Ukrainians Choose to Lose, but History still Wins

Reading Western press reactions to the election of Viktor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine are lessons in how democracy is measured in our era.  Whereas Marx called the coup of Napoleon III a farce to the tragedy of his uncle’s reign, press opinion of Yanukovich’s victory is better viewed as a tragic reenactment to his farcical attempt to steal it in 2004. (Although, Marx’s original play of tragedy and farce might still be in the making as Tiger-Yulia plans contest the results.) Thus for observers of this weekend’s election, revolution has given way to potential counterrevolution, enthusiasm to depression, light to darkness, sincerity to tragic irony.  The disappointment is so palatable that you can’t help wonder if commentators deluded themselves into believing that the election was their own, and Ukrainians were supposed to express their voice.  But a slim Ukrainian majority failed to heed the desires of their self-appointed caretakers, opting instead to vote according to the conditions of their particularity rather than in line with the universal movement of History.

You can see this outpouring of negativity, for example, in the Guardian‘s editorial on the election.  As the esteemed editors inform us, while the Orange Revolution has “left its mark,” for those who like “happy endings, the wrong person won.”  Moreover, it’s a victory that is not without a certain irony: “The villain of the piece five years ago is the orange revolution’s chief beneficiary.”  Colin Graham, also writing in the Guardian, says that the Ukraine’s orange future “now is a lot more grey.” But for Graham, Yanukovich’s victory is no simple tragedy. It amounts to a more grander act of historical erasure: “[Ukraine’s] apparently pro-western stance that was supposed to have gripped the nation in 2004, with its hyped-up “orange revolution”, doesn’t seem to have occurred at all.”  The Financial Times, too, plays with the metaphors of depression, villainy, and irony.  “At first sight,” writes Gideon Rachman, “the prospect of a Viktor Yanukovich presidency in Ukraine looks like part of a depressing pattern for democracy around the world.”  Now that the “bad guy” Yanukovick has returned, “history seems to have gone into reverse.”

Or has it?  In their efforts to salvage something out of the Orange Revolution in general and this weekend’s Yanukovich victory in particular, invoking History, it seems, is all commentators have left.  Since few can point to the Orange Revolution’s positive material benefits–the Ukrainian economy is in ruins, corruption reigns, and the oligarchy continues its political civil war–the partisans of liberal democracy are forced to highlight its abstract advantages: free elections, media, civil society. Forget that the Ukrainian political elite is paralyzed, at least Ukrainians can freely vote!  Forget that the currency has lost half its value, Ukrainians have civil society (whatever that means)! Forget that voters have a choice between what FT calls “a convicted criminal backed by oligarchs and an opportunistic prima donna with her own history of murky business,” Ukrainians at least have the free media to help them pick their poison!

In our era of hegemonic liberalism, democracy is reduced to a choice, though one that is ideally “unpredictable.” Now forget the fact that commentators and polls have been predicting a Yanukovich victory for several months.  The discourse on the Ukraine election is now in salvage mode, and the poll must now be transformed into the poster child of unpredictability and a testament to democracy victorious. You see, the Orange Revolution won even though it lost. Anne Applebaum: “The most striking thing about this Ukrainian presidential election is that we genuinely did not know who would win.” Clifford Levy: “The election . . . was highly competitive, unpredictable and relatively fair.”  The Washington Post: “The [Orange] revolt’s success produced a messy but functioning democracy in which elections are hard-fought and unpredictable, the press is free and civil society flourishes . . . The good news from Sunday’s runoff vote . . . is that so far, democracy has survived.”  Choice and unpredictability equals democracy.  Just like American Idol.  Coke and Pepsi. But both of these symbols of choice contain a darker underlying ideology.  The former symbolizes how it’s necessary to rally the plebs into to thinking they are free to chose.  The latter personifies how when stripped of their respective branding, the choices are nothing more than sugary sweet poison.  And this is the problem with liberal democracy.  Choice is the measurement and, for the most part, the end in itself.  It is the choice that matters, not the politics that comes after it.

Therefore, we are told, Ukrainians should ultimately be happy.  Although they didn’t make the right choice, (it would have been better if a few percentage points went the other way), but they still got to choose, and that’s more than their neighbors to the east can say. (I won’t go into how many articles use Ukraine to bash Russia.  Even Yanukovich had to go on CNN, of all places, to declare that he isn’t a “Kremlin stooge.”) The greatness of Ukrainian democracy is made even greater when placed next to its negation: Russia.  The Russians, after all, don’t even get the luxury to freely play in the rigged game.  In this sense, the Russian elites are too realist.  They know the game is rigged so why play so hard like it isn’t. What they don’t seem to understand is that they can play like its “unpredictable” and still rig it.  Don’t worry, their day will eventually come, the partisans of liberalism perpetually remind us. History has its own inertia that can’t be befuddled by human particularity, let alone the condition of its material existence.  Especially not when History’s movements are charted with idealist maps and abstract sextants.