[For a note on why what happens in Ukraine matters, click here.
Today, for the first time in a century, maybe its whole history, Ukraine became a free country.
Ukranians freed themselves
as every people must: by their own acts, deeds and restraint. The Ukrainian people, their Parliament, their Army and their Interior Ministry all acted (or didn’t act) together to remove Yanukovych from power peacefully. Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed opposition leader, was released, and new elections are scheduled for May 25.
Refusing bribes, Ukrainian authorities prevented Yanukovych from leaving the country. But they did not detain him. Presumably he will have to answer at some future date for the sniping murders of protesters during the last several days, as well as any economic crimes he may have committed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s claim that today’s events were a “coup” by “armed extremists and thugs” is little more than a poor, sick joke. It is also a spectacular feat of historical amnesia.
In 1991, when Boris Yeltsin stood atop the tank in front of the Russian Parliament building and faced down the putschers, a sniper like those in the Maidan could easily have killed him. If that had happened, Russia’s recent history might have been far different, and far darker. Putin, who owes his power to Yeltsin, might never have become leader of Russia.
In both Russia and Ukraine, the secret of the transition to a form of democracy was precisely the same. The Army and Interior Ministry refused to open fire on their own people. In both nations, the armed forces did their jobs: protecting their people, not oppressing them.
It’s no accident that Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, working with the EU, helped negotiate the peaceful transition. It was Poland, with its Solidarity movement, that helped liberate Eastern Europe and later Russia itself. And it was Pope John Paul II, a Pole, who fostered the movement and help set Eastern Europe free.
The Polish people should be immensely proud of what they and their leaders have accomplished. They have advanced the cause of freedom in Europe and have given their neighbor and chief trading partner a chance to become strong, happy and free.
But Ukrainians have no time to celebrate, congratulate themselves, or rest. The work of freedom is hardly done. It’s just beginning.
The whole world is watching. Russia is, too. So Ukraine must be careful not to tempt Russia into counterproductive economic pressure, let alone military intervention.
Here, in order of importance, are the things Ukraine, its Parliament and a any new leader must do to secure the blessings of liberty for all Ukrainians:
1. They must disavow and refrain from any hint of revenge or reprisal against Russian interests or innocent Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. Nelson Mandela showed us all
what political miracles can happen when peaceful revolutionaries forswear revenge. Ukraine cannot ignore his legacy; it must learn and apply his lesson. The last thing the world needs is another Egypt.
2. Ukraine must protect all
its people, including Russian speakers, without favor, fear or prejudice. It should process applications for citizenship impartially. It would do well to make both Russian and Ukrainian official state languages, like French and English in Canada. The goal of Ukraine’s leaders should be to make Russian speakers happy that they live in Ukraine and not in Russia and examples to Russians.
3. Ukraine must honor all of its international obligations, whether under treaty or commercial contract, especially those to Russia. Politics is politics, but business is business. If Ukraine can learn that lesson, it will have something valuable to teach Vladimir Putin.
4. If Ukraine wishes to prosecute those who ordered the murderous sniping in the Maidan, it should do so only under the must scrupulously careful legal procedures, in accordance with international standards. It could do worse than turn suspected criminals of this sort over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution under global standards (and with global publicity) by neutral judges with no axes to grind.
5. Ukraine should condemn (confiscate) Yanukovych’s hideously posh personal residence, with fair compensation for the part (if any) of its price that Yanukovych gained fairly and honestly, without corruption, duress or embezzlement. It should then convert this ghastly palace into a public museum, as an example to all people of the evils of excessive power.
6. Ukraine should build a respectable but much more modest official residence and office for Ukraine’s new leaders, whether presidents or prime ministers, analogous to our White House or Britain’s 10 Downing Street. No one owns the White House or the Kremlin; each is on loan to a leader only as long as he or she lawfully serves the people.
If Ukraine’s people and leaders take these and similar steps, they can show the world how people power can work, peacefully, gradually and respectfully to all concerned. If they do so, they will secure their freedom, and maybe even Putin will follow their example.
Why Ukraine is Important
Let’s face it. Most of us Yanks think about Ukraine as much as we think about the novels of Proust. We pay attention only when there’s an abortive Orange Revolution or blood on the Maidan.
But we ought to pay a lot more attention, starting now. Why? Because Ukraine could be the key to a final, conclusive end to the Cold War. It could also be a model for global peace, prosperity, security and harmony.
Why is Ukraine so important? Because of its geographic, historical, linguistic and demographic position.
For most of the last millennium, Ukraine was a trading crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe, including Russia. It self-evidently wants to be so again.
Ukraine can never “get away” from Russia. They’re neighbors. They share the Black Sea, with all its ecological problems and opportunities for development and trade. Russia is Ukraine’s largest trading partner
and supplies a critical part of Ukraine’s energy.
Ukraine is also bound to Russia by language and history. It’s Russia’s “mother country.” The two nations speak closely related Slavic languages. Both use the Cyrillic alphabet, although each has some unique letters of its own.
Ukrainian and Russian have much more in common than French and English—the twin official languages of Canada. Their pronunciation is especially similar. Even a non-native Russian speaker like me can understand some Ukrainian if it’s spoken slowly enough. About a quarter of Ukraine’s population speaks
Russian. [search for “minorities”]
So the notion that Russia and the West are fighting to draw Ukraine into their respective “spheres of influence” is utter nonsense. Ukraine and Russia are already joined at the hip and always will be.
