get the pleasant label of "nationalist" in the West, while a Bolivian who resists the US is considered heroic?

5) I want to again emphasize that I think democratization of Russia is not only possible, but absolutely necessary. The single most important event in European history for generations would, to my mind, be for Russia to undergo its own variant of the Orange or Rose Revolutions--and this seems were things might be heading in Russia for 2008. Democratization and Decolonization of Russia is a real possibility. Dreamers must dream, doers must do, and the skeptics and apologists for the way things are can just step aside.

6) Then a few points specifically about Ukraine:

a) I want to emphasize that the political conscience of the average Ukrainian is, contrary to what many pundits and intellectuals have been saying about Ukrainians for generations, quite very high--much higher than is the political awareness of the average American, at least. Few Ukrainians en masse but for a critical mass of those in the eastern part of the country, believe what the media or the political leadership tells them--definitely before, and it seems also after the OR. Most people have their own sources of news, or their own favorite opposition or non-mainstream newspapers. Granted that some of these papers are barely more than tabloids--but such papers are in the minority. The do-it-yourself, activist and political press--i.e., the or alternatives to the state and oligarchic press--is vibrant in Ukraine, and people do tune in. It is interesting to note that in a country with far less freedom of press than in the US, so many more people actually do seek out and turn to the available alternatives to the corporate and political establishement dominated press than they do in the US. Furthermore, my experience in Ukraine exposed me to what I called, in my Orange Revolution writings, Ukraine's "spoken-word information network." Even before the OR, people talked to each other about what they read in the alternative or opposition press or what they heard from someone who had acccess to the opposition Channel 5 (which is available only via satellite in most parts of Ukraine), or repeated information that they learned from their town's or village's local party offices, regardless of which party they were members of (and the US did not establish all of these parties and all of these papers and Channel 5 itself, and then sold them all on pro-Yushchenko propaganda, which they then disseminated throughout the country. . .). Membership in political parties is quite high in Ukraine. Through this network (which really simply is neighbor telling neighbor what they knew), especially during the OR, I was hearing things that I just could not beleive were true. But later, everything I heard would be confirmed on the internet or somewhere else in print. As one commentator on Channel 5 said during the OR, "Even today, the word still travels faster than the image," after telling viewers about how a group of election observers in the town of Donetsk had been attacked and their cameras smashed.

Furthermore, in the course of conversations with many people during and after the 17 days of the OR, I learned that the irony of the Bush administration defending free elections was not lost but on a few people in Ukraine. And in general, most people who asked my opnion on Bush usually asked hesitantly, and when they found out my opposition to his administration, most people usually started saying things like: "The war in Iraq is for oil;" or, "Bill Clinton was more of a statesman" (but note, I am not a big Clinton fan myself); etc. Popular opinion in Ukraine is against the warin Iraq whether one was for Yushchenko or Yanukovych, and Ukrainian attitudes towards the US tend to be typical Euroskepticism about things politically American--they have no problem with pop culture or American people. And this is not just a hangover from Soviet times; Ukrainians are Europeans which means they value public transportation systems and social programs and arts, etc., over a rampaging capitalism with very little time or care for such things. Very few people told me that they had the US in mind as the model society toward which their post-OR government stear Ukraine. But that is a mute point, since the stated goal of many during the OR was that Ukraine should and very well can achieve so-called "European standards" and join the EU, which means a more social democratic system than in the US: i.e., European values are for a more regulated capitalism and social programs. Furthermore members of the OR political leadership, most especially Yulia Tymoshenko, are populists with an agenda for social programs (for which they will increasingly come under fire by American pundits, as Tymoshenko has by a Washington Post article). Such is what the vast majority of Ukrainians care about: they want the government to improve the infrastructure, rebuild the system of universal healthcare, do public housing works, etc. They don't care too much at present about the profits of foriegn investors. They want reprivatization to proceed along rather radical lines; they want back some of the wealth that has been stolen from them these past fourteen years through investment in some of the above matters. In short, popular opinion is more captured by the heart and soul of Yulia Tymoshenko, who outshines Yushchenko at present in any popularity contest. And one is supposed to believe that these masses of Ukrainians were duped by a US campaign? Yushchenko might turn out to be less of a populist than people hoped for, but it is far too simplistic to say that the masses of Ukrainians rallied around him because the US told them to or manipulated them into doing so. They knew the risks involved--but what was the alernative? No matter which way you cut it, Yushchenko and gang are FAR, far BETTER for Ukraine than Yanukovych and gang would have been, US opinions on the matter aside. And furthermore, no one has stopped fighting for a better Ukraine: the altrernative press to the governmental and oligarchic press is active as ever in criticizing the new authorities, and PORA! is keeping its presence felt, especially vis-a-vis the whole Zvarych affair, in relation to which, by the way, I think Yushchenko is taking a deeply disappointing and troubling position. . .

