The Ukraine protests aren’t about the dream of Europe, but the fear of a Belarusian nightmare.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
The marriage of nationalism with supranational bureaucracy is a strange sight for most Americans to behold. Who rallies for an idea such as "Europe," much less one embodied by an institution that from these shores seems to function like a giant, overweening Department of Motor Vehicles spanning two dozen countries?
Try finding a cohesive working cultural definition of Europe and see where that gets you. No one’s ever spoken seriously of the "great European novel," except maybe Susan Sontag. "Lie back and think of Europe" is a phrase that’s probably only ever uttered by right-wing commentators terrified of supposed Muslim demographic trends on the continent. Even the apocryphal comment often attributed to Henry Kissinger — "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" — was meant to inspire titters about the prospect of getting nations that used to love to go to war with one another to act as collective decision-makers on matters of foreign policy.
And yet, Ukraine is now entering its third week of protests in thermometer-shattering cold, and risking a nasty state crackdown, all because President Viktor Yanukovych put the kibosh on an association agreement that would have given Ukraine greater trade opportunities with the European Union. That this is an event both intelligible and singular for a former Soviet satellite that lies on the fault line between East and West was best captured by Timothy Snyder, that great historian of fault-line nations (and fault-line national tragedies), in a short essay in the New York Review of Books: "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?" Implicit in the question is an acknowledgement that for the countries of the former Soviet Union, identity is shaped as much by what one does not aspire to be as by what one does.
Ukrainians, after all, aren’t just protesting for an easier flow of goods with Brussels — they’re protesting against the hegemonic protectionism of Moscow, which wants (and may have already forced) Kiev to join its own shabby, shadow syndicate, the Customs Union, in exchange for cut-rate oil and gas and an end to a Kremlin-imposed "customs terror" that has seen Ukrainian imports halted at the Russian border since last summer. Through his stock-in-trade of bribery, blackmail, and threats, President Vladimir Putin has prompted this present state of civic unrest in a neighboring country, which he described as "not really a state" at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008. Where Putin may fetishize the concept of "sovereignty" when it comes to, say, counteracting U.S. pressure on Syria, he views it as little more than a risible rhetorical flourish when applied to Russia’s former colonial possessions. The Orange Revolution, to which the Euromaidan protests are inevitably being compared, terrified him in 2004 because he saw Ukraine’s political trajectory as a harbinger for Russia’s demise — all brought on by those conspiratorial democratizers in Langley and Foggy Bottom.
The Putinists certainly have their own insane definition of what Europe means: impotence in 12 year olds, scatological TV programming for tots, CIA agents from aristocratic Swedish families, and a civilizational suicide pact. But they’ve also got populism on their side in the form of Euroskeptics of all ideological persuasions within the European Union. Far left and far right political parties advocating withdrawals from the E.U. and/or "exits" from the common euro currency, have gained seats in local and parliamentary elections in Britain, France, Holland, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Belgium in the last five years. People in these countries can’t fathom why anyone would want to move closer to a project that’s tenuously hung together since the 2008 credit crunch and — as is even now whispered by an ever-growing number of nervous centrists — might not have been such a hot idea in the first place.
But just tell that to the E.U.’s newest members, the ones that used to be occupied by foreign totalitarian regimes. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the cyber-savvy and Twitter-proficient president of Estonia, is one of the most outspoken proponents of the E.U. (Estonia joined enthusiastically in 2004, then joined the eurozone in 2010, two years after the Lehman Brothers implosion). I asked him why Europe mattered for Tallinn a decade ago. "There was very strong civilizational element of ‘return,’" Ilves replied. "Return after 50 years of occupations, deportations, deceit and corruption. We spent, after all, some 800 years in a German Kulturraum. The Hanseatic League, our architecture, Lutheranism, literacy, Kleinbürgerlichkeit [bourgeois mass culture], Rechtsstaat, a.k.a. the rule of law. The Soviets destroyed it all. So the narrative, if you will, was getting back to where we all had been anyway, where the Soviet period was like a Crazy Eddie’s commercial in the middle of a Mozart Concerto."
