Ukraine: Popular Protests, Human Rights Reports, and the Push and Pull of Normative Competition

by Chris Borgen

Following up on my earlier posts on the normative aspects of the struggle concerning Ukraine and other former Soviet countries (1, 2, 3) in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the EU’s November summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine had been expected to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.  However, the Yanukovich regime backed out at the last minute. I want to focus on recent developments in what analysts are calling the “post-Vilnius” atmosphere and what they reflect about how states and citizens compete over norms.

First, there is the spread of protests from the relatively  pro-EU western Ukraine into the relatively pro-Russia eastern Ukraine.  Electoral maps of Ukraine (1, 2) show the ideological division and why Ukraine is an example of what I’ve called a systemic borderland.  The fact that the anti-government protests moving eastward across the map may be a sign of an increasing tilt towards following the original path of the government in seeking closer association with the EU.  But it also may be nothing more that the populace being tired and angry of the political gridlock and motivated by pictures of anti-protestor violence in the western cities. In this latter scenario, the citizens in eastern Ukraine still want to be more closely tied with Russia, they are just sick of their government brutalizing their own people, for whatever the reason. News reports about protests are one thing, but understanding why people are protesting is very important in situations concerning whether or not domestic norms are in play.

I haven’t seen any significant data on whether there is a deeper normative shift taking place or whether the eastern protests are primarily a reaction to offensive government tactics.

The second development of note is the broadening of the Russia/ EU tensions. The New York Times article on this issue from the January 28 online edition is well worth a full read. Here are a few key points related to the normative aspects of the post-Vilnius tensions:

The future of Ukraine and disagreements over how Russia and EU have approached this are the drivers of the current international bickering. (Keep in mind the domestic tensions are also between the Ukrainian citizens and their government over how the Ukrainian government reacted to protests.)  The international tensions stem from a concern about how Russia perceives its future, vis-à-vis Europe. From the Times:

Russia, [Michael Emerson, the former EU envoy to Moscow] said, needs to show that “all its talk about a ‘common European house’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok is not just a slogan and that Ukraine can be comfortable with both the E.U. and Russia.”

In short: is there one Europe or two?  Will Ukraine be a bridge uniting Europe or a border between two normatively distinct Europes?  A related issue is whether Russia even wants to explore deepening ties with the EU. The Times continues:

“Putin is far less optimistic now, and he believes Russia has no chance of being taken seriously by Europeans,” said Dmitri Trenin, an authority on Russian foreign policy and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The idea is no longer Russia joining Europe as an associate.”

I remember fifteen or twenty years ago, when there was talk of Russia one day joining the EU. Not so much of that, anymore.

The Times article also had a critical observation on the efficacy of the EU’s foreign policy:

Amanda Paul of the European Policy Center, a Brussels research body, said the modest slights and muffled criticisms directed at Mr. Putin only highlighted the European Union’s difficulty in forging a united and forceful position.

<snip>… European Union leaders, she added, “don’t know how to deal with Putin. They can’t deal with him: They are 28, and he is one.”

As I mentioned in a previous post of Ukraine, the EU has many lessons to learn about how to conduct an effective foreign policy in the Russian near abroad. One key lesson: “All politics is local.” (In this case, “All normative geopolitics is local.”)

The Times article also showed the ongoing attempts by the Putin administration to differentiate its normative views from those of the EU.  Moreover, this differentiation is also combined with a bit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” push-back:

Russia last week added to the tit-for-tat recriminations by issuing a lengthy report on what it said were human rights abuses in the European Union. The report scorned what it described as misguided European efforts to impose “an alien view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a norm of life and some kind of natural social phenomenon.”

For more on the report,which was issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs,  see this from Foreign Policy.

Finally, for a bit more push-back, President Putin set out this hypothetical,

… needling European Union officials for visiting an encampment of protesters in the center of Kiev. “Just imagine how our European partners would react during the crisis in, say, Greece or Cyprus if our foreign minister joined anti-European rallies there,” he said.

Nice shot. But it is important to keep in mind that the current crisis began when Putin, through a combination of threats to Ukraine and personal political incentives for Ukraine’s President Yanukovich, derailed a years-in-the-making,  all-but-signed, international agreement between the EU and Ukraine. The EU probably views the situation as one in which they are pushing back against Russian over-reach into the domestic affairs of Ukraine and the bilateral relationship between the EU and Ukraine.

Some closing thoughts: There are two overlapping domestic crises in Ukraine: one is about the future of Ukraine and the other is about Yanukovich’s brutal crackdown on protestors.  If the second is resolved, but not the first, then there may be a decrease in violence, but the underlying political conflict may well continue, as well as the international tensions.

The unanswered factual question of “what do the protests in eastern Ukraine actually show?” is probably the most important variable at this point.  If there is a real shift across Ukraine towards being pro-EU, then it will be relatively difficult for President Putin to prevent Ukraine from transforming from being a torn country, a systemic borderland, into a state integrated into the EU’s normative system (regardless as to whether it becomes a formal member of the EU). This would likely resolve both domestic crises, though it may exacerbate tensions between Russia and Ukraine. But if the eastern protests are almost solely about Yanukovich’s police tactics and the eastern populace is still largely pro-Russian integration, then the underlying domestic political crisis over Ukraine’s future is unlikely to be resolved soon and the international tit-for-tat will probably continue.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/01/30/ukraine-protests-policy-papers-push-pull-normative-competition/

3 Responses

  1. I hear what you are saying is that there is a question of whether the Eastern protests are affinity actions consistent with the basic idea of the Western protests or a more separate objection to oppression idea that may echo the Western protests to some extent.  Can they not be both – meaning a merged space with the common theme of the rejection of the status quo with which part emphasized as predominant being a moving roiling sea.  My fear is that Russia will push for repression in the East because of its fears of European expansion to its borders as a basic power move from a view that this is their frontyard.  But, I suspect that will not happen until after Sochi.
    Best,
    Ben

  2. Ben:  If what you are asking is whether the protests in eastern Ukraine can be about both the repressive tactics of the Yanukovich regime and also a desire to move towards a pro-EU, then the answer is yes, I would think that they are about both to some extent.

    Perhaps I should really say that my question is whether these protests are primarily about one or the other and,  if so, which one? If the main motivator for most of the protestors on the east is a response to the repressive tactics of the regime, then even when that immediate situation is resolved, the underlying long-term issue of whether Ukraine should integrate more with the EU, Russia, or neither that may continue to cause conflict. 

    If, however, the protestors in the east are also largely motivated by a new desire to move towards the EU, then  we may be seeing a change that will resolve this long-term  tension  as well as the immediate issue of the repressive tactics.

    All the best,

    Chris

  3. I hear you Chris.  One thing that occurs to me is the old Marxist idea of praxis – that whatever the basis for the Eastern protest the act of protesting itself changes the Eastern protestors.  Then even with the immediate removal of the reason for the protest – say the stopping of repression by the Ukraine government of the Western protests – a new abnormal is created.  That abnormal may comes from a sense of personal autonomy brought on by one’s individual reaction to the collective experience of the protesting – changing the individual.  Down that path things stay restive obviously.  Troubling times.
    Best,
    Ben

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