Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 April 2014

Saving Ukraine at the Ballot Box

[For other recent essays on the upcoming Ukrainian elections and their importance, click here. As in spring planting, the seeds of success must be sown early.]

In two recent essays (1 and 2), I have argued that Ukraine’s future—and its remaining whole—depend on next month’s elections. Restraining itself enough to avoid provoking a Russian invasion is just the first of Kiev’s difficult tasks. In addition, Kiev must reform Ukraine’s system of government and elect leaders satisfactory to a dominant majority of its population, especially in the disputed provinces. In so doing, Kiev must calm, not inflame, the fear, hate and resentment that have recently come to dominate Ukrainian politics.

Kiev must do all these things next month, at the ballot box. It must learn democracy by drinking from a fire hose. Or it must postpone the elections for another month or two and somehow hold the country together meanwhile.

These would be hard jobs for the most experienced and skilled politicians in any society. They are Herculean tasks. Nelson Mandela would struggle with them.

But Kiev has no choice. It must take them on and handle them successfully if it wishes to secure a promising future as a nation. The international community can help with money, advice and appropriate resolutions in international authorities, on an emergency basis.

The alternatives are war, partition, civil strife, or a long, slow decay into Brezhnevian stagnation and economic misery. After all they have suffered and how hard they have struggled so far, Ukrainians deserve better. But they are going to have to work as if possessed, and to do so more cleverly than ever before, in order actually to achieve something better.

The major steps Kiev has to take are obvious to anyone born and raised in a democratic society. First and foremost, it must marginalize, if not purge, Ukraine’s extremists, including both neo-Nazis and their dangerous Russophile counterparts. In the case of violent Russophiles, Kiev must proceed cautiously and non-violently, in order to avoid baiting the Russian bear menacing just over the border.

Pandering to those who want to punish, hobble or disadvantage any ethnic group will be a death sentence for Ukraine. It will produce only conflict, partition and misery. Cooler heads must prevail, even if that requires draconian detention of extremists.

No Hitler, Stalin or Assad must be given a chance to rise in Ukraine. The recent death of the über-bully Muzichkovo, whom this article (in Spanish) recently described, was a good start. No one but his family (if any) should miss him.

Second, ethnic Ukrainian pols must “move toward the center” and promote moderate, even-handed policies that intelligent and moderate Russophiles can support. Kiev has to build a new Ukraine for all the people whom it wishes to govern, including the large Russian-speaking minorities in Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa, among other provinces.

To do this, Kiev must restore Russian to its former status as an official language of Ukraine. Any pol who wants to win an election decisively is going to have to promise to do so sincerely. But the step should actually be taken only after the elections, immediately after the new government is formed, as part of the process of constitutional reform. Then it will be a sign, symbol and portent of permanent, real reform.

Third, Ukrainian patriots are going to have to be smart about how they run the elections and whom they propose as candidates. In order to win, they must run a single good, moderate candidate for each office. They must not split the moderate vote. If they do so, they will lose, and so will Ukraine. This is Politics 1A.

While there cannot—and should not—be any restrictions on who can run for office, Ukrainians leaders must select the best of their lot in every electoral region, put all their resources, media and financial aid behind that single person, and discourage all others from running. In stable democracies, this is the chief function of political parties: selecting the best single candidate from a pool of promising wannabes. It is generally understood that splitting the vote for a particular point of view will cause that point of view to lose.

So Ukrainian patriots are going to have to do the near-impossible; they are going to have to build effective political parties, or something like them, in a single month. They are going to have to move toward the center, no matter how much it hurts. And they are going to have to put forward a single good, moderate, balanced candidate for each office, who has relevant experience and diplomatic skill, and who can win.

Again, there is no other choice. Pro-Russian parties will get good advice from Moscow, which knows from recent experience how to win elections. Grizzled, old ex-Communists will know how political parties work and how to use them. Relatively inexperienced Ukrainian patriots will have to learn quickly, with help from international friends, especially Poland.

Finally, Kiev must use the elections as a first step in plenary constitutional reform. The elections themselves cannot redraft Ukraine’s constitution. That’s a complex, months-long task, which only a skilled and moderate representative assembly can perform. But Kiev must give voters throughout Ukraine a clear and simple choice among: (1) a strong central government; (2) a federal system with relatively autonomous provinces; and (3) independence for particular provinces like Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa that may want it. And both Kiev and the constitutional assembly (most likely the national parliament or a select committee of it) must honor the results of the election—including any vote for independence—in redrafting or revising Ukraine’s constitution.