If 2004 is the obvious calendar comparison with events now unfolding in Kiev, 1991 and the unfinished business of post-Soviet consolidation looms large in the Ukrainian imagination, too. "Goodbye, Communist legacy!" is how opposition MP Andriy Shevchenko greeted the toppling of a statue of Lenin on Shevchenko Boulevard this past weekend, an event Prime Minister Mykola Azarov bizarrely compared with the Taliban’s razing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. And it pays to remember that a rejection of Russian imperialism — and the ironic recognition that Kiev was actually the birthplace of the Russian Empire — has been the leitmotif of renascent Ukrainian literature for the past 20 years. The curtain raiser was Yuri Andrukhovych’s 1993 novel The Moscoviad, whose protagonist, with his unmistakably European name Otto von F., vomits on the streets of Moscow before boozily boarding a train to a newly independent Ukraine. (It’s clear that he’s not just throwing up cheap Russian hooch but the metaphorical remnants of a crumbling superpower.)
Another celebrated Ukrainian novelist, Oksana Zabuzhko, whose debut fiction, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, managed to filter national identity through the alembic of feminism, told me in no uncertain terms that "the European vector here stands for the irretrievable de-Sovietization of the country. No matter what means Mr. Putin uses to charm Mr. Yanukovych, the message has been immediate and clear: back to the restored ‘neo-USSR,’ with a Kremlin asset for a president, and the political class ruling in the old Soviet Russian way. That’s exactly what Ukrainians won’t accept, and what they have revolted against."
While a fear of succumbing to the undertow of neo-USSR designs is part of the story, there are more practical matters also driving the Euromaidan protests. Igor Pomerantsev, a Ukrainian intellectual and radio host, told me that young Ukrainians — many of whom don’t s
peak Russian but do speak English as a second language — aren’t out in force for some mythical concept of a United States of Europe, nor are they in the dark about the shortcomings of the treaties of Rome, Lisbon, or Maastricht, which have ungirded the E.U. They’re out in force because they demand the basic political concomitants of economic integration — the rights and privileges that people in liberal democracies take for granted. "Closeness with the E.U. gives better chances to get Schengen visas in future, opens future possibilities to study in European colleges, gives a hope to get legal jobs in the West. Most Ukrainians know that citizens of the E.U. have higher living standards, live longer, have better flats and medical treatment," Pomerantsev emailed me.
Few people will willingly march for dictatorship, African-levels of corruption, higher mortality rates, stagnation, and a foreign policy driven by alliances with mass murderers. (Note this BBC broadcast in which correspondent Steve Rosenberg can’t get a single pro-Yanukovych supporter to explain what it is that he or she is demonstrating for.) Nor does any sensible person wish to have his national destiny shaped by foreign extortionists and their domestic handmaids. Yanukovych relies on hired goons, known as titushkas, who rough up people at protests or act as agents provocateurs to make the protests look inherently violent or putschist. Meanwhile, state security services raided the offices of a Ukrainian opposition party headquarters and seized computers. No doubt laying the groundwork for such repression, Putin last week called the demonstrations "pogroms," even as Russia continues to be roiled by anti-migrant riots that live up to letter and spirit of that word. Meanwhile, the Kremlin-owned media churns out the usual nonsense about what’s "really" happening next door, as Ukrainians openly mock Russian broadcasters.
Another problem is this: Yanukovych is a crook. According to a stellar investigation by Sergii Leshchenko at OpenDemocracy, the president’s private residence, Mezhyhirya, an enormous wooden mansion built by a Finnish company, is estimated to have cost $75 million to $100 million dollars. Yet his official salary for most of his political career never exceeded $2,000 a month. A road built connecting the capital to this Byzantine log cabin was evidently constructed for Yanukovych’s personal benefit out of money that originated in Ukraine’s exchequer and was slated for use for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. All of this while Ukraine has remained an economic "basket case."
