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Volodymyr Ishchenko: Ukraine's Maidan mythologies
July 9, 2015 -- First published in the June 2015 New Left Review, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Andrew Wilson’s earlier publications on Ukraine won him a reputation as a serious historian.  His first books—notably Ukrainian Nationalism in the 1990s (1997), The Ukrainians (2002) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2005)—were distinguished by three signal features.
First, Wilson argued strongly that while Ukrainian nationalism was a force in the west of the country—where, bred under Austrian and Polish rule, it had mostly possessed a strong right-wing bent—it had only limited appeal in the country as a whole, due to the existence of deep regional, linguistic and ethnic historical divisions. Ukrainian “national identity”, Wilson insisted in The Ukrainians, was essentially a product of the Soviet era.
Second, he made no bones about the fact that since 1990, the country had had a sorry economic and political record; the state was thoroughly colonised by oligarchy, thuggery and corruption; civil society remained very weak. It was a myth, Wilson argued, that Ukrainian political culture was more tolerant, democratic and pluralist than Russia’s.
Third, Wilson provided detailed analysis of the various oligarchic bosses and clans, and of their rivalries. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution offered praise for the protests of 2004 and was cautiously optimistic about the Yushchenko–Timoshenko regime that emerged from them.
His latest book, the ill-titled Ukraine Crisis, constitutes a sharp break from this earlier work in direction, tone and genre. This may in part be the product of the author’s transformation from historian to foreign-policy agitator: Wilson is now a senior fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a lavishly funded think-tank modelled on its US homonym, which has grown since its birth in 2007 to become a large octopus in the EU aquarium. The position has allowed him a back-room role in EU diplomacy—there is a casual reference to his presence at the November 2013 Vilnius summit—and indeed Ukraine Crisis was part-funded by EU Commission money. The book bears the marks of this shift.
Readers should not expect to find in its pages a balanced assessment of contending arguments or a systematic analysis of the available sources, followed by well-grounded conclusions. For the most part, this is a one-sided, tendentious account of Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013-14, the Russian intervention and the civil war, heavily reliant on web-sourced information, anonymous interviews and hectic prose, pieced together to bolster a very specific political agenda. It is driven not by a desire to investigate what actually happened and why, but rather to rebut critics—from all sides—of a Western neoliberal line. The nature of Russian policy, the legitimacy of the Yanukovych government and the character of the Maidan protests are all grist to this mill.
Not ‘an anti-Russian book’?
In his introduction, Wilson insists that Ukraine Crisis is not “an anti-Russian book”, before proceeding to deliver exactly that. The anti-Putin message is expressed in the crudest of terms: “The key to understanding modern Russia is to realise that it is run by some very weird people.”
Wilson asserts that Russia’s rulers believe their country has been “constantly humiliated” since 1991; this externally imposed “humiliation” must now be avenged by restoring its Great Power status. He denies that Russia is in any way “encircled or threatened” by NATO’s expansion. His argument is that Russia was brought down by its own oligarchs, the social layer who benefited most from the fall of Communism through their capture of state power and property. Some of the oligarchic groups were wealthier and luckier than others; “Putin’s friends” and the siloviki were able to monopolise power by removing dangerous competitors, marginalising opponents and manipulating the population with a complex dramaturgy scripted by “political technologists”. The latest example of this is the “conservative values” project of 2014, an attempt to shore up a Putin majority after the opposition protests of 2011-12. For Wilson, a similar monopolisation of power by Viktor Yanukovych and his allies was blocked by the Maidan protests.
Wilson devotes a good few pages to countering the argument—widely propounded by Ukrainian opponents of the Maidan—that Yanukovych was a legitimately elected president, overthrown by a violent “coup”. He argues that Yanukovych himself was the first to break the formal rules of the game after beating Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election. Reputedly by bribery or threat, he secured the majority vote in parliament needed to remove Tymoshenko from the prime minister’s office. Within a year of Yanukovych taking office, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court revised the elite compromise agreed after the Orange Revolution of 2004, restoring the old Ukrainian constitution of 1996 and shifting the balance of power in favour of the president. The prosecution of Tymoshenko for “abuse of office” began in May 2011.
