Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Will Western Powers Stand With the Ukrainian Opposition, Or Stand By As Democracy Flounders?

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Ukrainian President Yanukovych withdrew from EU trade talks in favor of Russian support, sparking protests

Secretary of State John Kerry today reaffirmed the importance of U.S. and E.U. support for the Ukrainian Opposition at the Munich Security Conference:

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the United States and European Union support the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of stronger ties with the West…’They have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.’

However, Ukrainian opposition leaders urged U.S. and EU leaders on Friday to go beyond vocal support for their fight and demand a halt to violence they blame on Yanukovich.

“What we need is not just declarations but a very clear action plan – how to fix the problem and fix the violence, how to investigate all these killings and abductions and tortures,” protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

The uncompromising standoff, which turned violent after Yanukovich passed a short-lived law barring protests in early January, prompted a rare intervention from the military on Friday.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday in a statement on Twitter that he was “very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis” and added that the “military must remain neutral,” but said he was encouraged by the eventual repeal of the anti-protest law.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, helping stoke violent anti-government protests and displaying double standards.

“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Lavrov said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine’s future lay in Europe.

The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovich ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into its sphere of influence.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Munich on Saturday, Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called on Ukranians to distance themselves from the opposition, saying there was a “big misunderstanding between the government and the opposition.”

“For the first time in our country, we can see extremist groups,” he said.

Excuse us Minister Lavrov if I scoff at democracy lessons from the Russian Foreign minister…

The Ukrainian opposition is correct, they need more than words to support their movement towards more effective democratic governance. They need capacity building and organizational support from established democratic governments. Most importantly, they need economic support.

There are already disturbing trends emerging from these protests, namely military intervention and the introduction of an extremist narrative. The world has seen what happens when Western Powers “stand with” democratic movements (but really just stand by and offer little but supportive words). Over time, legitimate grievances and moderate oppositions are overrun by opportunistic extremist forces–the extremist narrative becomes self-fulfilling if a democratic movement is not nurtured. We have seen this sequence of events play out in Syria and Egypt in recent years; do not think because of Ukraine’s geography the opposition is less susceptible to anti-Western forces.

It is important to understand that those opposing democratic movements will not sit back and do nothing. While Russia may be less wealthy than the U.S. or the E.U., its political structure allows it more autonomy in foreign affairs. Despite pressing domestic needs, the Kremlin has proven willing to support to the Ukrainian government (in the form of a $15 billion loan, although this loan was recently suspended due to the inability of Yanukavych to squash his opponents).

Recognizing authoritarian regimes are not accountable when it comes to spending, Western powers must be more pragmatic and timely in their support. In conflict resolution, the thinking used to be solidify economic reforms, then focus on political reforms; history has proven this approach to be ineffectual.

Economic gains from democratization tend to be long term–innovation takes time. Demanding immediate economic reform in return for political support can undermine a budding democratic movement. If things get worse off right away (due to economic reforms), a new democratic regime may lose popular support (think the IMF demanding painful subsidy cuts as a condition for supporting the Morsi regime).

The only condition for economically supporting a democratic movement should be a commitment to pluralistic, inclusive democracy and human rights. Failing to support the Ukrainian opposition in this way means the champions of democracy are not learning from past failures. Furthermore, continued Western inaction could inadvertently undermine future democratic movements. Why would people who desire democratic freedoms risk reprisal if they have do not believe they will receive external support? While democratic freedoms are important, rational people will not oppose their government if they do not believe they have a legitimate chance of seeing their goals achieved.

Update: EU ready with “substantial financial aid” one Ukraine sets up its new government, following the ouster of Yanukovych.

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