My article in Warscapes, “Ukraine’s Economy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place“:
Note: Due to rapidly developing events on the ground in Ukraine, some of the information in this article may be outdated at time of publication.
Kyiv is on fire. Violence between Ukraine’s internal security and protestors has left one hundred people dead and over one thousand injured. How far Ukraine will tumble down the rabbit hole is anyone’s guess. Already there is a chorus warning of civil war, its break up, and regional separatism. Viktor Yanukovych, in the meantime, had been holding firm, but signs suggest he’s ready to reach a compromise that would end the immediate crisis. In an address to the nation, the Ukrainian president blamed “radical elements who seek bloodshed and conflict” for the violence and charged the opposition with staging a coup. “Without any mandate from the people, illegally and in breach of the constitution of Ukraine, these politicians – if I may use that term – have resorted to pogroms, arson and murder to try to seize power,” he declared. Amid all of this smoke, fire, and vitriol is Ukraine’s reeling economy. The country is on the verge of collapse and, even if Yanukovych were to step down, nobody in Ukraine seems to have any answers for what comes next.
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- By Sean — 9 years ago
As hundreds of thousands protesters fill the streets of Tehran and other provincial centers, one can’t help think that we’ve seen this all before. So much about the Iranian protests look like the “colored revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, (the failed attempts in) Moldova and Belarus. In fact, “colored revolution” has become a preeminent phenomena in our young 21st century. It’s scripted like a bad TV drama with recycled plot lines, characters, and props. Colored revolutions unfold like ready-made, recyclable skits. Their ingredients include a “managed democracy,” a contestable election where the opposition claims “foul,” mass protests, a prominent place for “social networking” technologies (SMS, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and the like), and the adoption of a color to symbolize all political demands. The dramatic conflict plays out between the “state” and “the opposition” (whether the latter is actually outside the former matters little) over the legitimacy of the election. All that is missing is the canned laughter. Nevertheless, no matter how much one may deride how revolutionary colored revolutions actually are, they do provide a glimpse into the political unconscious of our age. Whereas the 20th century provided us with the template for communist/anti-colonial struggles, the 21st has already given us an idea of what liberal revolution will look like.
The connection between the boiling discontent among Iranians and the possibility of a “colored revolution” in the Islamic Republic hasn’t been lost on the hardline leadership. According to Abbas Milani, prior to the election, Sobhe-Sadeq, the main organ of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard “warned in a lead editorial that the opposition’s use of the color green had become dangerously similar to the kind of “color revolution” that dethroned governments in Ukraine, Lebanon, and Georgia.” With his eyes clearly on events in those countries, Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered the creation of a committee to investigate the possibility of “colored revolution” three years ago.
Nor has the “colored revolution” paradigm been far from the minds of observers. When protests erupted in Tehran, Joshua Tucker asked in the New Republic whether Ukraine could teach us anything about events in Iran. After pondering the question for a few days, he rejected the idea. Not because of the anatomy of the protests, but because “the Iranian authorities may have learned a number of specific lessons from their less fortunate post-communist counterparts.” But after more than a week of escalating protests, every lesson Tucker says the Iranian government learned have proved to be ineffective against a determined and growing opposition. The question is: are we witnessing a “colored revolution” in Iran? Given that events in Iran do appear similar to colored revolutions in the former Soviet republics, how do some in the Russian press see in the Iranian protests? After all, Russian journalists should know a colored revolution when they see it given all their experience with observing them in their near abroad or watching their state hysterically dedicate its security apparatuses to preventing one at home.
A good place to start to identify what parallels Russian commentators see between Iran and post-Soviet states is a commentary by Andrei Kolesnikov published in Vedomosti. Kolesnikov sees the Iranian protests and the “revolutions” in CIS countries as symbolic of what Jurgen Habermas calls “catch-up revolution.” Kolesnikov writes:
This phenomena described in political philosophy is called “catch-up revolution.” The philosopher Jurgen Habermas labels a revolution in reverse rewind when a society painfully attempts to make up for years of induced stagnation. Moldova, lived through, like the majority of post-Soviet states, a national revolution but did not undergo a bourgeois revolution. The part of Iranian society disposed toward modernization were seriously disillusioned in the years of the predecessor of Ahmadinejad–the moderate reformer Khatami. And now 12 years after what began as Khatami’s rapidly unfurled “thaw”, and after came to be a genuine “frost”, results in a catch-up revolution, a revolution not so much of hope, but of persistent disappointment.