Wilson is right that this was a case of political persecution, when considered alongside other steps to monopolise power. But from a strictly legal perspective, it is questionable to brand Yanukovych an “illegitimate” ruler. His actions were within the bounds of legal procedure, on the surface at any rate, and Tymoshenko was not innocent of the charges brought against her. The fact that her supporters called for the “decriminalisation” of the article under which Tymoshenko was sentenced was a tacit acknowledgment that she had indeed broken the law.
Yanukovych went on to monopolise political power for his own benefit and that of his “Family”—in Wilson’s telling, a Don Corleone-style clan of close relatives and confidants—while gradually pushing other oligarchs away from the trough. The author quotes a Ukrainian journalist explaining that the president “wanted to be the richest man in Eastern Europe”, and devotes many pages to corruption and extravagant lifestyles among the ruling clique. The sloppiness of his research is evident in his treatment of the alleged figures. In the space of three sentences, Wilson’s estimate of the depredations of the Family soars from $8-10 billion annually to $100 billion overall, the latter figure attributed to post-Maidan Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Wilson doesn’t bother to investigate the facts, but $100 billion is surely a wild exaggeration. Total state revenues in 2014 were less than $40 billion; if this figure were accurate, the departure of Yanukovych alone should have given a huge boost to the Ukrainian economy. The fact that exactly the opposite happened should have given Wilson cause to doubt Yatsenyuk’s claim—and the idea that Yanukovych’s corruption, though obviously present, was the greatest problem facing Ukraine.
EU Association Agreement
In line with this approach, Wilson suggests that there was nothing problematic for Ukraine in the EU Association Agreement; the troubles lay with Yanukovych and Russia. Ukraine Crisis argues that Ukraine’s Mafioso elite was simply too greedy: instead of embracing “European values” and the salvation of the EU’s structural reform, Kiev switched into “bribery mode”, trumping up claims about lost Russian trade. Wilson offers no serious discussion of the economic consequences the Association Agreement was (and is) likely to have for Ukraine.
The either–or choice between a free-trade zone with the EU or a customs union with Russia jeopardised the remnants of Ukraine’s high value-added industries, which were mostly connected to ex-Soviet manufacturing chains and stood little chance of surviving in direct competition with West European firms. In 2013, more than half of Ukrainian exports to the EU consisted of low value-added agricultural and metallurgical products, with just 13 per cent coming from the machine-engineering sector—against 30 per cent of exports to Russia and the other CIS states [Commonwealth of Independent States]. When these costs were taken together with the austerity measures accompanying IMF credit lines, the Ukrainian government had ample grounds for seeking to extract more concessions in return for signing the EU Agreement.
Although Wilson’s analysis of contemporary Ukraine has involved detailed attention to its rival clans, he never asks whether Yanukovych’s monopolisation of power and “rule-breaking” on the division of assets could have given some of the outmanoeuvred and frightened oligarchs a strong incentive to support and even to radicalise the Maidan, in order to remove a serious threat to their own power, wealth and property. Of course, a serious answer to this question would require extensive research into the financial, infrastructural and media support for the protests, as well as thorough investigation of a number of suspicious episodes that involved seemingly irrational escalations of violence. This question is particularly vital in the light of the Maidan’s political outcome—when, despite strong popular mobilisation, anti-oligarchic rhetoric and a widespread distrust of the established opposition parties, there was no serious challenge to the top-down process of power reallocation after Yanukovych’s flight.
In Wilson’s characterisation, the Maidan was an Uprising with a capital U: a protest from below, with progressive demands and broad popular support across the country, legitimately defending itself against police repression; the “revolution of dignity”, as it is now almost officially called in Ukraine. In the introduction to his book, Wilson strains to slot the Maidan into a larger “cycle of global protest”, associating it with the Occupy movement, the Spanish indignados and Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests, though he is obliged to note its differentia specifica—reverting to a “uniquely Ukrainian” and “old-fashioned” world of projectile cobblestones, Molotov cocktails and violent confrontations with the police, in implicit contrast to the peaceful and carnivalesque “Twitter revolutions”.
Wilson does not ask why the Maidan supporters borrowed only tactics from the global Occupy wave, but were so radically different in their protest’s framing and ideology. Why did Ukrainians wave EU flags when anti-austerity protesters inside the EU were more likely to be burning them—and without raising the banners of any exterior power? Why did the Maidan activists not attempt to forge ties of solidarity with protest movements elsewhere? These contrasts and omissions suggest that Maidan was really a mobilisation of a very different kind, one that bore only a superficial resemblance to global progressive movements: it had borrowed certain elements of their protest repertoire because it faced similar tactical problems and options in clashes with the police, but did not share—or at least, was not able to articulate—similar goals and grievances. Wilson’s attempt to force a fundamentally different form of mobilisation into the same category as Occupy, the indignados and the Arab Spring is effectively a rhetorical move, aimed at bestowing a left-liberal legitimacy upon the Maidan.