"You have in Ukraine a country that for 20 years has really suffered a lot from corruption, lack of democratic practice and — for I think a large portion of the Ukrainian people — it’s not just E.U. living standards that are sought but the boring, regulatory rule of law," said Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "The Russians offer nothing to compete with that."
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, who advocates Yanukovych’s resignation, adds that even democratically elected autocrats reach a point where their choices are no longer driven by considerations of national interest or popular will but by the simple imperative that they cannot abdicate because the system will cannibalize them if they do. "You’ve stolen too much, you’ve enriched yourself to such an extraordinary degree that there can’t be future transfers of power," Kramer said. He meant not just Yanukovych but also Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, another grim holdover from the bad old days and a warning of what post-Soviet Europe can still become.
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Indeed, if Russia can be cast as both the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future in Ukraine’s geopolitical drama, Belarus is the Ghost of Christmas Present. Lying just to the north, right in the middle of Europe, it’s the only country on the continent that still employs the death penalty, was a charter member of the Putin’s Customs Union, and today represents a tyranny of a more classical design and disposition.
For the last three years, and following a similar democratic ferment in its capital city, Belarus has idled in neo-Soviet authoritarianism as the E.U. has largely given up on trying to cajole or incentivize political and human rights reforms. In December 2010, Belarusians went to the polls to elect their president. Instead, the election was rigged to give Lukashenko — known by his sobriquet "Europe’s last dictator" — 80 percent of the vote, when independent observers said he’d have otherwise gotten less than 50 percent. Belarusians were furious. As many as 50,000 took to the streets of Minsk to protest. Prior to the election, of course, Russia and the E.U. were enjoined in a similar, albeit quieter, face-off, with the former artificially lowering customs on oil and fixing a below-market price for gas as a douceur for Lukashenko to play by their rules; the latter offering an aid package, more porous borders, and the chance to deepen and widen the E.U.-Belarusian partnership in exchange for a free and fair vote. (This was part of a short-lived "thaw" in relations between Brussels and Minsk.)
As with Yanukovych in 2013, Lukashenko banked on Russian guarantees in 2010 and went ahead with his plans for self-preservation at any cost. His crackdown was severe. More than 20 journalists were arrested for covering the protests. One of these was Irina Khalip, the local correspondent for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She and her husband, the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who "officially" came in second in the election and ought to have gone into another round of voting, joined in the demonstrations until pro-Lukashenko provocateurs stormed the government building, thereby inviting a pre-planned police retaliation. Sannikov was forced to the ground and beaten horribly about the head and legs with a metal shield. Khalip tried to escort him to the hospital while also broadcasting a live interview with the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, but the car they were in was trapped by a police phalanx. Sannikov was pulled from the vehicle, beaten again, and then arrested. Despite doctors’ recommendations in a prison facility where those arrested were initially brought that he be given urgent medical care, he was put into a police car and driven not to any hospital but to a Stalinist prison known as the Amerikanka, which is run by Belarus’s secret police, still helpfully known in the 21st century as the KGB.
Originally sentenced to five years for "inciting mass disorder," he ended up serving 16 months under gulag conditions. "They always handcuffed you even if you were taken to see the warden," Sannikov told me from Warsaw, Poland, where he now occasionally stays. (He was "pardoned" by Lukashenko in 2012, and soon gained political asylum in London.) "They used the so-called ‘swallow’ method, where they handcuff you behind your back, then raise your arms quite high so that you have to bow. It’s extremely painful to walk." Random searches of his cell and person were also forms of physical and psychological torture. "The prison guards would take you down to this basement, to an extremely cold room which was all concrete. They’d tell you to strip off all your clothes and you’re standing naked against the wall with your legs widespread. This was especially painful because my leg was badly hurt. But they’d keep you in this position for 20, 30, 40 minutes — maybe an hour." He was also forced to watch state propaganda television, which consisted of Clockwork Orange-style marathon viewings of images of violence and atrocities, including scenes from Russian wars in Chechnya.
