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Mainstream, VOL LII No 12, March 15, 2014

The Message from Kiev

Saturday 15 March 2014, by Uttam Sen

Is Ukraine sending the world any fresh messages? There could be several. Beginning with the innocuous yet significant information provided by the BBC, the “tough” posturing attributed to important sources needed to be taken guardedly because cash-strapped Euro-peans would not easily annoy billionaire Russian migrants, given their sensitivities on Mother Russia (built on 9th century Kiev!) and financial contributions to their countries of adoption. Russia’s trade with Europe is also well ahead of that with the US. The power and reach of the émigré oligarchs and financial institutions comprise two sides of the same coin but are different in the sense that one is insular, even in exile, habitually so with Western cultures, and the other filled with the single-minded zeal to translate any system to the market and its forces. Yet these realities were soon being customised to the situation.

The Russian entry into Crimea has incurred sectional outrage and threats of freezing the assets of its well-heeled expatriates; the Euro-peans have not decided on anything sweeping but have gone through the motions of warning Russia. This text, as a subject of discussion or exposition, rings familiar. In his mind’s eye the common man in India sees Russians and Europeans through their distinctive literature and history. The Russian novel has reigned supreme and has bolstered this exceptionalism. Its literary realism is, if anything, closer to the European genre than the English or American, on the authority of a celebrated English writer and critic. It finds an echo in the subcontinent where the depiction of the human condition across great expanses of space and time creates a known resonance. Bothvariables and constants are akin, for example, heterogeneity and an overarching culture and market.

Historically and politically Russia has been secluded from Europe. A certain objectivity accentuates its golden creative past. You perceive prescience in Leo Tolstoi’s War and Peace, for example, “...watching the movement of history, we see that every year and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes; so that what once seemed good, ten years later seems bad, and vice versa. And what is more, we find at one and the same time quite contradictory views as to what is bad and what is good in history...”(War and Peace, First Epilogue, 1813-20, Chapter 1)

Even more, the psychological novel of arguably the greatest of them all, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, still transports the reader from the mindless babble of the 19th century Czarist society to the immanence of death (a description fine-tuned by the writer’s own trauma in front of the firing squad and last-minute reprieve), and a penurious student’s ethical dilemma on preserving himself at the cost of the parasite personified by the old pawnbroker. (Crime and Punishment) With striking foresight, Dostoyevsky off-set the exaggerated strength and aggression conventionally associated with worldly pragmatism with the insights of the subconsciously transcendental man, rendered a half-wit without the Supreme Being, the source of all moral authority. (The Idiot) The redoubtable Aleksandr Pushkin was hounded to his death by the regime of Nicholas 1 (this evidence was provided by the Russian news agency RT). By inference, the temporal custodians of life and death without a moral landmark were the geneses of evil, arguably socio-political dysfunction.

What crime is, who perpetrates it, the telltale giveaways of fads and foibles, the lurking shadow of manipulative control and the question of whether the great ethical dilemma can ever be resolved without mutual compassion are themes that are being tested in today’s killing fields. The unraveling of the narrative provides the unstated answer without too much respect to received wisdom or black and white choices.

Vladimir Putin was a fan of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the clinical chronicler of forced labour in The Gulag Archipelago, who himself turned a votary of greater Russia. Viewed in that light, the tribulation of the Ukrainian people on its border is more than temporary realpolitik, which they have overcome before by surpassing the mainstream. The Ukrainian (his country is literally the “borderland”) is the metaphor for the “little guy” or common man. (Though generalisations can be odious, there is always the danger of his being inveigled into a cat’s paw. Patrick Henningston compiled a list of possible blunders much before the Ukrainian crisis in “Here’s the risk: Occupy ends up doing the bidding of the global elite”, in The Guardian on November 15, 2011.)

But even in simpler times, there was movement within the same matrix. Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev were both Ukrainians. One overthrew the other but Khrushchev had created a strategic sticking point by transferring the jurisdiction of the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian republic in 1954. When politics or its avowed principles turn too remote, the commons should constitute the frame of reference. Europe and Russia, or for that matter entities further West, have been built on the foundations of the ordinary mortal. Reigning polemics are mostly showing the breach between what was intended and what is actually occurring.

The Ukrainians have been interchangeably part of the nationalities around the region and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires to boot. The east and the south have been overwhelmingly Russian. Crimea still contains the Tartars from Turkish times whom Stalin had deported to Siberia but who eventually returned home. Not surprisingly neighbours, in various latter-day guises, are plucking at Ukraine’s heartstrings, additionally racked by acute cultural differences based on language. Substantial numbers fought alongside the Nazis but even more battled and perished for the Red Army in the Second World War. Their biological and ideological descendants are taking to the streets again, with the odd proxy or mercenary filling the gap. The width of the gap is a serious bone of contention.

A fertile region, Russia’s traditional breadbasket and the third highest possessor of strategic nuclear weapons, Ukraine assumed independence in 1991 and territorial sovereignty with the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 (on dismantling its nuclear arsenal). What has stayed unchanged is Kiev’s ascendancy acquired from the time of the 19th century Russian industrialisation and the intellectual churning in a traditional patriarchal society, the latter gradually succumbing to the influences of the Industrial Revolution. Naftogaz is Ukraine’s oil and gas company (with an Indian subsidiary) dealing with the extraction, transportation and refinement of natural gas and crude oil. The pipeline from Russia to Europe which transports natural gas to the Continent passes through Ukraine. Europe underwent a crisis the last time Russia took on Ukraine on gas prices.

