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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Small Slip, Big White Lie

Here is how historic falsehood is constructed. Just read Mykola Riabchuk:

"“Would anyone anywhere in the world be willing to take a truncheon in the head for the sake of a trade agreement with the United States?”, asks Tymothy Snyder acerbically in his article “A Way Out for Ukraine?” knowing the answer perfectly well.

Many Ukrainians, indeed, got truncheons in their heads in the past two weeks, as they were protesting on the streets of Kyiv against their government’s last-moment decision to abstain from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Timothy Snyder is well aware that it is not the Agreement per se that mobilized the protesters but their hope for a “normal life in a normal country” which the agreement had envisaged and come to symbolize."

First of all, the government of Ukraine technically didn't "abstain" from signing, but postponed it. Even the EU Parliament's monitoring mission, not exactly an un-interested party in all this, says so, quite clearly. I really don't want to come across as splitting hairs, but abstaining and postponing are two different things. "Postponement" contains the implicit promise of a signing later. "Abstaining" doesn't. Could possibly signal a strategy that is slightly different than what is ascribed to it. Or not, who knows. And since this is about diplomacy--and since diplomacy is precisely about splitting hairs in this way--perhaps one might wish to pay attention to small details like this.

The breaking news at 1:30 pm EST on December 12, 2013, is that the EU and the government of Ukraine have agreed to "work out a road map on a deal" so that Ukraine can "sign" the agreement "soon". In other words, news of the death of the association agreement were greatly exaggerated. The reason for this, in my humble opinion, is that both the EU and the economic and political elites of Ukraine--described by Ivan Krastev as the "no-nonsense oligarchs who keep their eggs in at least two baskets"--have something to gain from such a deal. With the protests at EU-Dependence Square, the government might even be able to make it look like it considered the opinion of the Maidan. (The only group of people for whom the deal, in its latest released form, is bad news is the majority, the people of Ukraine--assuming, that is, that they want to live reasonably well and derive at least a modest benefit from the resources of their own economy (e.g., its quality soil, its military strategic location on the north shore of the Black Sea, its economic-strategic location between the EU and Russia, whatever has remained of its industries, etc.,) and not suffer the textbook consequences of trade-, finance-, investment- and technological dependency on its 40 times bigger and approximately 8 times wealthier neighbor. Given that the "alternative" is another neighbor, also considerably more powerful and perceptibly richer, for Ukraine, this is a perfect "lose-lose" situation. But I am repeating myself.) As EU Enlargement Commissioner Füle reports, now even Ukraine's financial crisis and the IMF has been brought in to pressure the government of Ukraine.

There is of course no question that the as-yet unsigned, perhaps-to-be-revised-or-tweaked-or-re-crafted agreement had come to symbolize something, and I have not doubt that that something has to do with what the protesters imagine as "normal life," as Mr Riabchuk puts it. What exactly it came to mean for others, e.g., the rest of Ukrainians, is unknown and, if you read Mr Riabchuk (or many other commentators, let me abstain from--or postpone? 8) --mentioning them all), apparently sort of irrelevant. 

In other words, the protesters are now standing for Ukraine as a whole. And that is a really important geopolitical accomplishment. That has been,  as I have argued it a good 10-15 years ago or so, the well known synecdochic "representational" pattern of the EU's enlargement process in general (as well as the "colored revolutions," etc.)  To what extent the crowds in the street actually reflect what "Ukrainians," at large, think, or even just what the majority think (as in a democracy) is completely unclear from this. In fact the main rhetorical purpose of this synecdoche is obscuring, making it more difficult to even ask that question. We shall probably never know. 

A corrupt government in a face-off with an emotionally fired-up, protesting crowd. Technically speaking, both are, more or less equally, un-accountable. At the very best, we see the pattern, described in the case of the post-state-socialist context, as well as elsewhere, as the well-known paradox of the creation of a democratic system of accountability via undemocratic and un-accountable means. There is something really sad about the fact that we are forced to observe the unfolding of more or less the same, sad and, from the perspective of social justice, fairness and, indeed, democracy, highly problematic, drama a full one generation after the collapse of state socialism. In fact, this might well be a signal that there is a little more going on here than surviving old authoritarian-state-socialist-nostalgic regimes vs. crowds with democratic desires. I'm not sure what it is, but there is more to it somehow.

The crowd may well succeed in overthrowing the government, who knows. --And what happens then? What will the "will of the people" say about power in a genuinely democratic Ukraine? Do we know that? Do we know that Ukraine's new, presumably democratically elected, future leaders will be more democratic, (even more pro-EU) and less corrupt than the current ones? Have we seen such a "clean" democracy at approximately 60% of the world mean GDP/cap? Is it possible to build a "western democracy" in a society that is burdened with the task of facing such basic need? I suspect that nobody really has any idea. This is absolutely not the fault the protesters--they do what protesters do: protest, demand, overthrow. Great.

But the intellectuals, the analysts, the pundits that have so easily slipped into a position of "supporting the people" without asking specifically who "the people" are and what they might want, let alone what they need--they ought to have a different perspective. It would be kind of nice if somebody could be cool-headed, realistic, etc. Somebody really needs to think about the future. Or, maybe I'm overrating the potential usefulness of analytical reasoning and dispassionate observation.

Finally, I would like to challenge the author, or anybody, really, to show where exactly (page number, paragraph, sentence, etc.) the draft association "agreement [with the EU] had envisaged" (my italics) "normal life in a normal country" for Ukraine. (I would even appreciate if he could spell out just what exactly he means by "envisaging.") Short of that, there is the slight but really annoying possibility that this apparently tiny slip becomes a big white lie (pun intended), hidden in the body of a fairly complex sentence of a pseudo-debate with a US historian, will turn out to be a colossal geopolitical deception, and a contribution to the destruction of not "just" the physical well-being and life of the protesters--which is apparently nobody's concern--but also the future of Ukraine.

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta