Democracy Lab

Rescue Me!

Vladimir Putin is justifying his grab for Crimea with the need to protect the "Russian-speaking population" in Ukraine. But why stop there?

Dear President Putin:

I am sorely in need of your protection. Please help.

Now, I know this might seem a bit unexpected coming from an American -- a "pure American," as you might say. By which I mean that there's not a drop of Russian blood in my body.

But that, you see, is not the whole story. It so happens that I speak your language. I started studying Russian in high school, and I've been studying it for years since then. Maybe I'm not entirely fluent, but I know enough to follow the news.

Which is why I was so thrilled to read the Kremlin's statement about your March 1 phone call with President Obama: "Vladimir Putin stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas." What a wonderfully elastic phrase: "the Russian-speaking population."

The context, of course, is your latest decision to use troops from the Black Sea Fleet to take over Crimea. You're afraid that the new Ukrainian government -- those guys who overthrew your friend, Viktor Yanukovych -- want to start killing people who speak Russian. That's why you spoke of a Ukrainian "threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots" in your authorization-of-force request to the upper house of the Russian parliament on the same day you spoke with Obama.

Now I realize that there's not much real evidence that the new government in Kiev has been planning anything like an assault on Russians (or Russian speakers) in the country. Luckily for you, the revolutionary parliament, keen on rolling back Yanukovych-era legislation, quickly passed a law enshrining Ukrainian as the only state language. So you seized the opportunity to stir up fears that the culture of those "compatriots" is under threat.

To be sure, the shaky Ukrainian interim government is barely in a position to clean up the streets of the capital, much less implement a change in language policy. But their backers have been tearing down a lot of Lenin statues. After all, he was a Russian-speaker, right? (Even though he looks like a bit of a Tartar.) Now there's a threat for you.

In any event, stating that your main concern in Ukraine is guarding the interests of the "Russian-speaking population" is a masterstroke. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians speak some Russian, so just about anyone in the country is potentially in a position to enjoy your protection.

And as for potential threats to us Russian speakers in the rest of the world -- well, they're everywhere, aren't they? When my wife and I were speaking Russian in the supermarket checkout line today, I noticed the cashier giving us dirty looks. And we're not alone. There are thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants in the suburbs of Washington. If we all gather together in one place, we'd definitely qualify as a "population."

OK, so maybe we aren't "compatriots," strictly speaking. But you've got an easy solution for that too -- you can just give us passports! As freshly minted citizens, we'll be fully entitled to your protection.

You know what I'm talking about, right? I've seen those images of your officials handing out shiny new Russian passports to members of Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police who are the main folks responsible for the killing of 88 demonstrators in the center of Kiev during the EuroMaidan Revolution. Now, if anyone knows how to take care of themselves, surely it's these guys -- yet you're going out of your way to guarantee that crucial extra bit of insurance. Could there be any better example of the broad, generous Russian soul at work?

Let's give credit where credit is due: You are the architect of these policies, Vladimir Vladimirovich. You and no one else. The ruling elite in Moscow is simply following your lead, frantically scrambling onto the anti-Ukrainian bandwagon as fast as they can. (They're right not to care if war results; after all, it's not their kids who will be doing the fighting.) As for ordinary Russians -- well, for some reason they aren't quite so keen. One poll conducted last week showed that 73 percent of your own citizens think that Russian intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine is a bad idea.

Wimps. These are obviously people who, unlike their beleaguered compatriots in Ukraine, don't have to live under the constant psychological pressure of talk about "Europe" and "rule of law" and "human rights." That's because you, Mr. President, have done such a marvelous job of protecting Russians at home -- not only in other countries. You've protected them from all those people in the opposition who threaten Russia with their unpleasant talk about safeguarding the environment and fighting corruption. (You call them "extremists" -- the same way that your government now reflexively refers to members of Ukraine's pro-European government as "fascists.") You've protected them from people like Roman Khabarov, that ex-cop who has made a career out of exposing police abuses. And you even protected the Olympics against those scary girls from Pussy Riot. I truly shiver whenever I see them.