The present one will hopefully be history soon, to make sense of a somewhat ambiguous external prediction about the inevitable. Ukraine’s absconding President, Viktor Yanukovich, dodged a trade deal with the European Union in November and turned to Moscow’s $ 15 billion promised ready cash, no questions asked. Critics of the EU package, including Yanukovich, found it inappropriate in terms of conditio-nalities (namely, reform, elimination of subsidies, transparency/accountability). Yanukovich fled the country following agitations and a meeting with the Opposition on February 21 which had reviewed constitutional reform, including greater involvement of the country’s diverse regions.

The inappropriateness according to some detached from the hot seat included the attempt to foist a financial structure that would be entirely market-oriented and predictably cavalier about traditional non-market systems emanating from state and society. As for Yanukovich’s getaway, allegations have been made of sniper fire that killed policemen and agitators, conjuring a state of affairs that had gone out of hand. There have been wide-ranging charges of the presence of mercenaries among activists/agitators who regularly took to Kiev’s Euromaidan on and after November 21, 2013, the day of demonstrations demanding closer integration with Europe.

The counterpoint of Russian reassertion in Crimea, the referendum demand and its US-led repudiation, is a contrast the world cannot ignore. Other things being equal people would certainly have had their freedom of choice. Kiev is not all Ukraine, nor entirely homogenous in either ethnicity or opinion within and is strategically sensitive in the security calculus of a much wider region: factors other power blocs introspectively appreciate.

The interim government that took over following Yanukovich’s departure has been dismissed as the manifestation of an unconstitutional coup (particularly by Russia). Presidential elections have been scheduled for next May. But there does not appear to be convincing validation (if it was possible) or refutation of the deaths of hapless people/agitators in police firing directed by a beleaguered government. There have been passionate disavowals of a kleptocratic State under Yanukovich, or even the short-lived successor regimes prior to his recall in the pre-February 21 innings, in comparison with which a $ 14 billion European package and loan tranches from the US and the IMF that are in the pipeline seem to be curative medicine. But they could create fresh malaises. The conditionalities remain, understandably so, to the extent that without accountability redemption from the present morass is inconceivable. But it could be out of the frying pan into the fire unless Kiev and the rest of Ukraine can muster the space and discretion to choose what is best for themselves.

The evidence of the market as the leading provider in terms of jobs and income, as against the non-verifiable capabilities of traditional non-market systems on making available costs and benefits of transactions in indirect ways, will always remain a grey area. But considering that non-market arrangements are often the mainstays of societal and political sustenance in developing regions, they are being written off a bit too easily. Their absence from official statistics does not make them irregular but unaccountability can be exploited by the unscrupulous, sometimes translating into the extreme condition of kleptocracy. Yet to label all sets of circumstances outside the market as corrupt and on that score battle for a swap can be dissembling and potentially destabilising. We in India are fortunate that the fine distinctions are being made in the public domain.

For instance, the article that reaches the consumer after several rounds of price raises by middlemen, often informal interlopers bred on political patronage, can be eliminated with the removal of the unwanted persons. But to introduce an exotic element in the name of pricing efficiency (perhaps probity, best practices and so on), when a typically competitive market operator will begin with the figure at which the last firm left off, is not much of a help. Step by step dissection could be telling and make the difference between being swamped by the market and discriminating choice.

To recall Tolstoi, canons could change. Population pressures are depleting natural resources at a furious pace. The sum and substance of future strategy could be eco-friendly enterprise and a fresh lease of life to traditional economies. The natural resource export component of kleptocracy would be at a discount (unless of course high demand for scarce goods made it even more profitable for resourceful operators). But on balance, mature and accountable policy would rein in propensities inimical to the public good.

The humanism in Russia’s blood needs as much expression as the forthrightness of Western opinion over social media. The US insistence on dialogue is encouraging, just as much as its recognition of Russia’s vital interests. (The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has served the military reminder. But it seems a sop to impenitent hawks; China has reiterated the principle of dialogue).

A certain monistic conviction on the aggregation of global financial and strategic attitudes will persist on the Russian side, not entirely without basis; but a pluralistic world also assumes, if not a strict autonomy of approaches, a nuanced differentiation that makes administrations/governments sensitive to both financially depleting confrontation and appreciative of the danger posed by steamrolling diverse values and standards of governance. The pecking order created within integrated financial systems, or the trade flows through disparate arrangements, generate insecurity and corruption as the well-entrenched and/or the old rich are made to look and feel like new arrivals, or simply redundant.

Non-market forces could be left with elbow room in the wider interest of stability maintainable by not pushing the wounded tiger to the corner. Sizing up the epilogue in a different way, not all arrivistes have the wisdom to discern that change in terms of freedom and creature comforts could turn out to be ephemeral at the feet of some Leviathan beyond the State. A satisfactory balance between two extremes, that too, hazarded from outside, can at best be hypothetical. But a relatively advanced Kiev could decide that to be well-served it must serve itself.

Nothing defines the durability of a vast entity better than the resilience of China’s one-country-two-systems policy. The PRC even endured institutional change by the departing Legislative Council which it resented but waited to supersede with its own legislative arrangement. Kiev is not a part of Russia nor is it about to become so, nor can the Crimean question be resolved by the force of arms, one way or other, but an appreciation of geo-political realities as they obtain today can create space for diplomacy and dialogue to achieve the optimum.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.