One of the most over-used quotations to introduce essays on political subjects is Zhou Enlai’s famous bon mot. When the Communist Chinese premier was asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789, he replied “it is too soon to say.” However, recent skirmishes in Ukraine and Crimea suggest the birth of nationalism, so associated with the levée en masse in Paris at the end of the 18th century, is still shaping the contours of events today. Rather than the crass shop-worn Cold War metaphors always wheeled out when Russia is involved, we’d do better to view recent events in Ukraine through a lens of competing nationalisms.

Benedict Anderson’s description of nationalism as ‘an imagined political community’ conveys how nationalism is a malleable political project rather than anything deeply essential. Ukraine’s nationalisms demonstrate strikingly different narratives. ‘The Right Sector’ bares a striking resemblance to the far-right street gang of the English Defense League or Hungary’s Jobbik. Openly anti-Semitic, brandishing arms and manning the front lines against the police in the Maidan square, former-President Yanukovych and his Russian allies like to point out their philosophical extremism as typical of the protestors who toppled him. Meanwhile, the ‘Svoboda’ Party (‘Freedom’ Party) has assumed key positions in the new government and is barely less extreme.  Draping confederate flags and white power emblems over the newly occupied City Hall, Svoboda have sought to rehabilitate one-time Nazi-allied Stepan Bandera, a man held up as a hero of Ukrainian nationalism by ‘hero’ of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, and as a fascist murderer by others, pointing out his party’s policy of cleansing Western Ukraine of Poles and Jews during WWII.

Even if these two far-right parties do not constitute the majority of Western Ukrainian opinion, the anti-Soviet attitude is one held in common by a clear majority of those who opposed Yanukovych, the roots of which were obvious to Leon Trotsky. Trotsky wrote, in “The Ukrainian Question” :

It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland…. The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine [sic] matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine [sic] in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence…

Trotsky points out the varied historical trajectories of the different parts of Ukraine. While the Western part labored under Polish occupation and was reassumed into the Soviet Union after WWII, Eastern Ukraine has long been part of the Russian orbit. Exposed to ‘bureaucratic hooliganism’ since the times of Tsarist Russia, the people speak Russian, are mostly ethnically Russian, and are quite used to the state-mafiosi nexus that conditions their economic lives. The Donetsk Basin of Eastern Ukraine is home to the country’s heavy industries as well as oligarch Rinat Akhmetov — the 47th richest man in the world, owner of cash-rich soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk, and financial patron of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. Understandably Easterners are bemused by the volatile anti-Soviet rhetoric coming out of Western cities like Lviv and the more forthright protestors in the Maidan. The nationalism of Right Sector and Svoboda is not something that seems to include them. And the Russian media, widely consumed in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, is full of stories of Ukrainian nationalist fascists assaulting Orthodox god-fearing inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine.

Maria Popova, a political scientist at McGill, has joined a very strong cast of academics and specialists in the former Soviet Union at The Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage blog, and shares polling conducted in this region of Ukraine. The polling data she highlights in this Washington Post piece tells the story of the limit of Russian military might, even in the ethnic Russian areas of Ukraine. She writes:

A comparison of polling trends on the question from 2008 to 2014 suggests that the proportion of Ukrainian citizens who favor unification of Russia and Ukraine has declined slowly from about 20 percent to about 10 percent…The regional figures…may have slightly increased in Crimea, Donetsk and Zaporizhya, but they have remained unchanged in Odessa and Kharkiv, and have declined in Luhansk. And in the Western regions, support for unification with Russia is very close to zero, so there is no room for it to go down further.

The highest proportion of those who might want to rejoin Russia might well be found in the Crimea, now under Russian occupation. A plurality of citizens of the autonomous region are ethnic Russians and the Crimea was only given to the regional Soviet republic of Ukraine under Khrushchev in the 1950s. However, the minority Tartar population have a history of deportation and suffering under Soviet rule and further back. One of the canonical Ukrainian nationalists was former-General Petro Grigorenko, who was quick to embrace the cause of Tartar nationalism upon his break from the Soviet regime, and spelled out the crimes suffered by the Tartars with the admirable eloquence of a man who suffered so much as a Soviet dissident. In a 1968 speech he said:

The majority of the Soviet people, who previously had been widely informed that the Crimean Tatars had sold the Crimea, never did learn that this ’sale’ was transparent fabrication. But worst of all, the decree on political rehabilitation… legalized the liquidation of the Crimean Tatar nationality.