You've even extended your protection to President Yanukovych himself (though you have made it clear you don't think much of him, since he turned out to be such a big softie). After he turned up in Russia a few days ago, he held a big press conference in which he insisted, among other things, that he's still Ukraine's president. In case anyone had doubts about whose protection he was under, he spoke Russian throughout the entire event. Now there's a man who has earned his passport.

Not that you should stop there, of course, Mr. Putin. There are plenty of other Russian speakers around the world yearning to be free. Take London -- or should I say "Londongrad"? The Russian-speaking population there already numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Most importantly of all, that's where Yanukovych's main financial backer, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, spent $221 million on the world's most expensive apartment a few years back. Some Ukrainians are already sniffing around, trying to figure out how he earned the money -- and how much he gave Yanukovych to keep him afloat. Keep tabs on this, Mr. President; this guy might very well need some protection from those Ukrainian "fascists."

Just like all of those oligarchs who serve you back home -- you know, those 110 men who control 35 percent of the country's entire wealth? They know that they have you to thank. Without you, they'd be no one. They'd be nothing.

OK, I get it. You have bigger fish to fry. You're preparing to set up this new organization called the "Eurasian Union," a sort of small-scale reprise of the old USSR that will bring together Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. (You offered Yanukovych those big bucks to back away from closer association with the European Union because you wanted to see Ukraine join up too.)

One of the best things about this new grouping is that many of the people in these allied countries speak Russian. So it will be that much easier to give them passports, demand that their rights be guarded, and offer all the other sorts of protection that Russian speakers in Crimea have already come to expect. Not bad, Mr. President. The best policies are ones that can be used against your friends -- as well as your enemies. (That may be why the Kazakh government recently decided to stress publicly that it wants the Eurasian Union to remain limited to trade and economic matters. Good luck with that, eh?)

As for me, you know how to get in touch. We American Russian-speakers don't need a lot of protection -- I'm sure that a couple of spetsnaz around the neighborhood would do fine. But please don't wait too long. The English-speaking majority around here is starting to get a bit uppity.

Photo: VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

A House Still Divided

Ukraine's problems go deeper than President Yanukovych.

The news from Ukraine earlier this week was horrific. Government security forces gunned down dozens of protestors on the streets of Kiev. There was talk of civil war.

Friday dawned in a somewhat more hopeful mood. Three European Union negotiators announced that they had agreed with President Viktor Yanukovych on a deal to end the crisis. With Yanukovych on the defensive, the anti-government protestors pressed their advantage -- and the government fell. Opposition lawmakers took over parliament, passing a law that freed ex-presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko from jail. Yanukovych and many of his allies fled Kiev.  On Sunday, the new parliament appointed its new speaker, a Tymoshenko ally, to the post of interim president.

I hope that everything ends well. I have to confess, though, that I’m inclined to be skeptical.

A few weeks ago two Reuters journalists published a report that looked into Ukraine’s regional divides. In the city of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, they found plenty of people who approved wholeheartedly of the anti-government protests, and who wanted to see Ukraine firmly in the Western camp. But in Yanukovych’s home city of Donetsk, in the East, the reporters came across a steelworker named Viktor Chernov, who described the turmoil in Kiev as “a disgrace.” “If they go on for another two weeks,” Chernov commented, “there will be no pensions, no wages, the whole economy will collapse.” Then there was Tatiana Orekhova, a professor of economics at Donetsk University: “Now we have to take a break and seek a compromise that balances our ties with Europe and with Russia.… We need both markets, and the protesters’ slogans provide no answers.”

Now it’s possible that Chernov and Orekhova are ill-informed, or members of some stubborn, irrelevant minority, or in the pay of Vladimir Putin. But I’m inclined to doubt it. That Ukraine trades heavily with both Europe and Russia is objectively true; some 60 percent of the country’s trade goes to the republics of the former USSR, and most of its manufactured exports come from the heavily industrialized East. Many Eastern Ukrainians have close personal ties with Russia and other ex-Soviet territories. Europe is far away. And as for corruption -- well, is the opposition really immune?

