Ukraine’s Orange Fever

The plot thickens in the Ukraine. 100,000 supporters of the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko occupy Kiev’s Independence Square in freezing cold protesting the defeat of their candidate by three percentage points. Yesterday, Ukraine’s Parliament gave a boost to their claims of election fraud by voting for annulling the election. Representatives of Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich, the hand picked successor of outgoing president Lenoid Kuchma, are now in talks for some sort of non-violent settlement. Speculations range from a new election on December 12 to civil war to secession of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions if Yushchenko takes power. Conspiracy theorists point to a CIA directed coup to put the pro-Western Yushchenko into power. According to one Moscow newspaper, such ideas are frequent among Putin’s advisors, who feel that the United States is meddling in Russia’s affairs. This is an especially popular idea since Yushchenko’s wife is an American and has worked for the US government. Moscow backs Yanukovich because of his favorable ties with Russia. Putin’s not used to losing and there is a sense that if Moscow loses this one it might make difficulties for Putin to handpick his “replacement” in 2008. Could another genuine democratic transfer in Ukraine put extra pressure for one in Russia? Could this then mean the beginning of the end of Putinism? I certainly don’t have answers to these speculations. Yes, the election in the Ukraine has put it on the world stage. Many Americans, I’m sure, didn’t even know it was its own country. Others might not see what the big deal is: What importance does Ukraine serve to American interests?

According to one article in the London Independent, after Yushchenko got the nod from Western governments, cash flooded into his supporting organizations. This money seems to come from a variety of government and non-government organizations set on promoting “democracy” in the East. These same groups also bankrolled the exit polls that named Yushchenko the winner. Putin, never one to be outdone, has apparently inaugurated a similar phenomenon with Russian cash flowing to prop up Yanukovich. Anyway you look at it, I think the article’s suggestion that a “postmodern coup d’etat” is taking place in the Ukraine is not too far off. I don’t agree with direct CIA involvement. The Ukraine isn’t Venezuela or Haiti. Yanukovich is not calling for a something akin to Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” nor is he a democratic thorn in the side of the US like Haiti’s Aristide. However, the fact that some 470 foreign ministers have publicly pledged their support for Yushchenko, thereby de facto recognizing him as President, does little to douse speculation of a Western organized coup.

Whether an actual coup is in progress or not is anyone’s guess. I doubt there is something so James Bond at work where Yushchenko’s wife is secretly fulfilling a longtime CIA plot in the making. That’s just a little to Manchurian Candidate for me. It does, however, speak to a point that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make in their new book, Multitude. They write, “a ‘network power,” a new form of sovereignty, is now emerging, and it includes as its primary elements, or nodes, the dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, major capitalist corporations, and other powers.” In this formulation, Hardt and Negri argue that there is no multilateralist or unilateralist position available for nation-states. Global power flows through networks; it involves state power and civil society. One can certainly see this happening in the Ukraine. Forces from below are aligning with foreign NGOs, nation-states, and other groups to effect the election in a sovereign state. This is far different from the tactics used in the past, where coups occurred through assassination or good ol’fashioned fascist thuggery. No, the seemingly local political situation in Ukraine has now become a global situation with many groups playing a part according to their interests. Many commentators are correct to see the Ukrainian crisis a rerun of the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. Whatever the outcome is, it will appear “democratic” only because the forces at play are diffused and decentralized along various nodes of the international network of governance.

To be sure there are some real issues at stake in this democratic debacle. Old world commodities like oil and natural gas continue to plague the politics of new Europe. Ukraine doesn’t produce much or either, but the country is a major transit territory for Russian natural gas and oil. In addition, Yushchenko has promised that under his rule the Ukraine will move closer toward the West and seek European Union membership and possibly joining NATO. If this turns out to be more than campaign rhetoric, Moscow does have something to worry about. Commentators signal the possibility of the Ukraine raising transit costs for Russian energy companies. Some even speculate unfavorable trade conditions between Russia could push the Ukraine to import more oil from states like Azerbaijan rather than its Slavic big brother. EU and NATO membership could further turn Ukrainian economic interests 180 degrees to its Western neighbors.

Western concerns are the mirror opposite of Russia’s. Europe is concerned about having a non-democratic state at its border. Ukrainian membership in the EU will provide yet another eastern state to exploit through monetary policy and labor extraction. NATO membership probably has the US arms manufacturers salivating over the potential arms sales. NATO membership requires a commitment to retool and modernize the candidate’s military further extending America’s military industrial complex into another state’s coffers.

Over the last few days, relations between Washington and Moscow are said to have cooled. However, this could just be a case of the winter chills; the latest tiff in two powers’ geopolitical rivalry. I doubt Putin’s open invitation to Crawford will be revoked. Nor do I think Putin will be making anti-US rhetoric a standard policy. Moscow’s position is simple enough. The US is simply pissing in the wrong yard. In addition, experts point to little real difference between Yushchenko and Yanukovich. Kinda reminds one of US politics. Both come from the same corrupt Ukrainian elite who profited off of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. No matter who is elected with have to deal with both internal and external forces that will keep their hyperbolic campaign rhetoric at bay. Ukraine’s next President will have to balance relations with both the West and the East. It can’t escape its social and economic situation any more than it ignore being geographically sandwiched between Europe and Russia.

I think that this last point about geography is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole situation. Ukraine’s emergence on the international stage speaks to the long standing cultural animosity shared between East and West. The Ukraine has emerged as representation of the political, cultural and even religious divide that has plagued Eastern and Western relations. The Ukraine is constructed as a country divided along these tensions: suspended between democracy and authoritarianism, western liberalism and eastern conservativism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, free markets and state regulation, the future and the past. The cultural Other is now embedded in the body of Yushchenko and Yanukovich. I’m surprised there hasn’t been any arguments about Ukrainian crisis that highlight the legacy of Asiatic modes of production. It seems that the entire future of the Ukraine as a ‘Western” or “Eastern” country is entirely based on the outcome of this election. Perhaps this is why the specter of civil war, however unlikely, has begun to loom over the situation.

Unfortunately for the Ukraine, in the United States the Andy Warhol principle seems to now apply to nation states. Every state seems to have its fifteen minutes under the American gaze. I’m positive that if the situation continues much longer the Ukraine will fade into the annuls of history just like Serbia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan, Haiti, and Venezuela. America is a cold lover that is unless your name is Israel. No more headlines for little Ukraine. We, Americans just don’t have the attention span for such events. It forces us to consult maps and learn pronunciations of names with too many consonants. The story of that evil Peterson guy, his poor darling wife Lacey, and her unborn child is much easier to follow. Forget the Ukraine! Ukraine is boring! Why don’t they just go home like we do and let the lawyers figure out all that hard election stuff. Long live the live coverage from Redwood City!!!