Ukraine Crisis’s two chapters on the Maidan are essentially a polemic against its Russian critics. They avoid any satisfactory discussion of the issues that might complicate Wilson’s narrative: the significance of reactionary elements in the protest movement and the limits of its popular support. Thus if all of Yanukovych’s irrational, inconsistent and ultimately self-defeating repressive moves are explained by his evil desire to retain unchecked power, then violent escalations and ugly incidents on the protesters’ side can easily be ascribed to government agents provocateurs, with no more evidence than a dubious online source or an anonymous interview.
Wilson’s discussion of the Maidan’s far-right current repeats the clichéd arguments that the Maidan was a diverse and multi-ideological movement, in which activists from the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party and the Right Sector constituted a tiny minority. We are assured that the right-wingers who did participate were not really “fascists” in the strict sense of the term, so there is no need to be afraid of them; the fact that they were defeated in the 2014 elections proves that the “fascist threat” was little more than a Russian propaganda myth.
In any case, Wilson insists, the far right was covertly supported by Yanukovych himself, as a tame opposition, and had been used in “provocations” against opposition protests before. There is very little corroborating evidence for this claim—Wilson’s source is an article on a pro-Maidan website—though it is widely asserted by Ukrainian liberals; conveniently, it helps to downplay internal causes for the rise of the far right, including the responsibility of anti-communist liberals.
Wilson does not attempt to answer the obvious counter-arguments to his assertions about the far right. First, well-organised radical minorities can play a disproportionately significant role in protest movements, and the Maidan offers a striking confirmation of this rule. Our work at the Kiev Centre for Social and Labour Research has shown that the far right were the most visible collective agents in the protests, above all during episodes of violence. Second, the label attached to the Ukrainian far right—“fascists” or “national conservatives”—is less important than the need to combat its anti-democratic and xenophobic ideas and practices. Third, whether or not Yanukovych succeeded in exploiting the actions of the far right, they had their own agenda and would only have acquired more space to pursue it. Finally, electoral support is just one dimension of political influence. If the far right are now legitimated as heroes of the “revolution” and the war—if they have secured top positions within the security apparatus and have been allowed to establish armed military units under their control—these are developments that cannot be downplayed or even justified, in the name of patriotism, as many in Ukraine are willing to do at present.
South and eastern Ukraine
Discussion of the regional dimensions of the protests is astonishingly weak in Ukraine Crisis, which concentrates disproportionately on Kiev and devotes less than half a page to the “maidans” in other regions. Systematic research conducted by the CSLR’s team has shown that only 13 per cent of Maidan protests took place in Kiev, with two-thirds occurring in the western and central regions. A more extended discussion of the regional aspect would have compelled Wilson to recognise that Maidan did not have majority support in the southern and eastern regions, which had predominantly voted for Yanukovych. The modest scale of many south-eastern maidans was presumably one of the main reasons they were so easily repressed.
Moreover, if Wilson had looked in more detail at the western maidans, he would have been obliged to qualify his claim that Maidan was not an “armed revolution”. By February 20, 2014, when Wilson describes “barely armed’ Maidan protesters in Kiev being shot by (still unidentified) snipers, Yanukovych had effectively lost control of the western regions, where his opponents had captured a large stock of weaponry from police and military sources—usually without facing serious resistance—and were bringing them to the capital. Wilson himself is told by Oleksandr Danylyuk, leader of the far-right Common Cause, that his men opened fire on the snipers, whose conversations they could intercept—Wilson doesn’t ask how—using arms from “various sources”.
In other words, the Maidan was indeed an armed uprising, responding to sporadic government violence with a violence of its own, heavily skewed in regional support, and with a significant far-right presence. It drew strength from mass popular mobilisation but failed to articulate social grievances, allowing itself to be represented politically by oligarchic opposition forces. Ultimately it brought a neoliberal-nationalist government to power in Kiev. What sort of reaction was to be expected from the people of the south-eastern regions, who had voted for Yanukovych and did not support the EU Agreement or the protests? These people were frightened by the Maidan’s violence and by the first moves of the Yatsenyuk government against the status of the Russian language.
