One of the strongest barriers to our understanding of world events is the tendency to view what happens in other countries as a sort of morality play in which good fights evil. This way of looking at the world encourages us to pick sides and interfere in conflicts which do not really concern us, in the process often making things worse.
The reactions to the deteriorating political situation in Ukraine are a case in point. Western politicians have lined up to condemn the Ukrainian government, and some have gone to Kyiv to stand with the protestors. The United States has even threatened Ukraine with economic sanctions. Now that several people have died in the latest round of violence, one may expect positions to harden still further and the condemnations of the Ukrainian government to increase.
Regardless of which side in Ukraine’s political dispute people in the West support, probably the best thing that they can do for that troubled country is to stay well out of the matter.
In reality, though, this is not a simple case of heroic ordinary people standing up to a dictatorial regime. Rather, the protests and riots in Ukraine represent a revolutionary attempt to usurp democratic authority against the wishes of at least half the country’s population.
The spark which set off the protests was the refusal by Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign an association agreement with the European Union. There are good reasons why such an agreement would be in Ukraine’s long-term interests. In return for the promise of eventual access to European markets and perhaps even EU membership, associating states are required to liberalize their economy and political system, something which any free-market liberal democrat would consider a desirable objective. But the long-term benefits from liberalization are often accompanied by painful short-term costs. For Ukraine, whose economy is already in trouble, this is problematic, especially as the EU is not offering any substantial financial support to help it cope with its current difficulties. One may dispute whether Yanukovich was right to refuse to sign the agreement, but his decision was understandable.
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It was also completely legitimate. Governments are free to sign or not sign treaties. There was no legal or moral obligation on Yanukovich to accept the association agreement. Foreign observers declared the election which brought him to power in 2010 to be free and fair. If Ukrainians dislike his foreign policy, they can vote against him at the next election, but they cannot say that the decision was illegal or an abuse of authority. Nor does the decision constitute a reason to demand immediate new parliamentary elections.
As for complaints that the government has acted oppressively in sending police to end the demonstrations, one has to wonder how many Western states would have shown similar tolerance during weeks of protests. Demonstrators have illegally occupied land and buildings, made speeches calling for revolution and inciting the army to mutiny, and launched fireworks, rocks, and Molotov cocktails at the police. The BBC News website shows a demonstrator, apparently one of many, carrying a handgun.
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Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt denounced new Ukrainian legislation restricting demonstrations as “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament in decades,” but the points which drew the strongest denunciations—such as a ban on demonstrators wearing helmets and a ban on tents on public land—are hardly out of line with laws in many Western states. Canada just last year prohibited the wearing of face masks by demonstrators, and cities across the U.S. sent in police to tear down the tent camps set up by Occupy protestors. The response of the Ukrainian government to the protests has in general been timid rather than oppressive.
We must hope that the instability in Ukraine does not worsen. To this end, we should avoid doing anything which might aggravate it. The feeling that Western states are on their side can only have encouraged the protestors, and thus contributed to the deteriorating situation. Further actions by Western politicians against the Ukrainian government (such as breaking diplomatic relations or imposing sanctions) will not make things better; more likely, they will do the opposite by encouraging the opposition’s belief that it can topple the state by undemocratic means.
Regardless of which side in Ukraine’s political dispute people in the West support, probably the best thing that they can do for that troubled country is to stay well out of the matter. If they can’t resist the temptation to intervene, they should be even-handed, and urge restraint not just on the government but also on the opposition.