Guest post by William Risch
Last week January 1 marked more than the start of a new year in Ukraine. It marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Bandera, onetime leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). About 15,000 people in Kyiv took part in a torch-lit demonstration led by the far right-wing Freedom (Svoboda) Party. Similar demonstrations happened in provincial cities.
Bandera (1909-59) is a polarizing figure in Ukraine. For Ukrainians from central, eastern, and southern Ukraine, he represents collaboration with the Nazis during World War II and the mass murder of Soviet civilians. Bandera’s OUN fraction had collaborated with Nazi Germany before World War II, and on June 30, 1941, it tried to set up an independent Ukrainian state under Nazi protection in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Bandera’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment in the Saxenhausen concentration camp did little to dispel this image of Bandera and the “Banderites.” The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), organized by Bandera’s followers, was responsible for killing 40,000 – 60,000 Poles in the Volhynia Region in 1943. Early UPA recruits included former members of police battalions involved in the mass killing of the region’s Jews.
However, for Ukrainians from the western regions annexed by the Soviet Union in World War II – Western Ukraine – the OUN and the UPA were the only organized political resistance to Soviet rule after the Soviets decapitated their prewar Ukrainian political elite. The UPA carried out guerrilla warfare that lasted until as late as 1950. Yet even here, local Ukrainians suspected of collaborating with the Soviets wound up being the main victims of “Banderite” violence.
As noted by political scientist Andreas Umland, the Svoboda Party, whose origins are in Lviv, has come to play a major role in the Euromaidan protest events, despite being politically marginal (enjoying only 3-5 percent support nationwide). OUN slogans, such as “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!,” have become standard chants at Kyiv Euromaidan events. Will the ghost of Svoboda’s hero, Bandera, fragment opposition to the Yanukovych regime? Labeling opponents “Banderites” had been an effective means of isolating national dissent in Soviet Ukraine and dividing opponents of the regime in independent Ukraine.
So far, Euromaidan participants themselves are speaking out. One Kyivan, Andrey Plakhonin, an early participant in Euromaidan protests, on January 2 posted news on Facebook that he and at least four other people went out to protest Svoboda’s torch-lit procession. “Don’t burn Ukraine instead of Mezhyhir’ia!” read Plakhonin’s poster, referring to Yanukovych’s illegally acquired estate. A friend of mine on Facebook on the eve of the torch-lit procession passed on a joke that all of these demonstrators should be lured into “Banderite” hideouts on the Maidan and locked up there until the Revolution is over. Even one of the most adamant defenders of Bandera, historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, expressed reservations about Svoboda’s commemoration plans. Bandera’s ghost may wind up enlivening, rather than paralyzing, the Euromaidan protest movement.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
I haven’t done an update on Kyrgyzstan in several days. While things seemed to have calmed in the southern part of the country, tensions are high, the humanitarian crisis is deep, and the political outcomes are uncertain.
Two questions have been occupying most commentators: Why the violence, or, specifically why didn’t we see it coming? and What are the international ramifications, particularly for the US and Russia? I’m personally less interested in the second question, and for the most part discussion on this has ranged from the ludicrous (for how ludicrous see Michael Hancock’s undressing on Registan), the paranoiac and uninformed, the all too typical, to the regurgitated. Basically, I’ll leave it to the foreign policy wоnks to untangle this mess. I just hope to hear something new as they do.
The “why” question, however, is the thing that seems to be occupying the minds of most Central Asia watchers. This is an observation based on discussions on Registan and articles on Eurasianet.org. The debates on Registan are informed, measured, fresh and invaluable. Posts by Sarah Kendzior, Michael Hancock, and Christian Bleuer are must reads.
