Dear Ukraine protesters: Beware the Western sycophants

Dear EuroMaidan protesters,

It is with some admiration that I reflect on the movement you have created. You have, and ought to have, every right to take to the streets in opposition to your government, to air your grievances freely and peacefully. While in the context of the world’s most stable liberal democracies (a rarefied group of which my country, Canada, must be considered a member), the act of voting is fetishized, we must never forget that real democracy exists only inasmuch as the people are empowered to determine their own political, social, and economic destiny. The primary source of power that the people possess is their capacity for civil disobedience—including strikes, sit-ins, protests, direct action, occupations, and revolt. In fact, absent the exercise of this faculty by the masses, the enfranchisement of all adult citizens of countries like Canada, Great Britain, France, and the United States might never have come to fruition. The vote is an important component of democratic engagement, but instances of popular social upheaval, like EuroMaidan, are indispensable.

EuroMaidan protesters brave the cold while singing the Ukrainian national anthem in Kiev, in late December 2013. Photo: wikimedia commons / ReAl

EuroMaidan protesters brave the cold while singing the Ukrainian national anthem in Kiev, in late December 2013. Photo: wikimedia commons / ReAl

However, as I have observed EuroMaidan over the past few weeks, the presence of Western political elites among the protesters has caused me some concern. Among the taggers-along are Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, the prominent neoconservative and U.S. Republican senator John McCain, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland. While you may feel the ostensible support (and in some cases, bread and cookies) offered by these figures is welcome and encouraging, beware: their agenda may not conform with your own.

In my country, as in the U.S., condemnation of the Yanukovych government for the actions of police against protesters has been swift and harsh. In an interview with Evan Solomon of the CBC earlier this week, Conservative MP James Bezan not only used the revealing term “regime” in reference to the Yanukovych administration, but went as far as to label Ukraine’s national government a “cancer” that needed to be removed. (Bezan would attempt to claw back the statement moments later, but his message had already been delivered.) For its part, the U.S. government has already decided to impose financial sanctions against some of Ukraine’s high officials, and Canada’s federal government is seriously considering following suit. Let me be clear: I consider police crackdowns on peaceful protesters inexcusable, and laws that forbid peaceful protest unacceptable. Both are worthy of condemnation, if not sanctions and boycott, as a matter of principle. The problem is, the aforementioned Western political leaders can hardly be said to uphold the right to dissent as a matter of principle.

Before he donned the colours of the Ukrainian flag at a EuroMaidan protest, John Baird had compiled (to be polite) a very spotty record of support for those civil rights he sees fit to not only insist upon, but personally exercise, on the streets of Kiev. Baird is part of a government that offers financial and logistical support to the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, surpassed his electoral mandate in 2009 and now rules the West Bank, in effect, by decree. Much of the backing the PA receives from Canada pertains to “security”—meaning, foremost, the security of the state of Israel. Not only is the right of Palestinians in that territory to protest and dissent severely compromised—in some cases, Palestinian farmers are liable to encounter gunfire while tending their own fields.

Notoriously, Baird also openly sides with the monarchy in Bahrain, even going so far as to insinuate that peaceful pro-democracy protesters in that country are in league with terrorists. The brutal, deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters by the distinctly undemocratic Bahraini regime in 2011, therefore, was perfectly justifiable as far as Baird was concerned.

All the while, Baird’s government continues to facilitate Canadian exports of military-grade weapons to countries (Bahrain included) with little regard for human rights.

Like Baird, John McCain has an odd way of demonstrating his commitment to democracy and human rights—namely, by supporting various U.S. foreign policies throughout his career that have had the predictable consequence of undermining both of those values. Like Baird, he is a vociferous advocate of Israeli state power, and in 2011, he repeatedly described the Arab Spring uprisings as a “virus.” Though McCain criticized some of the torture policies of the Bush administration, he has repeatedly voted against the conferral of the right of habeas corpus on detainees at the U.S. military installation in Guantanamo. And although he ultimately supported the toppling of strongmen Moammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein from power (through military interventions that destroyed much of the infrastructure of their respective countries and left hundreds of thousands dead), he has also abided the reign of tyrants (including, but not limited to, Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Augusto Pinochet) when he judged that their brutal rule was benign or beneficial to U.S. economic interests and/or client states such as Israel.

Nuland has served as an advisor to both Democratic and Republican administrations since the 1990s, including the Bush administration, and is as complicit in hegemonic U.S. foreign policy as McCain.