The question is not whether the West can perform unnecessary surgery and divide the Siamese twins. It’s whether Ukraine can restore its traditional role as a cultural and trading bridge among Russia, the broader Slavic community, and the West.
Trade is not a zero-sum game
. It enriches all participants, both financially and culturally. That’s why the West should have no objection to whatever trade deals Russia and Ukraine can strike. Likewise, Russia (and Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority) should have no objection to Ukraine’s forging closer ties with Europe.
The EU’s fundamental principle is inclusion, not exclusion. Its only relevant condition is “most favored nation” status. If Ukraine offers trade concessions to Russia, then if it joins the EU it must offer the same concessions to the rest of Europe. That rule doesn’t foster “spheres of influence.” It fosters fairness, openness and a level playing field among nations.
Russian needs more, not fewer, bridges and windows to the West. Peter the Great understood that over three centuries ago.
Both Russia and Ukraine need more, not fewer, trading partners. Russia’s chief trading partner now is Germany—a nation that invaded Russia twice in the last century and caused catastrophic losses. If Russia can trade so profitably with the most harmful enemy in its history, then it can let Ukraine get more prosperous and happy by trading with Europe. Some of the resulting wealth will inevitably find its way back to Russia.
In 2009, I wrote an essay about NATO
, suggesting that, with the Soviet Union’s collapse, it had fulfilled its purpose and could peacefully fade away. Its mission in Afghanistan, now coming to a close, may be its last hurrah. What geopolitics now needs is not a Western alliance designed to encircle and contain a hostile empire that no longer exists, but an inclusive organization designed to foster trade, cultural exchange, and open borders.
That is what the twenty-first century requires, if our species is to enjoy the peace and prosperity that the global economy now promises. Already trade has lifted
almost a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty. We want to continue that trend, not retard it by fighting among ourselves as if the last century had never happened and Metternich were the world’s leading political philosopher.
The world already has
a brilliant organization designed for that purpose. It’s called the European Union. If Poland can join, why not Ukraine and eventually Russia itself? The EU, not NATO, is the future of Europe, and Ukraine can help make this point.
The last reason why Ukraine is important is its big Russian-speaking minority. Slavic societies have not had much success in dealing fairly with minorities. The former Yugoslavia exploded in agony. Old Czechoslovakia split up into the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Bosnia is still a bleeding sore.
But there are lots of places for Ukraine to learn. Malaysia has big minorities of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians. So far, it has accommodated and treated them fairly well. But recently excessive affirmative action for native Malays, coupled with linguistic chauvinism, has set Malaysia back in international competition and caused many minority Malaysians to emigrate. Now smart Malaysians, including ethnic Malays, are talking about restoring everybody’s favorite second language—English—to its former place of prominence in schools and universities.
There are lessons for Ukraine here. Ukrainian is a minority language, spoken only in Ukraine. Just so, the “official” national language of Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia, is spoken only in Malaysia and (in a slightly different form) Indonesia. So before continuing to exclude Russian speakers by retaining Ukrainian as the sole official language, New Ukraine’s leaders might want to speak with Malaysians (and Indonesians, with their philosophy of Pancasila) about working with minorities.
For better or for worse, Russian is the Lingua Franca of the Slavic world. It wouldn’t hurt Ukrainian children to learn it, as well as English, or to make Russian a co-official language. It would only broaden their minds.
The world—and Russia—will be watching how newly free Ukraine deals with its large Russian-speaking minority. It it wants to be part of the EU eventually, and to maintain good relations with its chief trading partner, it had better deal with that minority fairly, humanely and equally.
The sniper murders on the Maidan were tragic and unnecessary, but now they are over. Ukrainians rose as one against the violence and took charge of their collective destiny. Now the task of Ukraine’s new leaders is to make sure that such violence and the motivation for it never recur.
Josef Stalin once said that the greatest human feeling is not love, but revenge. He crushed Ukraine. He also set the stage for pogroms and ethnic unrest all over the Eurasian land mass by deporting minorities, in their millions, hither and yon. Slavic people everywhere still have to throw off the yoke of Stalin’s terrible legacy and return to love.
In Ukraine, that’s going to take an extraordinary feat of leadership, healing, inclusiveness and cooperation. Yulia Tymoshenko had a chance to perform such feats during her short stint as prime minister in 2005. She was not self-evidently successful the first time.
Now she may have a second chance. If she does, she cannot fail this time. Or Ukraine must find someone better and more skilled. The opportunities that this second, mostly peaceful Ukrainian revolution presents are simply too tempting to pass up, for Ukraine, for the nascent Slavic commonwealth, and for our common species.
After thinking more about it, I would elevate my suggestion for dealing with the villains, including Yanukovych, from a suggestion to a strong recommendation. Ukraine should turn them all over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution under international standards.
Doing so would have two vital benefits. First, it would allow Ukraine to look forward, not back. Ukraine’s economy is not in good shape. The whole nation needs to focus on an economic renaissance, with both Russia and the West as midwives.
Second, trying and punishing criminals is too much like Stalin’s revenge. Let skilled foreigners, who have no bias but justice and have made careers out of trying and punishing tyrants and their murderous minions, do that job.
Now-free Ukrainians should focus on getting rich and living well, not getting even. The Slavic world has seen far too much getting even in its long and sorrowful history. It’s now time to cooperate, with each other and the West.
Most of the facts about Ukraine in this essay derive from my earlier essay
and the CIA’s online factbook page