Whether a catch-up revolution is in the making is difficult to gage. Plus the whole idea of “catch up” suggests that a there is something to catch up top. Habermas’ idea, and Kolesnikov embrace of it, is based in the historical teleology that state’s political development follows a singular path toward liberalism. Still, one gets the feeling that Kolesnikov musing in political philosophy has little to do with Iran per se. Kolesnikov’s views speak more to his native country, Russia. Indeed, like so many around the world, the Iranian protests have been subsumed into the desires of the observers. Iran, therefore, only highlights the nadir of political change in Russia. “Perhaps,” Kolesnikov writes, “one of the few comparatively poor states, where a catch-up revolution is now impossible by force of the shapelessness of political protest is Russia. Our political revolutions occur in kitchens and social salons. And protest continues to be purely social, and Pikalevo-like.”
Perhaps this is why the Russian press lacks the adulation that one finds in the Anglo press. Whereas the American politicos see an Iran budding into a potential Persian America, the Russians are more pessimistic and emphasize the limits of political change; limits which undoubtedly stem from their own historical experience with “revolutions.” Take for example, Petr Goncharov’s opinion in RIA Novosti,
The situation in Iran indeed recalls something revolutionary. And the “green” opposition chose the green color of Islam as “a symbol of struggle against stranglehold of the regime.” The most recent circumstances gave the possibility to adherents of the “sacredness” of any order to see in it its “orange” essence. Today, every protest, slogan and other demands “for liberalization” have accepted the stamp of the danger of “orange” revolution. There won’t be a revolution. Neither “green,” nor “orange” for that matter. The revolution has been postponed. Postponed by Imam Khamenei the Supreme (and lifelong) spiritual leader of Iran.
Statements about the revolution being postponed are certainly premature. But the foreclosure that both Kolesnikov and Goncharov place on it speaks volumes. They both seem to be saying in their own disillusioned way that, “It’s happened in Iran, but it cannot and won’t happen in Russia.” Russia liberals, of course, are asking similar questions along similar lines. “Why isn’t Russia Iran?” asks Alexander Golts. The question must eat at liberals like Golts as they watch citizens of a theocracy excercize their rights while those in an arguably more open Russia remain idle. As for why this is the case, Golts gives this answer,
There are several objective factors which makes Iranian society more “passionate” than the Russians. First of all, the age of the [Iranian] urban population. Seventy percent are young people who absolutely don’t want to rot for several more years under the leadership of a narrow-minded fanatic. Moreover, in this theocratic state, as it’s been shown, political competition has a place with frank, you will laugh, debates on television. But the main conclusion is that Vladimir Putin does not mess with Russians to the degree and with such passion as Ahmadinejad does Iranians. The Russian government does not meddle, in contrast to the Iranians, in private life. However, I surmise that the effectiveness with which Vladimir Vladimirovich guides the national economy will very soon compel Russians to spit on his charisma and remember their right to choose . . .
Of course, Golts, in all his liberal hopes, forgets that while he thinks that the future of post-Soviet Russia is still up for debate, or rather than he and his ilk are part of that debate, the reformers in Iran are. As the last weeks have proven, the Iranian opposition is part of Iranian mainstream political culture however much the hardliners who back Ahmadinejad try to deny it and paint them as part of a CIA/Mossad plot.
For all intents and purposes, the Iranian opposition isn’t calling for an undoing of the Iranian Revolution. For the most part, their calls are for the regime to abide by its own rules. Their demands are still very much within its ideological and discursive confines, though as some note, the situation is so unpredictable that Islamic regime could be swept away as easily as its predecessor. This relationship to the past is what differentiates events in Iran with those in post-Soviet states. The “colored revolutions” in former Soviet states are in part an effort to break from the past, and in particular, move away from Russia’s orbit to face the West. In this case, they were a continuation of a process of national revolutions began in 1991. In Iran, the position of the opposition leadership appears to be for a retooling of the past, a return to the principles of the Revolution, rather than its utter disregard.
