Saturday, 25 January 2014

Alarm bells in the Ukraine

I may have read this wrong, but I have an increasing sense of foreboding that the long-running “Euromaidan” occupation in Kyiv is not going to end well.

Yes, Yanukovych has agreed to come to the negotiating table - he has even offered a prime ministerial job to one of the opposition leaders - but I suspect that this is merely playing for time. He has not offered the job to his most capable rival, Klitschko, and his word is not exactly his bond.
His "previous" on playing for time is well-known, as it was with the mooted release of Julia Tymoshenko, and the proposed EU trade agreement, neither of which ever happened.
It may even conceivably be to do with something else, less reported: the window-dressing Putin is doing for Sochi in the next few weeks – it is difficult to see the real puppetmaster of the Ukraine wanting a bloodbath on his doorstep in the middle of his pet project.
In fact, I suspect this itself is another of his pet projects. If you want to understand why, you need only look at a map of the area around Moscow.
Some countries have their capitals in the middle of the country, some by the sea. But in the immense country that is Russia, it is noteworthy that its capital is rather close to its land borders. As New York is to New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut, Moscow is close not just to a chunk of Russia, but also to two other countries: Belarus and Ukraine.

Belarus is already effectively (a) a dictatorship and (b) a client state of Russia. But Ukraine had so far, like the Baltic states, mercifully escaped post-Communist Russia’s net.
We might daydream that it is as if a rather despotic emperor gets up one morning and surveys his realm from the palace balcony. But every morning he is irritated to see that there is a corner of land on the horizon which does not belong to him. With every passing day, his irritation increases bit by bit, until he feels an overwhelming compulsion to go and conquer it. Because his forefathers once ruled over it, because of his sense of national pride. And because it is there.

The opinion of its inhabitants about the matter, of course, does not even cross his mind.

Last week, a rather chilling sign came of how free people are in today’s Ukraine. All those in the direct vicinity of the demonstration received a text message, essentially threatening them to go home and nice or there would be trouble. Nice use of modern technology to oppress, there.

I see a couple of scenarios: one is a brutal Tiananmen-style crackdown which leaves many people dead, followed by a locking-up of opposition leaders. Another is that, like 1956 Hungary or 1967 Czechoslovakia, Ukrainians will wake up one morning to find Russian tanks on their lawn, “invited in to keep the peace” by a willing Yanukovych.

Far-fetched? Maybe not. There are recent reports of the FSB (the modern-day KGB) sending agents to the Ukraine. Oh, and Putin has in recent years been building up the Russian military at an alarming rate. One has to wonder why, in a time when the West is cutting back.

Realistically only one scenario will end in freedom rather than oppression for Ukrainians, and that is a popular uprising – the ballot box, in a country where media and government is under partisan control, seems an impossible dream. Moreover, given broad differences of opinion on Russia and Yanukovych between east and west Ukrainians (the former see outside oppressors, the latter see providers of jobs), and the unlikeliness of Yanukovych handing over power without a fight, that would probably only happen with considerable bloodshed. Perhaps even a civil war.

The opposition is divided and in the chaos, like Syria, extremist elements are moving in, only in this case they are ultra-right nationalists, not Islamists. But the effect is the same. And Yanukovych has a brutal “special force” separate from the regular army, who are ready to take action.

The other night I had dinner with naturalised Ukrainian-American. He was more optimistic than I and thought it would all blow over. I hope he is right and I am wrong, I really do. I hope people will not look back at 2014 as another year in an ugly sequence following on the heels of 1956, 1967, and 1989.

The Orange Revolution was, we might recall, the reaction of brave Ukrainian folk to Yanukovych's first attempt to kill off democracy. We don't yet know what the results of its successor will be, but it certainly looks increasingly unlikely to be a Velvet Revolution, like the former Czechoslovakia.
If it succeeds without major bloodshed, it will surely be a miracle; even with bloodshed, the odds are surely stacked against.

1 comment:

  1. Pedantry corner: the distance between Moscow and the Ukrainian border is actually the width of a Poland or a Germany.

    And Peter the Great actually moved the Russian capital to St Petersburg which up until 1809 was on the Swedish frontier.

    London is of course much closer to Calais (and in the days when the fastest mode of transport was a sailing ship even closer in travel time) than it is to most of England let alone the rest of the UK.

    Paris is closer to Brussels (or indeed London) than it is to Toulouse.


    Centrally located capitals are in fact something of a rarity as historically most nations did not start out as city states expanding equally in all directions - and indeed the concept of a capital city is actually a relatively modern one.

    And in an age where no major power will ever be invaded by conventional armies surely mere territory no longer has the same strategic value?


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