As I noted in my last post on Kyrgyzstan, there are a lot of people skeptical of the ethnic roots of the violence. It’s not that they are saying that ethnicity doesn’t matter. It does. Rather, skeptics of the ethnic conflict thesis are questioning the tendency to reduce everything to ethnicity. As always, media commentary tends to engage in this reductionism thereby making ethnic conflict, and therefore the idea of ethnicity or nationality itself, into something that is primordial and eternal. One interesting thing I’ve noticed in some articles is to locate the origin of the conflict in how Stalin drew the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as a means to realize some kind of “divide and conquer” strategy. For example, Peter Zeihan writes, “Kyrgyzstan is an artificial construct created by none other than Stalin, who rearranged internal Soviet borders in the region to maximize the chances of dislocation, dispute and disruption among the indigenous populations in case the Soviet provinces ever gained independence.” Or, Edward Stourton, “The way Stalin designed the region ensured that it would regularly be shaken by inter-ethnic violence.” And the Economist, “In 1924 Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography.” These statements misunderstand the history of ethnicity as a concept of identity in this region. True, the borders were drawn by Stalin, as Commissar of Nationalities, but, as Francine Hirsch contends, these borders were to purposely create these nations since the Bolsheviks believed in their evolutionary teleology that becoming a nation was necessary in order for “backward people” to overcome nationality.* Was it a colonial strategy? Most certainly since what Hirsch calls “state-sponsored evolutionism” was the Bolsheviks’ own version of White Man’s Burden. Ironically, in their efforts to destroy nationality and nationalism, the Bolsheviks were their midwives. So if there is anything to blame Stalin for it was playing a pivotal role in creating the geographical foundation for “Kyrgyz” and “Uzbeks” were none “existed” in the first place.
The roots of the conflict, therefore, are quite recent, and though there were tensions between the two groups in the Soviet period, they have exacerbated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, thanks to the widening gap between rich and poor. Inevitably, class and ethnicity became intertwined as the Kyrgyz majority saw themselves losing out to the Uzbek minority. The conflict therefore has local and international economic motors. One of the more interesting analyses on this point is Balihar Sanghera’s “Why are Kyrgyzstan’s slum dwellers so angry?” which puts the inter-ethnic violence in a global economic frame. I found this passage very revealing:
The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation have imposed upon Kyrgyzstan and many other developing countries a package of neo-liberal economic policies. Powerless to resist, governments have had to sign up to these structural adjustment programmes in return for international loans, foreign direct investment and other financial support. Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has undergone an extensive programme of liberal marketisation and privatisation: privatisation of land and property, a break-up of kolkhozes, reductions in subsidies and import tariffs, liberalisation of commodity prices, cuts in state expenditure, relaxation of foreign ownership rules in key sectors (such as gold mines), opening up of home markets to imports, floating the exchange rate and so on. The shock therapy approach to the ‘transition’ to a market economy has had negative consequences on the Kyrgyzstani agricultural sector, and indirectly on urban slums and land invasions.
Given the small allocation of land that each family received in the 1990s in South Kyrgyzstan, most farmers struggle to eke a living, and are unable to absorb family labour, resulting in rural unemployment and underemployment. In addition, marginal and small farmers lack funds to buy adequate fertilisers, to invest into a proper irrigation system, to pay for effective livestock immunisation, or to capitalise their farms for future growth. Many farmers survive by pooling their resources, reviving some aspects of the Soviet kolkhozes. Some have abandoned farming, either by leasing their land rights to larger farmers, who possess the capital to undertake successful commercial farming, or by giving back their tenancy rights to ayil okomotu (local state administration), who then lease them to rich farmers. As a result, the rural society has become pauperised.
How many times have we seen this around the world?
Boris Petric also places the violence in the context of privatization (along with political clan and mafia struggles and the drug trade thrown in the mix):
As the free market ideology gained ground internationally, Kyrgyzstan launched massive privatization initiatives and opened its borders. This led to the collapse of industry and the agricultural sector, as well as causing increased social inequality. With new opportunities in cross-border trading, a new upper class formed, while most of the population lived below the poverty threshold. Structural adjustment policies, which Akayev followed to the letter, encouraged the emergence of new familial economic powers. In the south of the country, and particularly in Osh, many Kyrgyz often associated these economic powers with urban Uzbeks.
After the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev quickly put an end to the advantages gained by some Uzbeks in Osh during the privatization period. These politico-economic entrepreneurs, of which Deputy Batyrov is a good example, were gradually marginalized. The Bakiyev brothers then set about gaining control of the economy, and encouraged other “Uzbeks” to monopolize major economic resources from the Akayev administration’s former protégés. Control of the economy passed into the hands of Bakiyev’s allies. These new economic leaders were soon required to set up various dummy companies benefiting the presidential entourage.