b) This election campaign and subsequent Orange Revolution really was not, at its root, about a competition between a Western versus a Russian or Eastern Choice, nor was it driven or that deeply complicated by an east-west divide within Ukraine, even if these things did play an important but secondary role. Let me explain, since this is an assertion that goes against the grain of many of people's deepest assumptions about the elections and situation in contemporary Ukraine. Both Yushchenko and Yanukovych had Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking supporters in both the western and eastern parts of the country, albeit with different proportions; nonethless, at least 60% of Ukrainians voted for Yushchenko in just about every round. The east-west divide within the country is an artificial divide first made and then continued by a historical parade of authoritarian and rapacious governments (imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet) that have needed tactics of divide and rule to maintain their power and the wealth of their elites (the USSR was a class society). The tactics of divide and rule in Ukraine have been based on manipulating and politicizing Ukraine's multiethnic and multiligual situation, especially by toying with people's fears and anxieties about the status of the Russian language in Ukraine and about Ukrainian cooperation with Russia. There is no issue here: Russian is in many ways still the dominant language in Ukraine, given its prevalence on television, in print press, on pop radio and other parts of the entertainment industry (such as Western films and books coming dubbed and translated mostly into Russian only), and it still enjoys widespread us in the government; and all of this in addition to the large numbers who are primarily Russian-speaking in the home, whether they are ethnically Ukrainian or Russian or mixed. Yushchenko's stance and the whole post-OR government's stance is one of linguistic pluralism/populism, Russian propaganda that says he's against the Russian language aside. Furthermore, Ukraine continues to look toward Russia as its number 1 trading partner. Thus, the Yanukovych camp was talking about MUCH more than cooperation; they were talking about what one scholar, Taras Kuzio, called the "Belarusynization of Ukraine;" i.e., of Ukraine taking the path of Belarus' of heading toward actual re-intergration with Moscow, since the power of the oligarchy rested on close ties to an increasingly authoritarian Russian government. And most people saw this, and rejected it. But this is not an anti-Russian stance in general; it fact, it is quite pro-Russian in the sense that it sends a message to Russia that Ukrainains value democracy, not just in Ukraine but hopefully somday in Russia, too. Therefore, none of this anything to do with wanting to cut ties with Russia tout court, but with the desire to distance Ukraine from any authoritarian oligarchy, or any "government of bandits." It has to do with demanding equality between democratic nations. And the reason for all this was simple: continuation of ties between the current regime in Russia and the status quo regime as it obtained these past fourteen years in Ukraine meant keeping in power a rapacious oligarchy that, while manipulating people in Ukraine to think ill of one another and in terms of either khlib (Ukrainian for bread) or khleb (Russian for bread), were stealing and preparing to keep on stealing the dough. With Yanukovych and the present Russia, fewer people would have any bread to eat, and 60% of Ukrainians (in the civic sense) woke up to this fact. The rest of them, that 40% or so in mostly the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, are like the millions of Americans, especially lower class Americans, who support the radically right wing social agenda of the Republicans against their own best interests. One could copy the title and motivation of the book What's the Matter with Kansas? and very much so write a book entitled What's the Matter with the Donbas?--and make it a book in which one asks why so many workers in eastern and southern Ukraine support the parties and platforms of Ukraine's oligarchs. Kansas has its Republican Proletariat, and Ukraine has its Regions of Ukraine Proletariat: working people working for an agenda that is against their interests and for those of corrupt elites, or oligarchs. (Yes, I do think that the Bush administration is quite corrupt, as was the Clinton administation, too; today there is narly a difference between a Republocract and Demopublican; there is no true Left in mainstream American politics, and certainly the real Left is nowhere to be found on mainstream television. . .).

Thus, the reason why I say that the OR did not at its roots have to do with a Western v. Eastern choice is because if Russia was under a pro-democracy and anti-chauvinist government and had supported Yushchenko--and no doubt the US then would have supported Yanukovych or remained silent in matter--Ukrainians would have drawn closer to Russia. It was bread, and who was going to for the moment support people in the fight against the dough-snatchers, that mattered in this election most. And one can read above what I wrote about the strong populist tendencies of many of the leaders of the OR, most especially Yulia Tymoshenko.

Of course, it does matter, on the other hand, that Russian power was supporting the dough-snatchers and that he West weighed on the side of the people in this conflict; and it does matter that Ukrainian-speakers do feel marginalized in their own country, and now feel hope that after the OR, their country will take a more pro-active stance regarding the Ukrainian language and culture. But none of this has anything to do with being simplistically pro-Western and anti-Russian. All but the most intolerant of Ukrainians look upon the Russian people and language as an enemy nation; most continue to regard Russia and Russians as kin--but as cousins, not brothers. They look forward to wide-ranging social-democratic reform and a united Europe that is not limited to a Germanic and Central European world, but will also some day include a unique East Slav world of which Ukraine is definitely and should proudly be part, CULTURALLY speaking. Its just that 60% of Ukrainians don't like Putin's government and Putin's pundits any more than liked the Ukrainian oligarchy and its pundits. Seperate the people from the government, please.


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