In 2010, there were enough Ukrainians like these to give Yanukovych a victory in that year’s presidential election. (He won with 49 percent over main rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who garnered 45 percent.) His political machine, the Party of Regions, increased its support among the electorate enough to win parliamentary elections in 2012. It may well be that those who supported President Yanukovych then no longer do, especially now that he’s shown himself willing to kill his compatriots. There are many indications that his legitimacy is ebbing by the day.

But his party isn’t going to disappear even if the president leaves the scene. That’s because it has deep roots in the East. The Ukrainians who voted for Yanukovych aren’t going anywhere, and I’m really not convinced that they side with the protesters in the center of Kiev. A poll published earlier this month by the respected Ukrainian pollster SOCIS showed that Yanukovych still enjoyed the highest approval rating of any potential candidate for the presidency (about 21 percent). To be sure, the combined forces of the opposition would still be enough to beat him (assuming they could agree on a common candidate, hardly a given in the highly fractious world of Ukrainian politics). Over the years, though, presidential candidates from the East have been able to count on core support of some 30-40 percent of the Ukrainian electorate. I doubt this will change even if Yanukovych resigns from the presidency (which, by the way, I'd be happy to see him do -- it would probably spare everyone a lot of anguish).

Some observers argue that the long-standing regional divides are exaggerated or “oversimplified.” They say that Ukrainians are unified in their desire to vanquish the corruption and authoritarianism embodied by the president. According to this interpretation, the Ukrainian people are entirely unanimous in their struggle against the arrogance of one man: Yanukovych. By this logic, the fact that Ukrainians in the East haven’t taken to the streets in his defense means that they tacitly approve of the opposition’s handling of events. (Actually they have: the photo above shows members of the party demonstrating in Donetsk in December. But never mind.)

If this view is correct, removing Yanukovych will solve everything. As soon as he’s gone, Ukraine can move forward to the wholehearted embrace of Western norms. Corruption will evaporate. Those Ukrainians who want to maintain closer ties with Russia will quietly acquiesce. Everything will be fine.

This is wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that Ukrainians have deeply divergent views on the future of the country, and that these views are strongly shaped by which part of the country they’re from. And since these views are strongly reinforced by geopolitics, language, and economics, the differences are not momentary, but deeply rooted. That Eastern Ukrainians aren’t taking to the streets in defense of the government is about as meaningful as the fact that Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of disgruntled conservatives in the United States didn’t take to the streets to demonstrate against 1960s radicals.

To emphasize these complexities is not -- as some would claim -- to deny Ukraine’s viability as a state. Nor does it imply that Ukraine ought to be carved up into constituent units. Ukraine is perfectly capable of continuing its existence as a state if it can find an institutional framework that will take its political diversity into account -- instead of lurching from one crisis to the next as it has over the past 15 years.

Ukraine’s regional differences do, however, mean that we should take the possibility of civil conflict seriously. Reporters in Kiev have already described the rise of quasi-military “self-defense units” among the protesters. What has gone largely unremarked is the rise of similar paramilitary groups in the East. As this map by political observer Sergii Gorbachev shows, Yanukovych’s political machine has been busily standing up “militia units” throughout the East, sometimes with overt ties to local gangland structures. Here, for example, is a Russian-language interview with one ex-convict who’s setting up his own pro-Yanukovych militia in the Eastern city of Kharkov. He won’t say how many members the new group has, but he’s quite open about its aims: “I’m preparing my population and my people for war.”

(This, by the way, is just the sort of thing that Russia has been happy to exploit for its own purposes in other parts of the ex-Soviet Union, exploiting conflicts to establish separatist territories in Georgia and Moldova that are happy to do Moscow’s bidding.)

In any case, acknowledging the existing divides, rather than trying to wish them away, is the first step to developing viable reforms. I’m glad to hear that there is once again talk of constitutional change in Kiev, and that many members of the political elite understand that a new system is needed. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, the first purpose of any such reform should be to limit the powers of the president and give greater powers to parliament.) Believing in the myth of happy national unity despite all evidence to the contrary, however, is not the way to go.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images