At one point, the government threatened to take custody of his and Khalip’s 3-year-old son, Dania, whom the KGB also threatened to murder if Sannikov didn’t sign a false confession. Khalip served three and a half months of house arrest with alternating KGB agents living with her and Dania in their apartment.
Sannikov credits his release to E.U. sanctions imposed on Belarusian officials and companies owned by oligarchs close to Lukashenko. Unfortunately, the pressure was neither sufficient nor lasting to effect any real loosening of the noose around civil society’s neck. Conditions for any opposition inside Belarus are still "very poor," Sannikov told me.
Despite a call in the New York Times by Sweden’s Carl Bildt, Poland’s Radek Sikorski, Germany’s Guido Westerwelle, and the Czech Republic’s Karel Schwarzenberg — the first three once again prominent players in the current E.U.-Ukrainian standoff — that "[t]here can be no business-as-usual between the European Union and Belarus’s president" after Lukashenko’s barbarism, business-as-usual is what indeed transpired. Certain key enterprises close to Lukashenko, such as those belonging to petroleum magnate Yuri Chizh, were eventually dropped from the sanctions lists. Belarus continued to trade with the E.U., its second biggest partner after Russia, all throughout 2012. Exports amounted to over $17.5 billion; the trade surplus hit a healthy $8 billion. Lukashenko even spent half of 2012 hawking cheaply imported Russian oil products to Europe as normally priced paint thinners and solvents, a self-enrichment racket that Putin himself put an end to in the second half of last year. Not that this has had any measurable long-term benefit on Belarus’s dire economy. GDP is now projected to grow by a measly 1 percent in the next year; total exports will shrink by 20 percent.
According to Sannikov, E.U. diplomats made the mistake of falling for vague reassurances by Lukashenko that he was on the mend and would eventually release more political prisoners in exchange for better economic cooperation: oil-for-dissidents, in essence. (A hyperactive lobbying campaign waged by Minsk has also helped turned the spotlight down.) Yet today, there are still a dozen political prisoners — including one other presidential candidate from 2010 — languishing in KGB jails, where torture is reputedly standard practice. Journalists, activists, and lawyers are still being arbitrarily rounded up and roughed up by Lukashenko’s police. The U.N. Human Rights Committee’s complaints about deteriorating conditions have all been thoroughly ignored by Minsk, which also does not recognize the mandate of the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur for Belarus.
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In "The Abduction of Europe," a depressing but insightful essay he wrote for E.U. Observer just before Yanukovych squashed the association agreement and the Euromaidan protests kicked off, Sannikov lamented the absence of tougher U.S.-E.U. guidelines for engaging newborn democracies or pseudo-democracies in the former Soviet sphere. Belarus, he pointed out, was a kind of canary-in-the-mineshaft example of how accommodating thugs fails to change their bad behavior.
Interestingly, Russia’s current opposition leader Alexey Navalny has drawn the same analogy in labeling Lukashenko a tutor to Putin as a destroyer of dissent. "It could be said that Europe created Lukashenko, and Lukashenko created Putin’s Russia," Sannikov wrote for E.U. Observer. "The experience of the Belarusian dictatorship shows that after any flare-ups with the West, after putting down peaceful demonstration, putting more political prisoners into jail, someone will come forward in Europe to defend the bankrupt Belarusian regime, and appeasers would be found domestically, who would join efforts to make the EU to revert to the Realpolitik mode."
Sannikov hopes that Brussels avoids that path with Ukraine’s Yanukovych, now apparently eager to compromise with the Euromaiden opposition and establish a "platform of mutual understanding." What this must not lead to is the E.U.’s backing down on first principles, including on the politicized imprisonment of former Orange Revolutionary Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, or Brussels trying to outbid Moscow as most-favored benefactor. Sannikov believes that Brussels should now reach out to the Ukrainian people directly. "Fundamentally it’s not about Europe," he said. "It’s not about the E.U. It’s not about the association agreement. It’s not even about power. It’s about not wanting to go back to the Soviet Union."