“BLISS IT was in that dawn to be alive.” The crisis in Ukraine allowed the Guardian’s quasi-Thatcherite columnist Tim Garton Ash to rediscover his youth in the 1980s.
He covered the rise and fall of Solidarnosc in Poland at the start of that decade and the East European revolutions at its end.
A fortnight ago he hailed the demonstrators supporting opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. They were “supplanting the old Jacobin-Bolshevik model of violent regime change with Europe’s new model of velvet revolution—as in Prague and Berlin in 1989, as in Serbia’s toppling of Milosevic, as in Georgia, where exactly one year ago the people’s president marched into parliament bearing a long-stemmed rose” (Guardian, 25 November). A week later, however, Ash found himself complaining about the criticisms being mounted against this latest case of “velvet revolution” from both left and right.
The revolutions that swept away Stalinism in Eastern Europe exactly 15 years ago were indeed a wonderful moment of hope and liberation.
But we are now living in a world shaped to a significant extent by the actual outcome of those revolutions—the replacement of Stalinist-style state capitalist regimes integrated into the Russian Empire by liberal capitalist regimes that have either achieved, or aspire to, incorporation in the European Union and NATO.
The geopolitical context in which these upheavals are taking place is important. Ukraine is a pawn in the inter-imperialist rivalries between the US and Russia. Ukraine has only existed in its present borders since 1945 and only became an independent state in 1991. This involved grafting together the country’s two halves—for centuries the west was ruled by Catholic Poland or Austria, while the east belonged to the Orthodox Russian Empire.
The independence of Ukraine and its ultimate integration in the Western bloc are a key element of the dominant US strategy of isolating and encircling Russia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser under President Carter and an exponent of this strategy, recently explained in the Financial Times why the West should back Yushchenko: “If Ukrainian democracy fails, then Russian imperial visions are rewarded.”
Ash should have remembered that “regime change” no longer conjures up memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The method of velvet revolution has become a technique of imperial rule—more effective, arguably, than the US Marines—through which American funds and emigre expertise are deployed behind the local politicians most likely to set up a pro-Western regime.
This doesn’t mean that one should reduce the Ukrainian crisis to manoeuvring between George Bush and Vladimir Putin. But the domestic political forces themselves require careful critical scrutiny.
Ukraine has already experienced the transition from state to market capitalism. As elsewhere in the former Eastern bloc, this has involved hugely corrupt privatisations in which a handful of business oligarchs have amassed vast riches.
Current Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma is surrounded by some chief oligarchs and accused of crimes such as the beheading of a critical journalist. But Yushchenko served under him, first as head of the central bank, then as prime minister.
Yushchenko’s most prominent supporter, Yulia Tymoshenko, was described in one study of Wild West capitalism in the former Soviet Union as “The Eleven Billion Dollar Woman”.
Tymoshenko made her fortune by setting up a gas supply company that at one stage controlled nearly one fifth of the Ukrainian economy—thanks to the support of the then prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazerenko fled Ukraine on corruption charges, and was convicted of money laundering and extortion in California earlier this year.
In all probability this is how what is essentially a struggle between rival factions in the oligarchy will be resolved. Let’s hope that the ordinary Ukrainians who have gained confidence in their own abilities by taking part in the great demonstrations of the past few weeks will begin to assert their power against all the robber barons, orange and blue alike.