To be sure, such fears were exacerbated by Moscow’s TV propaganda, but they had a real basis nonetheless. For Wilson, the answer is simple: they should simply have stayed at home and not protested at all. He effectively reduces the whole “Eastern Imbroglio”—the heading of his chapter on events in eastern Ukraine—to Russian military intervention and oligarchic manipulation, presenting the Donbas region as a “criminal Mordor” that has now spawned a revolt of “lumpens against Ukraine”.
Wilson’s discussion of these crucial events relies on even shakier sources than his preceding chapters, often drawing on the accounts of Western and Ukrainian figures whose bias is patent. The whole section on Yanukovych’s possible involvement in the Donbas uprising is based on information gleaned from an (unnamed) Ukrainian security officer, anonymous pro-Kiev “Donbas activists” and the journalist Dmytro Tymchuk, whose unreliability is well known. Of 117 endnotes in the central chapter about the war in the east, just two cite pro-Russian separatist sources.
A less prejudiced view—and one less reliant on lazy stereotypes about the culture of the Donbas—would recognise that the anti-Maidan movement in the east was the mirror-image of the Maidans of the west. Both protests were driven by a mixture of just causes and irrational fears, and both were ultimately channelled into a confrontation between competing (and mutually reinforcing) imperialisms, Western and Russian, and nationalisms, Russian and Ukrainian. While Crimea undoubtedly saw a Russian special operation put into effect, it is wrong to suggest that all those who participated in decentralised anti-Maidans in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kharkiv, Odessa and many other cities were mindless puppets of a similar project. Media and scholarly discussion alike have tended to focus excessively on cultural issues, paying much less attention to the economic basis of Ukrainian regionalism and the politics to which it gives rise. Differing attitudes towards the EU Agreement or the customs union with Russia, regionally differentiated geopolitical orientations and participation in Maidans or anti-Maidans are not simply the product of history and cultural identity: they are also rooted in conflicting material interests. Just as someone living in western Ukraine with relatives working in Spain, Poland or Italy might hope for deeper Euro-integration and the freedom to work without visas, their counterpart in the east with a job in heavy industry would have a stake in stable and peaceful relations with Russia. These divergent interests are not antagonistic: we are not speaking of class conflict in the true sense; but imperialist and nationalist competition may make them appear mutually exclusive.
The hectic narrative of Ukraine Crisis is spattered with elementary mistakes. Wilson’s errors in calculating the interval between Eastern Orthodox and Western christmases (he has it as 11 days, not 13), or in deciphering the acronyms of nationalist guerrillas of the 1940s and 1950s (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or UPA becomes the “Ukrainian People’s Army”) are surprising for an author who has been studying the country for more than two decades. Another basic howler is more serious. Wilson attempts to calculate how long Crimea belonged to Russia and Ukraine respectively, concluding that it was part of Russia for just 13 years more and dismissing Russian claims for historical precedence on this basis. The argument is strange enough on its own terms—when have such calculations had any real political significance, other than to legitimate dubious and contested territorial claims? But it is also based on a false premise: that the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was not part of Russia before 1945. In fact, it was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, with a status clearly lower than that of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and other Soviet Socialist Republics that were formally equally to Russia and could themselves incorporate other autonomous republics within their borders. This is an elementary fact for anyone familiar with the structure of the USSR.
In some respects the most revealing sections of Ukraine Crisis are those on the international context. An insufficiently martial, “postmodern” EU is in large part to blame for the disaster. Following Robert Cooper, Wilson argues that “nineteenth-century shibboleths” like state sovereignty and hard power have been largely replaced by smart interaction, non-state actors and shared sovereignty—though he decides in the end that the EU is “a mixture” of postmodern factors and old nation-state traditions, the latter reinforced by the 2008 financial crisis. Russia also mixes the traditional and the postmodern, but in a different way. While travelling in the opposite direction—from multi-national union to traditional nation-state—Russia has “leapfrogged” into a postmodern political culture of ultra-cynical manipulation, where “everything is permissible and there is no higher truth”.
