Jackson Doughart
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Stumbling into an ethnic quagmire in Ukraine

The National Post, 27 February 2014

The argument over foreign intervention has become so radically simplified, so founded on theories and principles and ignorant of facts, that it has lost all grasp of reality. There is no better example of this than the present calamity in Ukraine, where Western internationalists have juxtaposed their narrow conceptions of liberal democracy and human rights onto a conflict that has little to do with either.

What’s really at stake here is a long history of ethnic division. Yet few commentators on the issue mention that Ukraine is not solely populated by Ukrainian nationals. The eastern and southern regions are populated by ethnic Russians, who speak Russian, identify with their co-ethnics in the motherland to the east, and are Orthodox Christians by confession. The ethnic Ukrainians, in contrast, speak the Ukrainian language, identify as a distinct nationality, and adhere either to Ukranian Orthodox Churches or to Ukrainian Catholicism, a form of Christianity which observes the rite of Greek Orthodoxy while maintaining full communion with the Holy See.*

Western observers frequently propound a moral distinction between the pro-Europe sympathies of the ethnic Ukrainians and the desire of the ethnic Russians to join a more definite Russian sphere, with greater influence for the government of Vladimir Putin. But this moral distinction is practically moot: the question of West-East economic orientation is the result of the ethnic cleavages, not the cause thereof.

What’s really happening today, as a rerun of the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, is a clash of ethnic nationalisms, not a pursuit of democracy over tyranny. The Ukrainians want to maintain control over the entire state to preserve its territorial integrity, to claim the resources of the east, and to ensure that their co-ethnics in the Russian areas remain under their sovereignty. Of course, this is a legitimate ambition, but it has nothing to do with liberalism or human rights.

Accordingly, the ethnic Ukrainians have pushed language policies akin to those pursued by nationalists in Belarus and Estonia (both former Soviet Republics with Russian minorities), and not dissimilar to the efforts of the Quebec government in the 1970s here in Canada. Such policies cement the titular nation’s language as officially superior for the whole territory and manipulate education policies to promote its interests.

Just last weekend, the law recognizing Russian as a “regional language” in eastern courts was abolished, making Ukrainian the sole official language for the entire country. Under such circumstances, who could blame the ethnic Russians for seeking the protection and influence of the neighbouring super state?

Western liberals have also admonished the ideology of the Russians to justify their blanket support for the ethnic Ukrainians (or “the Ukrainian people”, as they would say). For instance, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, writing in the New York Review of Books, believes that Putin’s meddling in Ukraine reflects his desire to form a Eurasian Union, a Russian-dominated counterweight to the European Union that would be animated by “National Bolshevism”, an intellectual movement re-synthesizing nationalism and socialism.

Whatever the merits of Snyder’s analysis, the projection of anti-fascism onto this conflict is incorrect, especially given the equally sordid elements on the ethnic Ukrainian side. The All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist party, holds 8% of the seats in the parliament for the entire country, and thus represents a much larger minority among the ethnic Ukrainians. The party’s stronghold is the western city of L’viv, which is home to numerous monuments to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during the Second World War, a Nazi collaborator, and a participant in the mass murder of Ukrainian Jews.

The Svoboda claims descent from Bandera, and just last month held a march in his honour. The party’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has announced in the Ukrainian parliament that the country is secretly controlled by a Jewish mafia.

Perhaps the most laughably wrong assumption, however, is that the protestors are acting democratically. Though certainly no choir boy, Mr. Yanukovych came to power in an election that was judged by international observers as free and fair, giving him the mandate to pursue his economic and trade policies. From exile, he is more than right to characterize his deposition as a coup d’état. This isn’t democracy; it is mob rule.

The actions of the Ukrainian protestors came to the present heights in part, though certainly not in whole, because of encouragement from the West. In consequence, democratic order in an ethnically-fractious country has been overturned, perhaps permanently, and certainly beyond the ephemeral enthusiasms of the revolution’s Western cheerleaders.

* Correction: The original publication in the National Post listed only Ukrainian Catholicism, while Ukrainian Orthodoxy ought to have been mentioned here as well.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com