Most of us will have noticed that the Ukrainians are presently lighting up their capital city of Kiev. We hope the worst is over, but there is no sign yet of a political breakthrough, let alone a resolution to those deeper divisions underpinning Ukraine’s present predicament. These events are sad and shocking. Sad because over forty people have so far been killed and shocking because Ukraine is just the other side of Poland and we had thought this sort of violence in Europe had ended with the Yugoslav wars. Shocking also because the pictures look decidedly apocalyptic.
The Wall Street Journal has some corkers: blazing fires throwing menacing shadows across the night; rubble and litter obliterating former roads and plazas; broken household items, including beds, piled up into barricades; emblematic flag-waving, silhouetted by burning tyres and other incendiaries; massed ranks of paramilitary police; hooded, brick-wielding protesters. There is also an image of the obligatory child with flowers attached to her head – though we might wonder what sort of parent takes their child to such a protest.
These events bear all the hallmarks of righteous 21st Century protest: superficially characterised as pro-democracy and anti-corruption on one side, and the opposites of those things on the other. But it’s not really as simple as that – never is.
How, therefore, should we view these events? Is it a case of legitimate protest being cruelly and unacceptably oppressed by an illegitimate government? Or a case of legitimate, though badly handled, attempts by the elected government to maintain law and order in the face of insurrection? Or is it a mash-up of the two? As ever, it’s probably a mix of everything.
But the natural response is to side with the ‘people’ and look for a bogeyman. President Viktor Yanukovych fits the bill. Not only is he tainted by the charge of electoral fraud, from his campaign to become president in 2004, but he is now also being criticised for looking to the East for political patronage rather than to the West. To some this is heresy. Indeed, it was his rejection, in the latter half of 2013, of closer association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia that kicked the whole thing off.
Siding with Russia, especially with President Putin, is not the action of someone trying to win friends in the West. He is reported to have been speaking to Putin on the phone while this latest bout was in full swing – though only for a short period, one presumes. The Sochi Winter Olympics might be centre stage right now, but they are taking place before a backdrop of government corruption, gay persecution, media suppression and international shenanigans over Syria. Some regimes, it is thought, are just bad, and Western liberals would not shed tears if they fell.
A similar sentiment influenced the West’s response to President Assad of Syria. In that wretched country a popular protest for more democracy and liberty soon turned into a full-blown civil war. Thousands of people have been killed, and many more forced into refugee camps in neighbouring countries; towns and cities have been devastated. It is hard not to see Assad as anything other than a murderous tyrant, and I don’t propose to excuse any of his or his regime’s actions; but, right or wrong, the Syrian war began as a fight between the legitimate government – however obnoxious – and popular protest.
We might also look at what happened elsewhere in the so-called Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt. In 2012 protests began in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in much the same manner as those in Ukraine: namely, some people demonstrating against what they perceived to be an arbitrary president doing what they didn’t want him to do. And we know where that led. As undesirable as President Morsi and his pals in the Muslim Brotherhood might have been, they were democratically elected and thus legitimately entitled to exercise power. The people were not. Yet the protests led to (even agitated for) a military coup and the deposition of the first elected president of Egypt – elections took place before that, but were generally considered shams. This is not quite what the democrats had in mind.
Examples of history, while not blueprints for the future, should not be ignored. Both Egypt and Syria show how popular revolutions can have consequences that are both unintended and undesirable. There are other warnings: The French and Bolshevik revolutions were instigated in the name of the people, but produced obnoxious outcomes. It is true that there have been revolutions generally considered to be both benign and beneficial: not least our own Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the European revolutions of 1989 against Communism. But the situation in Ukraine does not compare.
Even though the government in Ukraine is dealing with the situation horrendously, and is resorting to violence that gives every impression of being barbarous and criminal; and even though Putin’s influence is decidedly malign, it is hard to see how the protesters can justify their own actions. Their own violence, though provoked, is counter-productive and provoking their own deaths. Protest is legitimate, but there are moral and practical limits to how far people can take protest: and that, one might argue, falls short of the use of barricades, bricks, petrol bombs and even guns. They are destroying things too, and, while it is for them to decide how far they go in pursuit of their aims, one cannot help wondering if there wasn’t a better way. Parliament is still sitting, after all, and they were never at the stage where insurrection was the only option left to them.
There’s another image that should give us pause for thought. There’s a photo of another female – though this time an adult – with some sort of floral arrangement wrapped around what looks like a skiing helmet. She’s come prepared, obviously. But rather than attending the protest for peaceful purposes, she is photographed distributing bricks to similarly clad females. Violence in defence of life and property is one thing, but this is not a defensive posture, especially when you add Molotov cocktails to the mix. This is not the kind of peaceful protest advocated by Mahatma Ghandi.
Protesters, no matter the morality of their cause, should understand that when they take up arms against the state, they should expect the state to hit back. And that’s precisely what has happened, to devastating and tragic effect. The state has bigger sticks, guns and bombs. Syria perfectly demonstrated this little maxim.
The tragedy, though, is not just that people have been killed; it is that things might get so much worse. The best outcome would be for the protesters to go home and for fresh elections to be held, as the protesters indeed ask. But the government does not seem to want to do that just yet. And who can blame them: they have the authority of the ballot box; the protesters do not. What is democracy if determined protesters can depose a government and effectively nullify legitimate election results? It is a tragedy that it is taking these deaths to negate the government’s legitimacy.
But we are where we are and restraint will be key to a satisfactory outcome. Not just from the government, but also from those who are stretching the meaning of legitimate protest – ten of those who have been killed were police officers. Violence and disorder hide a multitude of other sins, and it is the people who will suffer most. If this spreads, if this turns to civil war, it is ordinary people who will pay the heaviest price. External forces also need to show restraint. While certain European leaders moot sanctions, the Russians suggest a coup is in progress. This is not helpful.
And as we remember the centenary of the First World War, we should perhaps draw a lesson from what can happen when local disputes are allowed to escalate into full-scale international conflagrations. The last thing we need right now is for Russia and the EU to lock horns; rather they need to put Ukraine and the Ukrainian people first, and do whatever is necessary to quell the growing discontent.