Obviously, the Yanukovych government can hardly be considered a robust or salutary democracy. But neither can those of many U.S. allies, nor indeed the current incumbents of the highest offices in the U.S. and Canada. In my country, hundreds of protesters, most of them disinclined to engage in acts of property destruction, have been arrested since the 2010 G8 summit in Toronto—and authoritarian, paramilitary responses to peaceful blockades and direct actions, like the anti-fracking movement in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, have grabbed headlines. In the U.S., the Occupy movement, in many respects similar in character and appearance to EuroMaidan, frequently met with brutality from state authorities, most notoriously in Oakland, California. And we haven’t even begun to examine the actions of various other allied countries, including Turkey, where peaceful protests in Istanbul and other cities have met with violent repression, and authorities have monitored and restricted social media usage; Mexico, where last year, police cracked down on teacher-led protests against the government’s neoliberal education reforms; or Spain, where severe restrictions on protest came into effect about a month ago.

In none of those cases do I recall Canadian or U.S. politicians calling for sanctions against the culpable governments, or censuring those administrations for their anti-democratic behaviour.

Furthermore, while many of the basic institutions of liberal democracy are dysfunctional in Ukraine, this is no less the case in numerous countries that the U.S. and Canada consider allies, including Mexico (where vote-buying and other electoral irregularities occur frequently, as they do in many impoverished countries where elections are held). Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada are hardly immune to common failings of liberal democracy, including voter suppression and (particularly in the U.S. since the introduction of computerized voting) vote-flipping, fraud, and even stolen elections.

Aggregate all the evidence, and I think you will find a cogent case can be made, that these Western “leaders” are proponents of democracy and the right to protest only in circumstances in which they judge that the corporate and/or geopolitical interests they represent are unharmed by these “principles.” You may also find that they have no moral leg to stand on, judging by the sorry state of “democracy” and “liberty” in their own countries and among their allies. This leaves us with a crucial question to ponder: if these outsiders don’t genuinely care about the virtues they presently aver in Ukraine, what is their real agenda?

Economic integration with whom, for whom, and to what end?

It is my understanding that among the issues at play for the EuroMaidan protesters today, as for the partakers of the Orange Revolution of 2004, is economic integration, and specifically an apparent “tug of war” between Russia and the West. (I acknowledge, however, that this impression, commonly conveyed by the Western mainstream media, is likely superficial and oversimplified.) Many Ukrainians took to the streets after Yanukovych spurned, at the last minute, a pact with the European Union, in favour of continued economic integration with the regime of Russian strongmam Vladimir Putin. I can perfectly understand why, offered the choice between economic and political integration with the crude autocracy of Putin, or with the relatively liberal society of Western Europe, the latter is preferable to many Ukrainians. But I also suspect that therein lies the bulk of the Western meddlers’ highly partisan interest in your country’s destiny.

Canada’s government has recently signed off on a comprehensive “trade” deal with the European Union, and the U.S. is presently in the midst of negotiations to finalize a similar bilateral agreement. As is the wont of modern economic agreements of this nature, most of the details have been negotiated in secret, out of view of the public, presumably because there are several facets of the treaties to which large elements of the citizenry would strongly object. Among the provisions of Canada’s accord with the EU are extensions on pharmaceutical patents and other rules that effectively promote the free movement of capital, and ensure that multinational corporations receive extraordinary protections courtesy of the signatory states. Secretive multinational tribunals can bring lawsuits against governments, should they implement policies that may be construed as jeopardizing the profits those corporations (and their shareholders) anticipate. In this respect and others, “trade” deals of this nature are inimical with democracy and national sovereignty.

An extension to Ukraine of the trade area encompassed by the EU would mean an enlargement of the “go zone” for multinationals with headquarters in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Under the present circumstances, however, it would also mean a reduction in the scale of the market available to corporations (including state-owned Gazprom) with head offices in Putin’s Russia. As I have argued throughout this blog post, the aforementioned Western leaders cannot be said to consistently defend the interests of democracy and civil liberties on principle, nor do they necessarily oppose governments who violate that principle. On the other hand, the behaviour of these leaders, throughout history, is remarkably consistent where the druthers of Western-based multinational corporations and geopolitical advantage are concerned. Namely, when democracy and basic freedoms favour the aforementioned interests, the Bairds, Nulands, and McCains of the world instantly transform into some of liberty’s most ardent proponents. But when freedom is an obstacle to Western geopolitical and corporate hegemony, their zeal for liberty and popular rule is frequently displaced by a vociferous hostility.

Historically, revolutions have tended to be susceptible to hijacking, and the exploitation of popular grievances by political opportunists—among the examples that spring to mind are Lenin’s (and the Bolsheviks’) role in the Russian Revolution, Khomeini’s derailing of the Iranian Revolution, and even (to some extent) the maintenance of power by a tiny colonial elite following the war that liberated America from Great Britain.

At this point, it’s increasingly clear that the administration of Yanukovych fears for its future, as indicated by the resignation of Prime Minister Azarov, and the sudden revocation of the anti-protest laws recently rammed through the Verkhovna Rada.

But as you fill the streets, day and night, to make yourselves heard, be sure to keep a skeptical eye at all times on selectively freedom-loving sycophants from the West—particularly those who come bearing snacks.