Party like it’s 1914: Some thoughts on Ukraine

10 Mar

One of the interesting aspects of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is how it is stuck in very traditional modes of military and diplomatic behavior. As my friend Ondrej Roztomily remarked on Facebook when Russia occupied Crimea: ‘Party like it’s 1914!’. Or that could read 1814 or 1714.
The term ‘gunboat diplomacy’ has long been a metaphor but we have seen it in the literal sense of gunboats stationed off coastlines as a statement of intent and in order to physically blockade ports. We have seen crass militarism in the sense of Russia creating ‘facts on the ground’ in order to thwart negotiation (a strategy that Israel uses as a permanent feature of its state creation). There has been plenty of ‘flag planting’ or the replacing of one flag with another on military bases or municipal buildings to enforce the message: we own this now! It is difficult to get more traditional than that – this flag planting was a key part of colonial expansion with Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French and British adventurers planting flags on far away beaches and declaring the land in the name of their monarch. And we have seen plenty of elite behavior in the form of political leaders (on all sides) acting autocratically and without recourse to people.
The international diplomatic responses are also very traditional. They have taken the form of statements, press releases, photo opportunities, threats of sanctions, and symbolic invitations to the White House and elsewhere. There has been the calling in of ambassadors and threats of boycotts. It is all very 1938.
Even if we look at the central issue (the extent to which the population wants to be in the borders of one state or another) we see a very traditional issue: borders and state sovereignty. These are quite old modes of political organization. We live in a globalized world in which the movement of people, goods, news and ideas is much more instantaneous, yet states have fought hard to maintain very traditional barriers to movement: borders, passports, sovereignty etc.
It is tempting to counter this argument (that Ukraine/Crimea is a very traditional sort of conflict) with the observation that there is plenty of evidence of ‘popular’ behavior in the form of protests, demonstrations and the use of modern communications and social media. In a sense, an argument can be made that this is an emancipated and popular conflict. Certainly it seems to be a conflict with modern elements that speak of popular politics. But scratch the surface and we have to ask: just how significant are these ‘popular’ elements?
It is very difficult to gauge how representative the protests in Kiev, Sevastopol or Luhansk or Donetsk are of anything. Obviously we can see protests – that is the point. They are visible and vocal. What we cannot see are the non-protests – the people who are not demonstrating for one reason or another. They might be undecided, or frightened, or not terribly bothered one way or the other. The number of people on the street is a very poor indicator of democratic intentions. Certainly it can be an indicator of discontent (and state reactions to it are often an indicator of authoritarianism) but it is not the same as a measureable democratic or consensual exercise. The demonstrations might simply indicate that one set of people in a particular locality are better mobilized or secure enough to take to the streets at a particular moment in time.
The Russian suggestion of a referendum in Crimea might seem like a sensible way ahead, but what looks like a way to ‘solve’ the problem democratically is actually laced with problems. Firstly, it is a very hasty referendum indeed. There is virtually no time for each side to put its case across in a way that allows for genuine debate. Secondly, by restricting the referendum to Crimea, Russia guarantees that it will win. This is not a Ukraine-wide referendum. And thirdly, and most fundamentally, a yes/no question is a poor way to ‘solve’ a very complex constitutional issue. For many people, identity is not an all or nothing thing. They might have torn or overlapping loyalties reflecting their complex origin: a family history of migration, mixed-marriage, enforced movement, multiple languages spoken in the home etc. Identity formation and state formation are long historical processes. A constitutional referendum (especially one without a debate) turns such processes into once-off events.
The essential point of this blog post is to highlight how many of the techniques that governments and others use are very old-fashioned. They simply are not fit for purpose in an era in which people have conflicting and overlapping loyalties. International diplomacy seems very ill-equipped to deal with complex questions of identity. The traditional model of statehood seems addicted to sticking square pegs into square holes. There seems to be little room for a more imaginative form of statehood that could accommodate multiple identities and loyalties. Of course, such creative and inclusive models do exist but neither Russia nor the West seem to have encouraged Ukraine to follow that route. The emphasis has been on: Ukraine must be in the ambit of the West OR Russia.
A few voices have been advocating that Ukraine could see itself as a ‘bridge’ between east and west and capitalize on this role. After all, bridges offer incredible opportunities. Many towns and cities owe their existence to bridges spanning rivers. The towns became trading centres, sites for business, and for the meeting of people. A more imaginative form of international diplomacy could have encouraged Ukraine to become a bridge: East meets West rather than East OR West.


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