Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, November 29, 2004


I was fascinated by this Guardian story:

Ukraine, traditionally passive in its politics, has been mobilised by the young democracy activists and will never be the same again.

But while the gains of the orange-bedecked "chestnut revolution" are Ukraine's, the campaign is an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes.

Funded and organised by the US government, deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organisations, the campaign was first used in Europe in Belgrade in 2000 to beat Slobodan Milosevic at the ballot box.

Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade, played a key role. And by last year, as US ambassador in Tbilisi, he repeated the trick in Georgia, coaching Mikhail Saakashvili in how to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze.

Wow. My congratulations to Yushchenko, to Ukraine, and to American democracy-promoters, if they pull it off. I support freedom of the press and transparency and all that, so it's good news. But there's another side to the story.

To view the collapse of the Soviet Union as the liberation of oppressed nations from the yoke of Russian imperialism is highly misleading. It was the other way around: Boris Yeltsin became president of the Russian Federation and declared independence from the Soviet Union! Only the Baltic republics (and Ukraine a little bit) pushed for independence; the others had it thrust upon them.

My sister was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan. Islam Karimov, the Soviet toady-turned-Uzbek dictator, originally opposed independence for Uzbekistan. This came as a surprise to her students, because now Karimov poses as the leader of a national liberation movement against Russia. It's an illustration of how nations are "imagined communities," a social construct much more malleable than people realize.

In Ukraine, anti-Soviet resentment is the legacy of a horrible famine under Stalin in the 1930s. Kiev is one of the three great cities of historic Russia, along with Moscow and St. Petersburg. Ukrainian nationalism looks to Kievan Rus, in the 12th century, and to the freedom-fighting Cossacks of the 17th century. But it has been part of the Russian empire for most of modern history. The Ukrainian language, long submerged by Russian, was pushed by Soviet nationality policy in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 19th century, no one would have imagined that Ukraine would become an independent nation. And one province of Ukraine, the Crimea, was transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Khrushchev on a whim, and is mostly inhabited by Russians.

The breakup of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the end of communism, can be seen as a tragic historical accident. If we let every province and every ethnicity in the world vote to secede from larger nations it is part of, there would be many more countries in the world, and the map would be littered with a lot more borders. Would this make the world a better place? Ukrainian independence is a fact and I'm not proposing to reverse it, but liberal sympathy with underdog nationalisms can be too facile.

[UPDATE: But I am glad to see what's happening in Ukraine! I'm not a "freedom-hater," as Anne Applebaum entitled a WaPo column. As a Bush-supporting Russophile, I'm a bit conflicted here. Russians can still travel throughout the former Soviet Union; if Ukraine joined the EU, they would no longer be able to travel freely to Kiev. It's as if New England seceded and joined Canada, and then red-staters were forbidden to travel there. I'm sensitive to the Russian interests at stake, but I do welcome the advent of Ukrainian democracy, if that's what this turns out to be. This article (about Russia's reaction) is also interesting.]


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