Two Tales, One Story

by Nathan Hamm on 11/30/2004 · 1 comment

Discoshaman laments the casting in a US vs. Russia light the struggle for democracy in Ukraine. I heartily agree with him because the nature of the Western media is such that we simply cannot hope to find too many knowledgeable reporters shipping stories out of Kiev. It’s not that these reporters are necessarily up to anything nefarious, they are just sticking to what they feel comfortable with. And, if they’ve done the Eastern European politics beat for a while, odds are they’ve gotten pretty good at writing the “US vs. Russia struggle for power” story (handed down from their predecessors for over 50 years) in just about every possible incarnation.

I run into this poor reporting with stories coming out of Uzbekistan in the Western press. Which Western journalist in Tashkent knows his stuff? Well, it just so happens to be the one who actually lives there, Burt Herman with the AP. He gets stuff right and reports with accuracy and detail that the other wires don’t. We’re having the same problem in Kiev right now.

Getting all that out of the way, there is are stories of outside involvement that really are important to adding some more depth of understanding as to how we got where we are in Ukraine today. And yes, those stories involve the US and Russia. But no, it’s not so much a direct competition as it is the individual pursuit of foreign policy goals that occasionally cause collisions.

The US and the EU both operate and support a number of democracy-promotion programs across the former USSR. If you have been reading for a while, you know that I love these programs and think they are incredibly effective as a medium- to long-term investment in democratizing countries that seem to be not quite “there” yet. None of these programs are overtly political–they don’t agitate for the state’s overthrow, for example–rather they teach important skills and help people to form effective NGOs, civic groups, political parties, businesses, etc. Though these programs tend to be very high-visibility in the countries where they operate, few know about them in the United States.

Today’s LA Times carries a commentary piece by Matthew Spence reminding us of the importance of these programs.

Examples include contributing to the end of the temniki memorandums — censorship decrees — and the survival of one of Ukraine’s last independent newspapers; funding exit polls in the March 2002 parliamentary elections that helped ensure that the opposition could take the seats it actually won; and encouraging civic involvement in the policymaking process. The protests in Kiev’s streets last week attest to the vibrancy of Ukrainian civil society.

These victories of democracy do not attract the same attention as last Sunday’s election results. But democracy does not happen only on election day; it is based on broader change that includes a free press, civil society and rule of law.

While I do not know the specifics of these programs in Ukraine, I do know they win small victories every day everywhere they operate. Sometimes that’s all we get–little changes–small, but stories worth telling. Sometimes these small victories gather into an avalanche, and no amount of our help can substitute for the willingness of a people to put their lives on the line.

As a little detour here, Spence seems a little pessimistic–he suggests the rigging of the election was a defeat for our democracy-promotion efforts. Well, for all the enthusiasm that we should have for Ukraine and its people, we should listen to the skeptic in the back of our heads. I can almost guarantee you that should Yushchenko end up as Ukraine’s next president, he will not deliver all that people are hoping for. He can probably make things a lot better, but Mikheil Saakashvili is nowhere near as popular as he once was. And, in my book, how Yushchenko would deal with unpopularity would be Ukraine’s real test. Were he to run risk of losing a re-election bid, would he take advantage of his power to engineer a victory or would he accept the will of the people?

This democratizing mission is, regardless of the leftist and Russian commentariat, undertaken for its own sake. It’s not done to upset Russia, and the idea that it is done all for oil is pretty damned silly if you know the region (…trying so hard to resist making a dig at a particular journalist…must refrain…).

Russia though, has a mission of its own. As near as I can tell, Russia is less concerned with the spread of democracy than with the spread of US and European influence to right up against its borders and a concomitant loss of its influence in its former empire (and perhaps a future choice between isolation or joining something like the EU or a bolstered SCO as an equal or junior partner and not the leader). And Russia’s mission has more to do with strengthening its influence and making the CIS states dependent on Moscow than it does with confounding our plans. CBS has the abridged version:

All of this follows a pattern established on the periphery of Russia in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. In parts of the former Soviet Union, Russian interference was less subtle than in Ukraine. Internal conflicts broke out in many newly independent ex-Soviet states, apparently spontaneously. In Moldavia, Abkhazia, Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia intervened to cause unrest and then used Russian military might to settle it, usually to Russia’s advantage.

None of this aroused much interest in the self-absorbed American media. It was all too complex and far away. But Ukraine is on the border of NATO and the West, and its strategic importance is too big to be overlooked.

So, yes there is a story of great powers to be told here and it’s certainly worth telling if done correctly. But that’s no excuse for not giving the crowds across Ukraine their due.

And, before I wrap this up, check out TOL’s article on the headache caused by Russia’s Ukraine policy. Interference? Rumor has it that Ukraine will declare Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov personae non gratae.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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