Events took another turn when Roza Otunbayeva came to power in April 2010. President Bakiyev’s allies in the Osh region were quickly dispossessed of the advantages they had enjoyed. The situation deteriorated rapidly and tensions arose between different groups which aspired to control economic activities. An Uzbek businessman, Aibek Mirsidikov, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. According to rumor, Mirsidikov was involved in Mafia and other criminal activities. He was closely linked to the Bakiyev family, and it was even said that the President’s brother put him in charge of the lucrative Afghan drug trade and reorganizing economic relations in Osh. The fall of President Bakiyev therefore led to a new politico-economic shakeup in the region. The current conflict was probably triggered by the rise to power of some politico-Mafia groups, and the fall of others. The groups that had flourished under the previous government were not willing to accept defeat. Adopting extremely violent tactics, they began settling scores, aided and abetted by the Bakiyev brothers. The extent of these retaliations meant the conflict finally took an interethnic turn.
In her “The ethnicisation of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Madeleine Reeves notes some of the ways these social conflicts have become ethnicized in the Ferghana Valley:
In recent weeks, political tensions, economic anxieties, criminal violence, the freezing of legal process, and what seems to be a quite concerted attempt at ethnic mobilisation and provocation by supporters of ousted former-president Bakiev mean that in southern Kyrgyzstan, mothers, brothers, school-friends, colleagues, neighbours and drinking partners have been “pinned to the wall” of nationhood, reduced to the single category, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” in this historically most complex and socially variegated of regions.
Writing to me a few weeks ago, a tri-lingual (Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian-speaking), “Kyrgyz”-identifying friend, with Uzbek and Uighur heritage on his mother’s side, described how his “Uzbek”-identifying wife was increasingly conscious of the appearance of ethnic slurs in the playground when she took her (ethnically “mixed”) children out to play. An Uzbek-identifying friend from Jalalabat noted in the same period a growing sense of disillusion amongst Jalalabat Uzbeks, as ethnically-marked political-criminal groupings sought to take advantage of the change of leadership in the wake of Bakiev’s ouster to seize control of businesses traditionally dominated by Uzbek elites in the city. For both of these acquaintances, ethnicity was a constitutive part of their identity, just as was their age, their gender, their education, and their identification with a cosmopolitan, urban Ferghana culture. Each, in different ways, has written of the horror of being reduced in recent days to that single dimension, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek”. Talking of this as an “ethnic conflict” misses that essentially processual dimension: it is essentialising; it is depoliticising and it acts as an analytical “stop”. It takes ethnicity as being analytically causal, rather than asking about the complex, messy, deeply political dynamics through which, in a moment of state crisis, conflict has come to be ethnicised.
. . . What we have been witnessing in Osh and Jalalabat over the last few days is a disturbing and distressing spiral of violence. Much of this has been articulated in ethnic terms: evident in targeted attacks on property, homes and in the brutal wounding of those perceived as ethnically “other” whether they be Kyrgyz or Uzbek.
Less reported are the multiple instances where ethnicity has been irrelevant to action: when property has been looted because “they” represent wealth and opportunity that is inaccessible to “us”; when Kyrgyz have sheltered Uzbeks and vice versa; when neighbours have sought to defend their street or their mosque from attack not because they are of the same ethnicity, but because they live in the same neighbourhood and want to have the chance of continuing to do so.
Reeves goes on to add that ethnicity in this case is more like poisonious silly-puddy with its ability to be molded and graft onto a multitude of existing social processes.
“Inter-ethnic conflict” as an explanatory frame is problematic, then, not because ethnicity doesn’t matter, but because the “ethnic group” by itself doesn’t do any meaningful explanatory work (unless, of course, we assume that some ethnic groups are “naturally” pre-disposed to violence). Ethnicity in Osh is socially constituted, as well as socially and spatially organised. It is produced and reproduced in a host of domestic, educational, social and political institutions, from schools to television broadcasts, from religious celebrations to the organisation of domestic and neighbourhood space. Critically, moreover, it is reproduced in a host of business networks, patronage relations, and crimino-political groupings, the activity and violence of which has increased dramatically in the weeks since former president Bakiev was ousted in an uprising on April 7th.
