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In Ukraine, Not All Uprisings Are Equal

Friends of peace and limited government shouldn't mistake which protests have followed a democratic course.
Donetsk uprising protest Lenin

Our president is stumbling out sanction after sanction while neoconservatives are striking empty poses on Ukraine. More interestingly, though, some notable advocates of limited government are defending the pro-Russian separatists, suggesting that their uprising is as valid if not more so than the pro-Western Euromaidan revolution. In The American Conservative last week James Carden put this view succinctly:

There are a few differences between the oft-praised Euro-Maidan and the pro-Russian demonstrations now taking place across the East; the first being that the latter have actually been peaceful (so far). The nature of the regimes against which the respective protests were aimed are different as well; one, [Viktor] Yanukovych’s, was democratically elected in 2010, the government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk… was imposed by acts of violence and coercion.

He also spotlights the fascist faction of the Maidan coalition that has caused anxiety. Other champions of self-determination such as former representative Ron Paul have added to the prosecessionist argument, pointing specifically to the referendum in Crimea as proof of its validity.

Carden’s conclusion that revolutions are unpredictable and that the United States should stay at arm’s length is spot on. Uprisings can be contradictory and almost necessarily involve sordid characters and acts. But to say that the pro-Russian movement is operating on a higher moral ground than the one in Kiev dangerously overlooks the real circumstances by which people have come to power on either side of the situation, and what the different groups have done with their power.

Yes, there was a vote in Crimea in March. During an armed occupation by foreign troops. And 123 percent of the population of Sevastopol exercised its right to vote. And some enthusiastic people even expressed their democratic impulses on multiple ballots. And there was no option to maintain the status quo relationship with Ukraine. Funny how these factors can sway public opinion in so little time. In February only 41 percent of Crimeans said they wanted closer ties with Russia.

The government that introduced that referendum was led by alleged gangster Sergey “The Goblin” Aksyonov (Really, how else do you get a name like “The Goblin”?), who came to power not with a vote but an armed occupation of Crimea’s parliament. Even if the vote were legitimate, Crimea is quintessentially under a mob-rule democracy, not a rule-of-law republic. The public had only 20 days to weigh its options before the majority decided to join a country that Freedom House ranks as “not free.” Everyone else just has to deal with it now.

The Maidan protests had a different trajectory. They began in Kiev and other cities in November because under the democratically elected Yanukovych Ukraine grew ever less democratic in practice. He rewrote parts of the constitution, weakening the parliament and strengthening himself. His cronyist policies left 45 million constituents scraping by with a GDP comparable to Utah’s. When people nonviolently protested this economic mismanagement, Yanukovych restricted their rights and his notorious security force, Berkut, started beating people.

“When 10,000 people came into the streets … the police attacked them,” Maidan participant Nikita Komaroff explained to me early in February. “They had to show that they are not slaves. That’s why 500,000 people came into the streets.” The movement was multipartisan, decentralized, and showed signs of a civic-minded push away from Ukraine’s historical and fatal relationship with strongmen leaders. “People support the opposition leaders,” said Komaroff, but “no one among the leaders can control Maidan, because there are a lot of different views.”

The government headed by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk came to power only after Yanukovych fled the country in February. National instability and a power were not what Maidan wanted, though. They wanted elections; one will take place next month. And Kiev’s leaders did not reach power in the way “The Goblin” did. Yatsenyuk and interim President Oleksandr Turchynov were already in the Ukrainian Parliament, which approved their temporary leadership positions until elections take place.

And the public isn’t giving these representatives any kind of free pass. “Now we understand that everything depends on us and we are ready to take responsibility” for scrutinizing political leaders, journalist and activist Oksana Romaniuk told me in March. It’s also worth noting that other opposition leaders, like the widely popular Vitali Klitschko, did not use the chaos to seize any political seat once the revolution ended.

And what about the violence?

Maidan conducted nonviolent protests for months, and its representatives demanded a quick, peaceful resolution when there was bloodshed. It is true, protesters killed around 20 law enforcement officials amid the chaos after Yanukovych, under whom Berkut ultimately killed hundreds of people, initiated violence. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Yanukovych made a peaceful revolution impossible.

Since the regime change, though, the Yatsenyuk administration has shown its committed opposition to the use of undue force by disbanding Berkut. And, the government has even offered the separatists in the east a chance to vote on secession if they would lay down their arms. The threat of systematic attacks by extremist elements of the government on ethnic Russians or other minorities like Jews, on which Russia’s invasion was officially justified, has been dismissed by both United Nations and  prominent Jewish leaders.

To call the separatist movement peaceful is disingenuous. In Crimea, heavily armed men setting up roadblocks, capturing airports, firing rifles over people’s heads, and kidnapping journalists and seizing their equipment was peaceful only in the sense that the victims did not resist. There have on this newly Russian territory been two (so far) unprovoked killings of ethnic Ukrainians.

To be fair, reports of separatists in the east taking hostages and wiring buildings with bombs in order to get their own referendum had not yet surfaced when Carden wrote his article. But they had already been taking buildings at gunpoint before making demands, not unlike their Crimean counterparts. Just a few hundred men, whom Ukraine’s intelligence agency says are taking orders from Moscow, are forcefully declaring “independence” for regions that overwhelmingly oppose unification with Russia.

All uprisings are not made equal. The ballot box is normally a great way to keep a country moving smoothly, but when rule of law cannot be maintained under despots or during unrest, the government cannot be the only source of democratic action. The violence-first-demands-later approach of the separatists is not the sign of a democratic movement. The revolutionaries and their interim leaders in Kiev, however, demonstrated a genuine interest in limited government from the beginning, and have continued to pursue peace first.

Zenon Evans is a staff writer and editor at Reason.