The Long Reach
“The protesters of Ukraine are making a long reach for democracy, seeking a day where they may express themselves freely without fear of reprisal and torture from their government. Above all they seek normalcy … and they are prepared to achieve this with violence if necessary.”
- Corey Stephens
Editorial by Corey Stephens
Illustration by Sam Cardelfe
Corey Stephens is an art critic and talented writer who is eager to offer his opinions on the economy, creativity, and global relations. He contributes insightful, and entertaining editorials to Paradigm’s website regularly.
In a haze of tear gas and riotous fervor the protesters of Independence Square clashed with the Ukrainian government. Under a multitude of banners they endured rubber bullets and the sting of police truncheons; some seeking to reclaim a national identity lost in the global polity, while others clamored for a chance to breathe the unrestricted air of their European brethren. But amidst the swirling canisters of gas it is easy to become disoriented.
Naturally, we in the West are prone to view protests from a distinctly Western perspective. We equate suppressive governments and mass protests with revolution and uprising; a refusal to suffer inglorious days populated by repressive demagogues. We feel inclined to get involved, to spread democracy with broad strokes of pen and bayonet if necessary. But in keeping with this chauvinistic point of view we fail to pick up on the finer complexities of a conflict, such as regional differences.
Ukraine’s deep relationship with the Kremlin and it’s poor leadership under president Yanukovych makes it an easy target for politicians and pundits who see the protests as the Ukrainian’s people desire to shirk off the last remnants of their Soviet-era ties and take its place in the West, but this is ethnocentric thinking. Although the protests may suggest a singular push towards a fully westernized Ukraine, the reality is simply more complicated than that. The protests in Ukraine represent a stew of competing ideologies and agendas, with the protesters themselves representing only a small portion of the population. From our Western outlook, it may be easy to assume that the protesters shouting slogans and toting banners are freedom fighters in the vein of say a Boston patriot or French revolutionary, but we must take into consideration the full spectrum of the uprising’s participants and their aims respectively.
No two uprisings are the same. The uprisings of the Arab Spring illustrate that no revolution comes without its share of variant outcomes, and even if the opposition wins there is no assurance that it will live up to its promises. Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi was initially seen as a liberator, but only two years into the Morsi administration’s reign little had changed. Under Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian economy lagged and seemed set on a course toward becoming an Islamist state. A second uprising in 2013 forced Morsi out allowing the military to step in, but nearly one year later there is still no solid vision for a fully realized democratic Egypt state.
On the geopolitical stage there are no permanent winners or losers. To take Hegel’s view, every uprising can be seen a struggle between master and slave, or in a modern context, a struggle between the opposition and the statutory elite. Protesters from the most benign to the most radical are just fragments in a larger mosaic comprised of many agendas, visions and ideas, ranging from the very local to global in scale. In Ukraine’s case there are protesters who want more inclusion in a geopolitical dialogue that has largely ignored them whilst amongst right-wing segments like the Svoboda party a more exclusionary agenda prevails. As outside observers we must be able assess who is who and whether our involvement only exacerbates a potentially calamitous situation.
In the West we also tend to look at conflicts in the Ukraine as either left or right, or in this case East or West. There are some who stubbornly ascribe to the notion that these protests represent a desire to cut ties with Russia in favor of a Western form of democracy, but let us be mindful that a considerable portion of the country’s population is pro-Russian. The country is split along East and West. With the Eastern part of the country tending to be more conservative and pro-Russian, while the West favors the EU. Yet despite the variant causes that lead to the rallying of masses, change is a common theme. The protesters are unified behind a drive to obliterate the corruption and mismanagement that has caused their country to languish on the geopolitical landscape.
The protesters of Ukraine are making a long reach for democracy, seeking a day where they may express themselves freely without fear of reprisal and torture from their government. Above all they seek normalcy. Like their counterparts in Tahrir Square and fighting in the streets of Damascus, the protesters of Independence Square have amassed with the intention achieving for themselves an identity that is not mired in autocratic doctrines and cluttered with the relics of an oppressive past, and they are prepared to achieve this with violence if necessary.
However clarifying this might be to us in the West, we must tread carefully. Assuming that every conflict demands our righteous appraisal and intervention is foolish. There are internal complexities at work that are beyond our understanding and meddling not only complicates the situation on the ground but provides fodder for our critics. Though we believe it our responsibility to stamp out oppression wherever it exist, we must be sensitive to the fact that not every uprising fits our mold and today’s opposition may be tomorrow’s oppressors. That is not to say that there are not conflicts which demand our intervention, but there is a significant difference between assuming the role of noble interveners and being seen as self-righteous interlopers. In the long run we may be upsetting the balance rather than restoring it.
We find ourselves morally and philosophically drawn to these causes, but not every revolution is necessary or prudent, nor do they last long. As we shift through the post-riotous wilderness of broken glass and torn banners we must be mindful of whom we are supporting and if at all our support matters. It’s one thing to commit to a revolution’s completion and another to suffer the consequence of its success.
But is there such a thing as too much meddling? The recent escalation in violence and weak compromises has left the Ukraine on the brink of civil war. President Yanukovych has failed to be an effective leader through his apathy and dependency on Russia. Yanukovych has put his country in the unfortunate position of being a staging ground for the kind of political and social unrest that gripped the Middle East during the Arab Spring and has potentially provided the kindling for a potential standoff between Washington and the Kremlin.
In the confusion of violence and splattering of ideologies it is difficult to codify any lasting agreements between Yanukovych’s government and the opposition leaving the West to resort to threatening Mr. Yanukovych with sanctions, but with Russia casting the Yanukovych regime financial lifelines these sanctions bear little to no consequence. Thus Kiev is left to burn becoming the Eastern European equivalent of Fort Sumter in a potentially bloody civil conflict that may have far-reaching diplomatic and humanitarian consequences especially if the US and Russia step up their involvement.
As the situation in the Ukraine continues to evolve it is impossible to gauge which direction the events of the last few months will lead the country. Are we witnessing the rise of a democratic republic or will see an embittered autocratic regime crack down on its citizens with a brutality on par with that of the Al-Assad regime? Or are we witnessing a schism that will invariably lead to the creation of two new nations? Whatever the outcome, we in the West must tread judiciously. We must not rely on our own limited perspective when involving ourselves in national complexities that go beyond the narrow scope of established geopolitical paradigms, or we run the risk of coming off like self-interested interlocutors rather guardians of freedom.