Perhaps it is this hornet’s nest which has made Russia hesitant to dive in military first despite the pleads of the Kyrgyz interim government. Indeed, I agree with the view that the US and Russia just hope the crisis goes away. But crises like this rarely do. Unfortunately for the Kyrgyz, the situation remains dire and continued destabilization may generate the very things that Russia and the US fear the most: regional civil war, increased drug trafficking, and Islamism.
The big test is coming in the next week. The continued “state of emergency” threatens to put the June 27 referendum on a new constitution on hold. The interim government hopes that turning Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic will bring political stability. However, if RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier is right it could only exacerbate ethnic tensions. According to him:
“Everyone that I’ve talked to in these Uzbek neighborhoods points out that they don’t have any representation in the government at all — the soldiers are Kyrgyz, all the police are Kyrgyz. If they hold the referendum and then there is something the Uzbeks don’t like, they are going to say, ‘This isn’t our constitution. This is a Kyrgyz constitution.”
*Francine Hirsch, “Toward an Empire of Nations: Border-Making and the Formation of Soviet National Identities,” Russian Review, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), 202-203.Post Views: 1,657
By Sean — 12 years ago
Though there are a few exceptions, reporting on the elections in Belarus have been awful. Granted, this is a statement that demands qualification. There has been a lot of articles on Belarus, the elections, Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip, the arrests, beatings, and general harassment of the Opposition, the closing of newspapers and independent media, and of course the modest protests in Minsk. All of these are worthy stories and they all should be reported. Still, in my opinion, something has been lacking. Amid the deluge of news, few have actually told me anything explaining why Lukashenko is genuinely popular and why even without rigging the elections, which was certainly done, he would have won anyway. The answer that most have given is a standard and reductive one: Lukashenko’s rule by fear. Sure fear is a factor, but frankly I don’t completely buy it.
This is why I think that Mark Almond’s comment in the Guardian is so interesting. Bucking all conventional reporting, Almond not only points out the blatant hypocrisy of the United States and to a certain extent the EU on Belarus, he notes that the root of this might have something to do with capitalism.
On American hypocrisy, he writes:
Our media have a split personality when it comes to these two guardians of democracy. On Belarus they are quoted like Old Testament prophets, but mention them in connection with Iraq and people recall that they were the only US officials with President Bush and Tony Blair on January 30 2003 when Bush suggested provoking an incident with Iraq to get the war with Saddam going.
Of course if you believed them about Iraq then you won’t choke swallowing their story about Belarus. But let’s avoid the slick argument that just because veterans of the US’s Central American policy under Reagan allege that Lukashenko has “disappeared” some vocal critics that cannot be true either.
Almond then goes on to point out that while no one in the West batted an eye at when Rose Revolutionary Saakashvili received 97% of the vote, Lukashenko has gotten threats of sanctions from the EU.
But charges of hypocrisy are easy in this complex world. Of course the US isn’t going to give the same rhetoric to the fledgling government in Iraq or Afghanistan as it is to Belarus. We should remember that platitudes to democracy are doled out in relation to geopolitical interests.
As to why Belorussians support Lukashenko, the reason is again found in Bill Clinton’s adage: It’s the economy, stupid! Almond argues that the reason why the Milinkevich’s opposition has no support is because it has “offered no economic platform [and] just echoes of these western allegations against Lukashenko.” One wonders who is Milinkevich’s audience: Western governments and international civil society foundations that start salivating when you speak of looking west rather than east or a Belarussian constituency that has daily bread and butter concerns.
The basis of Lukashenko’s power is that he has prevented Belarus from descending into the “shock therapy” madness that so many other post-Soviet states have experienced. On this, Almond writes:
No communist-era throwback, Belarus has an evolving market economy. But the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, officials are not getting richer as ordinary folk get poorer. The absence of endemic corruption among civil servants and police is one reason why the wave of so-called “coloured revolutions” stopped before Minsk.