As an abstract matter, these steps seem obvious. As a practical matter, they will be devilishly hard to take. But Ukraine’s future, especially its future as a multi-ethnic society, depends on how soon and how well Kiev takes them. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, and a thirsty Ukraine will be easy prey for the Russian bear.

As if all this were not hard enough, there’s yet more more step that Kiev must take to build a strong, stable, and prosperous Ukrainian nation. It must exorcise the ghost of Gumilyov and forge a new national mind set.

Lev Nikolaevich Gumilyov (Лев Никола́евич Гумилёв, 1912 - 1992) was a Soviet historical philosopher. According to my Russian colleagues, he propounded a theory of history based on ethnicity. He believed that different ethnic groups think differently: ethnic Russians this way, Jews that way, and Cossacks a third.

Whether he based this view on culture or genetics is unclear. But genetics had a strong influence on this thinking. He justified many of his views with oversimplified caricatures of evolution. Whatever its precise origin, ethnic determinism was the essence of Gumilyov’s grasp of peoples, cultures, and nations.

Gumilyov’s ideas can never build a stable, modern, multi-ethic society. His thinking probably influenced Stalin’s brutal deportation of native ethnic groups all over the Eurasian land mass. It also may have influenced Stalin’s near-genocide of Ukraine during the Soviet Union’s forced collectivization and run-up to history’s most brutal war.

These points may be speculation, but one thing is absolutely clear. This influential Russian thinker could never have written, as Thomas Jefferson did, that “all men are created equal.” Nor could he, as Genghis Khan did, have listened carefully, for several days, to a Jew and Christian disputing theology before him, and then have concluded by decreeing complete religious freedom throughout one of the greatest (and for its time, most advanced) empires in human history.

Perhaps Gumilyov’s influence is one reason why Stalin so stringently suppressed the Mongol Empire’s chronicles. The notion of basic equality of diverse ethnic groups—and of the ability of every person to learn, grow and improve—was absolutely foreign to the tyrannical nightmare that Stalin imposed upon Russia’s people and the vassals in what Russians now know as their “near-abroad.”

If Kiev and Ukrainian patriots want a modern, successful nation, they are going to have to exorcise the ghost of this twisted, unscientific thinker. Doing so will not be easy. For Gumilyov’s influence, with overtones of Russian ethnic superiority, is responsible for much of the misery that Russia has imposed (and is still imposing) on its neighbors and, as a consequence, on itself.

There is not much daylight between Gumilyov’s twisted historical philosophy and the Nazis’. Both flowed from a sense of grievance and strong undercurrents of narcissistic ethnic superiority, differing only on who is the ethnic top dog.

Culture is hardy and difficult to change. And Gumilyov’s nonsense is part of Russian culture, if not Slavic culture more generally. But Kiev must begin the process of its extirpation as soon as possible, with the first step of restoring Russian as an official language of Ukraine.

Language is a means of communicating, not a badge of racial superiority. And downgrading a major means of communicating—let alone one that works well throughout much of Eurasia—is plain stupid. Just ask the Malaysians, who now regret forsaking English and forcing students and citizens into exclusive use of a local language spoken only there and in Indonesia.

Footnote 1: I hope this word doesn’t sound condescending. I certainly don’t mean it to. But readers must understand that building an effective democracy is not an easy task, nor a quick one.

Next year we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the fount of Anglo-American democracy. That document arose from a revolt of the Barons against King John. So the Brits and we Yanks have a bit of a head start.

Footnote 2: I first heard Gumilyov’s name during my Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, in one of the late-night, vodka-fueled bull sessions that had become fashionable among Russian academics during the Soviet era and continued for years afterward. It was the first such session to which I had been invited, and I felt honored, as the sole Yank, to attend.

So I tried to be diplomatic and restrained. I gently poked holes in Gumilyov’s reasoning, and I think I quoted Jefferson. But I felt, deep down, that Gumilyov’s philosophy was not only utter rubbish, but dangerous. I still do.

People don’t think differently because of their genes or ethnic origins. Anyone of normal intelligence can be thought to think clearly. That’s what education is for. Today I regret not expressing myself more forcefully.



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