Odessa, Ukraine—The Ukrainian government and the president certainly have much to answer for. They permitted radicals to build a heavily armed encampment smack in the very heart of the nation’s capital and in violation of three separate court orders, all just a few yards away from the main government buildings. They have repeatedly given in to the intimidation of roving bands of armed and masked hooligans who, having now become a law unto themselves, endanger the lives of peaceful citizens. Just before the most recent spate of violence, during the “peaceful” interlude that followed the president’s last amnesty offer, for example, law enforcement officials stood by as a civic initiative known as “Kievans for a Clean City” was brutally assaulted near the Maidan.
The parliamentary political opposition (Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and Tyahnybok) also has much to answer for. Its contempt not just for the current constitution but for the parliamentary process itself, as manifested by its routine seizure of the Speaker’s podium to prevent parliament from functioning, has only further weakened and discredited the political process.
With power seemingly within reach, it has relied on ultraradical and openly neo-Nazi groups to achieve the kind of political control that it probably could not achieve through the ballot box. After all, just as the views of the political opposition have hardened with the escalation of this crisis, so have the attitudes of the supporters of President Yanukovych’s party, the Party of Regions, which remains the largest in the country. By carelessly embracing the slogan of revolution, however, it has unleashed forces that it is now powerless to control.
Finally, those Western governments which have taken it upon themselves to intervene in Ukraine’s internal political drama also have much to answer for. Their undisguised bias against the popularly elected Ukrainian government and insistence on mutually exclusive demands—protect freedoms and defend the rule of law, but do not defend freedoms and the rule of law if force must be used—has enervated the government, emboldened the opposition and given the most radical elements a free hand to create mischief. By failing to insist that the political opposition distance itself from the radicals, Western policies bear part of the responsibility for the escalation of violence.
There is, however, little sign that anyone in the West is actually listening to average Ukrainians, who are fed up with the current violence. More often than not, political officials, pundits and editorial boards cling firmly to their initial assessments of the unrest as a “tug-of-war” with Moscow, and remain oblivious to the danger that rise of violent nationalism on the wave of popular discontent with the government poses to Ukrainian democracy and national unity.
One reason for this is simply amnesia. Four generations have passed since fascism rose to power in the heart of Western Europe, sweeping aside the weak and ineffective popularly elected governments. It seems implausible for such a thing to happen in Europe today. Understandably, Europeans would much rather dwell on how postwar fascism in Italy, Spain and Portugal gradually became reconciled to the basic principles of liberalism and constitutional democracy, than to accept the idea that they are witnessing a slow-motion replay of the March on Rome organized by Italian fascists in 1922.
But the single most important reason Western governments cannot see the dangers to democracy in Ukraine is the assumption that simply by being against Russia one must at the same time support democratic values. For the United States, in particular, this is a recurring theme. During the Cold War the United States often provided crucial assistance to “friendly fascist” dictatorships in its struggle to prevent the expansion of Soviet communism. So today, even though communism is no longer a threat, and Russia is calling upon all parties to let Ukrainians sort out their own issues without external interference, many in the West continue to act as if the major problem in Ukrainian politics is Russian involvement. Of course, Russia’s deep cultural, linguistic and religious ties with Ukraine cannot be overlooked, but this only makes the absence of Russian politicians in Kiev during the current crisis stand in sharp contrast to the daily pilgrimages there of European and American emissaries.