Lukashenko is far from an egalitarian, nor is he a champion of human rights in any way. But few heads of state are, and I certainly wish all of them would be put on trial at some point. Though I’m sure some readers will call me an apologist, I have no intention of apologizing for Lukashenko’s obvious dictatorship. What I’m calling for is some clarity when looking at these states. We need to understand that the narrative of “Orange Revolution” is not a formula. And different states have their own particular social, economic and political calculations. I think when that is understood perhaps a political opposition will win by addressing the real issues that concern its citizens, rather than a flawed and hypocritical Western consensus.Post Views: 324
By Sean — 4 years ago
Ukrainians voted for a new parliament yesterday, and with 50 percent of the votes counted, the breakdown looks like this:
Narodnyi Front: 21.61%
Blok Petro Poroshenko: 21.45%
Opposition Bloc: 9.82%
Radical Party: 7.38%
The European Parliament, PACE, and the OSCE have all given the election a clean bill of health by declaring it to be fair and legitimate by democratic standards. Even Russia appears ready to recognize the results, according to statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The results point to a major victory of Ukraine’s pro-European parties. As Poroshenko stated, voters had “powerfully and irreversibly supported Ukraine’s path to Europe.” This gives probable Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk the mandate to continue economic reforms and move Ukraine further toward setting the stage for European integration. It also means Ukrainians can expect more economic austerity.
The Ukrainian economy is reeling, with the hryvnia having lost 40% of its value in relation to the dollar. This means that what was worth $12,400 at the beginning of the year is now worth $6,800. As a result, Ukrainians have withdrawn $8.1 billion from their accounts looking to convert their hryvnias into increasingly scarce foreign currencies. Moreover, the price for utilities have shot up with the cost of hot water increasing by 50 percent, heating by 98 percent (in some localities) during the winter, water by 93 percent, sanitation by 105 percent, gas by 73 percent, and electricity by 10 percent. The recent gas deal with Russia will supply just enough to get through winter. Ukraine still owes Russia $5 billion for its delinquent gas bill. Kiev says it can only pay $2-3 billion by the end of the year. All of this has prompted Timothy Ash, the head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank, to tell the Washington Post, “I now fear systemic economic failure — unless there is a positive confidence shock.” Whether the parliamentary results provide that positive shock remains to be seen.
Another take away from the election is the feeble results for the much feared Ukrainian radical right. Svoboda is close, but still below, the 5 percent threshold. And Opora, an independent election monitor, has predicted the nationalist party won’t make it into parliament. What has happened to Svoboda’s electorate, especially since it polled 10.44 percent in 2012? Anton Shekhovtsov explains:
I presume that more moderate voters went back to the national-democratic forces, such as the People’s Front or Samopomich [“Self-help”]. Part of Svoboda’s former electorate apparently went to the Right Sector and Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. The inclusion of these two parties into the far right category is tentative. As a political party, the Right Sector is ideologically quite different from the movement under the same name that was formed during the 2014 revolution; the party is less radical than the movement, so I suggest the term “national conservative” as a more relevant one. Lyashko’s Radical Party is dangerously populist and a typical anti-establishment force. Although both the Right Sector and Lyashko’s Radical Party have extreme right members, they are still a minority. In contrast to Lyashko’s Radical Party, the Right Sector will not be able to enter the parliament, but its leader Dmytro Yarosh will most likely be elected in one of the single-member districts.
So there will certainly be some far right-wingers in parliament, but they won’t be a enough to form a formidable political bloc. Nor does it mean that radicalism isn’t in the air. It still is and the right’s lack of parliamentary representation doesn’t necessarily mean that Ukrainian nationalism has gone away or shouldn’t be worried about. But the electoral results do rob Russia of one of its most trotted out boogeymen.
The big loser in all this is Russia. Ukraine has made a significant step toward the west, making its political (but not economic) decoupling from Russia a foregone conclusion. Now Putin can only hope the factions in the Rada will eat themselves alive like they did after the Orange Revolution. Ukraine still has the east to reckon with, and with the strong showing of both the “war party” (Yatseniuk’s Narodnyi Front, Radical party, and Batkivshchina) and the “peace party” (Poroshenko’s Bloc), at least when it comes to negotiating with Russia, the Rada looks hopelessly divided. How divided remains to be seen.Post Views: 995