Calm Before A Storm?

This is an intersting night. Checking news sites and blogs one last time before getting some sleep – reading about Mr Yushenko’s declaration that the “struggle had only just begun” and rumors about a $21,6m bribe to the head of the election commitee, I can’t fight the impression that the quiet winter night the live stream from Kiev is showing me as I am writing these lines is indeed the calm before something even stormier than what we have witnessed by wire since the election’s preliminary results were announced.

Like Nick in his summary below, many people are beginning to try to put the events into perspective ( for example The Economist, PBS), to broaden their historical and political knowledge of Ukraine, to locate similar events that may shed some light on the the driving forces of the orange revolution (working title): what are the underlying interests, what are the fundamental trends, and what are the chaotic elements in this situation – where the rules have run out, and the locus and balance of power can be tipped by any rumor. The Carnegie Endowment’s Michael McFaul stated in an interview today “that somebody has to blink now or there’s going to be war”. Who knows. But what are the chances of a fire when several hundred thousand people are smoking at a gas station?

I am sure everyone who is still awake hopes that they will sleep it over, and then decide to quit and use an ashtray to put out the remaining glow. But even then, the country will remain divided by more than an ethnic and linguistic cleavage and centuries-old diverging patterns of political and social development. Unlike the velvet revolutions, there is a considerable number of people who did vote for Mr Yanukovych, just not as many as are officially counted. Their ability to politically mobilize will possibly be temporarily reduced by the fraudulent election, but how long would they remain quiet should Mr Yushenko actually become President?

Yet for all I have read about the divisive nature of the Ukrainian society and the desire of many ethnic Russians for dual citizenship, there seems to be a common Ukrainian identity, as Mark Von Hagen, professor of Russian, Ukranian, and Eurasian History at Columbia University, explained today in a National Public Radio Interview. Even the staunchest pro-Russian supporters of Mr Yanukovych, who would certainly like a recognition of Russian as official language – currently, the language spoken “for convenience” by about 50% of the population and native to about 35% is officially relegated to the same minority status as, say, German, the native language of only a couple of thousand Ukrainians – do not believe in a Czecholslovakian option, which, on the other hand, is probably a good thing, for the incumbent President, Mr Kuchma, is certainly no Vaclav Havel. Moreover, as some commentators seem concerned that a consociational solution would not work because the social segments are intertwined, I think this implies little possibility for a Yugoslavia-like implosion. At least initially, it seems to me, any civil strife would be largely politically motivated, not ethnically, which may make it a little easier to contain.

Whatever will happen, it will take place in a context of a rising conflict between a psychologically and economically vulnerable Russia, less and less democratic and keen on protecting its influence over the last remnants of its lost empire, and a Europe that is afraid of waking up the wounded giant and contribute to the removal of what little remains of Russian democracy, a Europe still uncertain of its capabilities and even its intentions in the area. As Andrij Bondar wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Ukraine (and Belarus, and Moldova, and possibly even Russia herself) are the “European subconscious.” Absent some serious psychotherapy, it will take a while to figure it out. The Economist has some thoughts in this respect.

But then, maybe these days in Kiev will act as some kind of shock therapy or catalyst. With people on the streets in Kiev, Europe does not have a choice but support democracy without regard for the strategic impact. And maybe, as Gwynne Dyer speculated last week, before the drama unfolded, maybe we will all be lucky in the end, if Ukraine “… will not be swallowed up in a post-Soviet union that incorporates all the corruption of the original, but none of the idealism.” And maybe the prevalence of democracy will not only not end in civil war in Ukraine but also give Russians in Russia a political model to aspire to.

Maybe the orange revolution (working title) will also be revolutionary in how to run, and what to achieve with a revolution itself. I wanted to end on a positive note, but of course, no one knows tonight what will happen tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Calm Before A Storm?

  1. ?that somebody has to blink now or there?s going to be war?. Who knows. But what are the chances of a fire when several hundred thousand people are smoking at a gas station?

    Personally, I’m still hopefull that things will be resolved without the big-W word. As much energy as there is among the Ukrainians at the rally, it’s more hope-focused than anger-focused. And, with the huge outpouring of concern from outside the country, I keep thinking Kuchma et al, won’t *really* start anything.

    This is not a professional analysis, just my observations and hopes.

  2. I’ve never lived in Ukraine (except for spending a few summers in Crimea as a child, never once realizing that I was leaving the borders of Russia), so you should take my opinions with a grain of salt, but a couple of observations.

    First, there is a big difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia. For all the political ferment in the Ukrainian West, even while reading actvist sites like Maidan, I’ve been struck by a notable absence. There are no us-and-them comments toward the Ukrainian East. And I mean none. As in, absolutely unlike the red/blue conflict in the US.

    In the East, it does seem like a lot of common folks have been spooked by the propaganda about “radicals” and “nationalists”. But for all I can tell, what’s utterly missing in the East is any kind of popular ferment. To be sure, Donetsk miners in Kiev make for an almost proverbial culture clash, kind of like Texan cowboys in New York, but if there are any ethnic tensions in Ukraine, I’ve yet to see them. I hope the illusion holds.

    Second, the media love statements about civil strife and all legal options being exhausted, but, unless I’m looking in the wrong places, right now they seem to be a bit short on analysis. The Ukrainian service of FRE/RL had a round table discussion with layers of various partisanship degree. All agreed that nothing legally binding has occurred so far, and the issue now goes to the courts. As I hear, Ukraine has a very credible supreme court. While I appreciate the desire to argue from a position of strength, I wish Yushchenko would reign in some of his firebrand coalition partners. Revolutions do have their romance, but I’ll take the Florida scenario over the Georgia scenario any time.

  3. There are no us-and-them comments toward the Ukrainian East. And I mean none. As in, absolutely unlike the red/blue conflict in the US. . . . But for all I can tell, what?s utterly missing in the East is any kind of popular ferment.

    This is totally what I’ve heard and sensed here, Michael.

    the media love statements about civil strife and all legal options being exhausted. . . Revolutions do have their romance. . .

    I’ve avoided using the “R” word, because I don’t think it’s even to that point, yet. And the reporters who speculate about “civil war” I think are really misunderstanding what’s going on here at this point.

    I was talking with some American friends yesterday, and the general feeling here is one of hope, some concern–but definitely not anger or fear. Honestly, I’ve been amazed and impressed with the positive energy.

    I wish Yushchenko would reign in some of his firebrand coalition partners.

    *L* As if Yulia could be reined in by anyone!