This makes the EU particularly vulnerable, Wilson claims, as the fiendish new Russia inverts Western “soft power”, deploying Western values against the West itself: cultivating its own fifth columns of pro-Russian NGOs, political parties and other civil society structures in neighbouring countries, fighting an “information war” via TV and the internet, imitating mass mobilisations, insisting on tolerance for diversity, and so on.
Needless to say, Wilson does not attempt a systematic comparison between European or US soft power and the Russian alternative, although it would be safe to assume that covert Russian influence is largely confined to its neighbourhood, unlike Washington’s global reach. Ukraine Crisis claims that Moscow’s support for sympathetic parties, politicians and NGOs in Eastern Europe comes to $8 billion a year, which would be striking if true: by comparison, Victoria Nuland gave a figure of just $5 billion for US “democracy promotion” efforts in Ukraine during the whole post-Soviet era. However, the only source for Wilson’s estimate is a conversation with a Lithuanian defence minister.
Ukraine Crisis concludes with an attack on EU passivity. Brussels, Wilson had explained in an opening chapter, “cannot cope with the big stuff like Russia or old-fashioned war at the edge of Europe”. Few EU member states are spending enough on weaponry; they have to be literally dragged into combat. Fortunately NATO had taken charge of bombing Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “saving Europe from its embarrassing inaction”. Germany is a poor excuse for an EU foreign-policy leader, since its post-war history [sic] rules out the use of military force. As the fighting in the Donbas rumbled on, with Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” combating Moscow’s “deniable intervention”, Berlin was guilty of “selective pacifism” in pressing Ukraine to “lay down its arms”. Culpably, its first priority was that the fighting should stop, “regardless of guilt”; it allowed Russia to negotiate from positions gained by subversion, rather than pressing for the status quo ante. Worse still, Ukraine may not be hurried into NATO as fast as Wilson would like.
This is the context for Wilson’s appeals to “higher truths” and “European values”, to the defence of “basic rights and freedoms we now take for granted in the West”. In tandem with passages demonising the opposing power—Russia is predictably compared to Nazi Germany—and stigmatising any opposition as “useful idiots”, Wilson’s ideological boilerplate merely serves to legitimate imperialist interests and pro-war mobilisation, in a time of sharpened inter-state rivalry.
What of Ukraine’s future? Wilson’s best outcome is for Kiev to recover complete authority over the east. He has called for the EU to work “vigorously and pro-actively” towards monitoring the Russian-Ukrainian border, and to escalate sanctions if Russia does not remove all military hardware from the separatist regions.
As a second best option, a frozen conflict might still allow Ukraine to “move West”, as he puts it; he can even contemplate Kiev cutting the Donbas loose, which might disconcert Moscow—though he quickly adds that the West would oppose it, as would many in Ukraine. Nevertheless, a smaller Ukraine might be “more manageable”, he writes in Ukraine Crisis. There could be grounds for hoping its famously “overlapping or hybrid national identity’ might be consolidated in a new “political nation” which would know neither Jew nor Hellene. Totally dependent on the West for financial help, without ambitions for an independent foreign policy, this manageable Ukraine would then ideally implement radical neoliberal reforms in the style of Georgia’s Saakashvili.
Regrettably, Wilson admits, the type of “big bang” restructuring undergone by the Baltic states in the 1990s must be ruled out for the time being, but he dismisses the notion that “economic reform would lead to social explosion”—this was “the same old hack thinking that had held Ukraine back since 1991”. On the contrary, he suggests that the Poroshenko–Yatsenyuk government should see the eastern crisis as an opportunity to press ahead with sweeping changes in the rest of the country. The restraints on the new administration were largely political: after the Maidan, “much of the old regime remained intact” and “the old oligarchy was at least temporarily stronger”.
Wilson sighs over Yatsenyuk’s decision to include the far-right Svoboda Party in his government as “a proxy for the moral authority of the radical forces on the Maidan”; but he is upbeat about the introduction of market prices for energy, and cheers the passage of the EU Agreement. Under the policies he recommends, utility bills have doubled, inflation was running at 60 per cent in April 2015 and billion-dollar loans from the IMF are going straight to Kiev’s creditors. Patriotic exhortations may not be enough to cushion the post-Maidan government from further discontent.
[Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is the deputy director of the Center for Society Research (Kiev), an editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and a lecturer at the Department of Sociology in the Naitonal University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.]
 Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West, Yale University Press: New Haven, CT and London 2014, 236 pp, 978 0 300 21159 7.