In such complicated contexts, where can we look for solutions?

The field of democratization—the study of how and why states democratize—has found the countries of the former Soviet Union a hard case to swallow. How countries develop into democracies was reduced to studying how states acquire democratic institutions such as elections and alternations in power between organized factions or parties. This definitional anchor had served the field well since Schumpeter proposed a version of it in his 1942’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. But Russia and its former republics have demonstrated a sort of virtual democracy since the USSR’s collapse. Elections had simply served as marriage counseling for rapacious economic elites.

In this article from International Studies Review, Professor Milja Kurki proposes we admit ‘democracy’ cannot be defined by any one set of institutions. Instead we agree democracy is an essentially contested term: something that perhaps means different things to different people.

The philosopher Chantal Mouffe, in her The Paradox of Democracy, suggests that we look at liberal democracy in terms of an ‘agonism’ between the two different forces of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’. Both support democracy for different reasons: democrats because it is seen as the apogee of political equality and man’s inherent equal moral worth, while delimiting the demos or political community which they seek to build upon. Liberals, because democracy is a way of preserving property rights in a rules-based system not prone to dictatorial whim.

If we chart the rise of democracy in the West we see Napolean denounce England as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, small-scale property-owners wedded to markets and a rules-based system. Napolean’s championing of democracy saw the elevating of community and democratic rights. While the rise of socialism and the trade union and women’s movement saw England gradually expand its franchise and lose its more aristocratic extremes, the spread of markets and globalization saw France gradually settle into a post-revolutionary liberal democracy of great similarity.

So what do we see when we look at Ukraine? There are certainly Jacobins of various stripes, and some writers, like David Bell in The New Republic, have been quick to point out the similarities between the conservative East and the nationalist revolutionaries of the West to factions in revolutionary France.

Any attempt to see Ukraine as a liberal democratic country must include the rise of a civic nationalism above a narrow, chauvinistic one—either of West or East. If the Crimea returns to Russia we are likely to see the 50:50 split between ‘West’ and ‘East’ tip in the former’s favor. If ethnic Russians have the far-sightedness to vote for a moderate nationalist rather than a series of doomed candidates who do not appeal to even moderate opinion beyond the Ukrainian East, then we might witness the emergence of a moderate center dedicating to nation-building and forging a common sense of Ukrainian community. If ethnic Russians continue to vote for decrepit party bosses of the Party of the Regions, then electoral arithmetic might prove the supremacy of a narrow, polarizing, anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalism hostile to their interests and might force further Russian interference.

Equally important is an economic democratizing push to promote small business, limit the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs, and produce a diversified, export-oriented, middle class with a stake in the rule of law and anti-corruption. A nation of shopkeepers, of independent trades union, and of property-owners, would push the debate in Ukraine finally beyond one of existential identity crises to actually bettering the lives of Ukrainians in their everyday lives. Every crisis is, perhaps, an opportunity. The world watches in hopes that somebody takes it. At the moment? Perhaps it is too soon to tell.

Further Reading:

Robert English, ‘Georgia: The Ignored History’: USC’s professor of Russian politics looks at the rise of a narrow, chauvinistic Georgian nationalism and how the West’s Cold War obsession blinded us to a critical examination of Georgia’s ideological motivations to its ethnic minorities and autonomous republics.

The same author goes on ‘The Tavis Smiley’ show to talk about the more-proximate causes of President Yanukovych’s decision to shun a European trade agreement in favor of joining a Russian customs union.

In this piece, Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution pours some cold water on one of the ‘neater’ solutions to the Ukraine crisis called ‘Finlandization’

Image credit: Sasha Maksymenko via flickr

About The Author

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PhD International Relations

Simon Radford is Hippo’s Academic Correspondent in International Relations and a Provost’s Fellow in USC’s Political Science and International Relations program. He was a candidate in the 2005 General Election in the U.K. and has worked as a political consultant in the United States and with democratic groups throughout the world.