- By Sean — 5 years ago
My new Russia Magazine column, “Sochi’s Workers: Invisible and Expendable,”
“The final stage in such a massive undertaking is always difficult,” Putin told officials in a meeting during the waning days of November. “A lot has been done, but it’s still a long way from perfection… [there is] still work to be done. We have the New Year and Christmas holidays ahead of us. I’d like to say, I think it should be clear that for you, New Year’s will come… on March 18 [the last day of the Paralympics]. For you and for everyone who is working on the Olympic venues.” With that, Vladimir Putin cancelled the Christmas and New Year’s holiday for some 95,000 people making the final push to ready the Sochi Olympics. A lot is riding on the Olympics, which begins in less than two months from now. It’s the most expensive Games to date, an estimated $46.1 billion—almost four times Putin’s initial estimate of $12 billion (Putin’s Games, a new documentary on corruption in Sochi estimates up to 50 percent of construction costs go to kickbacks), and the completion of this mega-construction project will come down to the wire. The stadium slated to host the opening and closing ceremonies isn’t finished, the pedestrian zone is half built, electricity goes in and out with a good portion of it powered by generators, pipes line the roads, signs reading “coming soon” dangle in restaurant fronts, and the drilling, stamping, and hammering are incessant.
The backdrop to all of this is a wide range of abuses. Human Rights Watch has cataloged those ranging from exploitation of laborers, forced evictions, harassment of civic groups, activists and journalists, environmental damage, and of course, the anti-homosexual propaganda law. While the last has gotten widespread coverage, I want to draw attention to the exploitation of laborers without whom Sochi would be impossible.
There is an estimated 70,000 laborers working in construction, 16,000 are foreign labor. They work long hours and for little pay. In its detailed report on worker abuses, HRW reported that workers got typically paid $1.80 to $2.60 an hour with a monthly average salary of $455 to $605. Their pay is routinely delayed, and sometimes they’re never paid at all. One HRW respondent, Yunus, said “I have no written contract. I got paid only in February: 2,400 rubles [$77] for December. I wasn’t paid after that. I worked for 70 full days without pay. We worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with no days off.” He quit before receiving the wages owned to him. Milorad Rancic, a migrant from Serbia, told HRW, “We got paid in pieces. For 10 days, maybe we would get $400. The rest of the month, we would get rubles, around 2,000 rubles [$63] at a time. Then, at the end of the month, when you tried to establish the balance owed, the employer would say, “Oh, we never kept track of it. We don’t have any record of it.” “Almost all employers routinely withhold wages for two months,” Semen Simonov, who works for Memorial’s Migration and Rights project, toldNovaya Gazeta. “People are used to this and don’t even bother. But there are people who’ve come to us who’ve worked in five Olympic sites and never received any money at all.” “There are 500 companies represented in the Olympic sites,” he continued. “I can’t say all of them don’t pay. But we can put together a list of those that don’t because people come to us every day and the list is growing.”
- By Sean — 13 years ago
Tensions in Belarus mount as elections approach. The drama is reaching a fever pitch. Arrests of opposition members and activists have increased in the last few days. Now RFE/RL is reporting that over 20 members of opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, including his key aide Anatol Lyabedzka has been arrested. The EU is threatening sanctions. And Washington, as if it has any credibility in these matters, has condemned the arrests. Now the Belarus KGB is accusing the US and Georgia of backing a coup. As one can see from doing a Google search for news on Belarus, the media is flooded with stories.
However, for the life of me I can’t figure out what all this means. We know that the elections will be rigged. We know that there is an opposition that is being unjustly labeled terrorists and are victims of repression. We know that Lukashenka is an authoritarian thug that rules through fear and intimidation. What we don’t know is how real the opposition is. Do they have a chance? It seems from scant reporting on this question is that they don’t, but, in my opinion, that doesn’t mean they should stop trying.
At this point I am more interested in what makes Belarus tick beyond Lukashenka’s rule by terror. Thankfully, Siarhej Karol gives some information on the Belarus economy. I personally like the way Kommersant has put it:
Maybe the situation can be summed up as the regime of Alexander Lukashenko will exist in Belarus just as long as the myth of Alexander Lukashenko the kind, wise, strong leader who embodies the ideal politician. That is the leader who manages to increase wages and pensions, gets the country cheap gas and doesn’t let them close the factories down. It is an easily understandable image in overwhelmingly patriarchal and isolated Belarus, similar to the image of a folk hero and the best guarantee that the majority will again reelect “Pops” president. As long as Belarusian politics remains mythological at its core, no opposition to Lukashenko will matter. That is why it is silly to go to the barricades to overthrow the political order. First they have to overthrow the myth.
On a final note, for excellent coverage in blogosphere on Belarus, I highly recommend br23 blog.