The BBC World Service program Assignment (5.22.14) featured interviews with the Ukrainian militia – groups of ordinary civilians, many of them well-educated professionals, who are taking up arms to protect themselves from what they see is a real threat of invasion from Russia.
As the program went on it became clear that these militia were no so much concerned with Russia itself but the Russian-speaking inhabitants of the eastern part of Ukraine. One Ukrainian nationalist put it well. The Russian-speakers come from a long history of patriarchy and authoritarianism, and they do not share the Western world-view of Ukrainian-speakers who have been influenced by European culture for centuries. Western-oriented Ukrainians share the European values of tolerance, civility, integration, universal justice, and rule of law. Russians have no democratic history and have been under authoritarian rule since the times of the Tsars. The feudal system was only abolished in 1860 with the freeing of the serfs, so most Russians lived not only under authoritarian political rule but under the yoke of a repressive economic system.
Russian Ukrainians, however, will talk about their own fabled history – of the greatness of Imperial Russia, its defeat of Napoleon and Hitler, its traditions of patriotism, Orthodoxy, and conservative social values.
Although cultural issues have received the most press coverage, the issue of regional differences in wealth is significant. As can be seen from the chart below. the Eastern regions contribute half of the country’s GDP and perhaps more importantly nearly 70 percent of its industrial production and almost 60 percent of exports.
This means that the socio-cultural-political divisions between Eastern and Western Ukraine are hardened by harsh economic realities. Ukraine cannot afford to lose its East. The Russian-speaking regions are far better placed economically. Not only does the region surpass the West in economic productivity, but can easily and willingly be incorporated into a powerful and rapidly progressing Russia. A split Western Ukraine, despite loud declarations of solidarity by the EU, would uncomfortably fit within the union. It is weak economically, is ruled by an unstable if not chaotic government, and would meet few of the EU criteria for accession. In other words, Western Ukraine has a lot of stake in the current struggle.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Russian-speaking separatism is based primarily on economic issues. While the claims of the East that it contributes far more than it receives are valid, the balance sheet does not suggest economic servitude or gross exploitation. It is simply a contributing factor to an ethnic dispute.
The Balkan Wars are a good example, and they were fought more over sovereignty and ethno-religious-linguistic nationalism than economics. Tito during his long reign fought to control and suppress the religious, ethnic, and nationalist aspirations of the member states of Yugoslavia – Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and later Kosovo - and after his death, these aspirations fueled violent conflict. To make matters worse, there were divisions within the the new states. Bosnians and Bosnian Muslims. Croatia, a state which had supported Hitler in World War II and Serbia, a stalwart ally of the Soviet Union.
The wars were initially territorial in origin, but rapidly escalated into violent ethnic violence. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ originated during these wars, and the Serbs were accused of a genocidal attempt to eliminate non-Serbs from the region. Although economic considerations were never far beneath the surface, these wars were fought over ethnic sovereignty and historical precedent.
These ‘cultural’ conflicts have continued throughout the world, changing in origin and complexion, but based on religious and/or ethnic differences nonetheless. Factional and sectarian violence has been common in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Africa, and East Asia. Violence is increasing in the Western regions of China. Fox News reported today (5.22.14):
At least 31 people have died and 90 have been injured in an attack on an open-air market in the capital of Xinjiang province in western China Thursday, the latest in a series of violent incidents that the Chinese government has blamed on radical Muslim separatists.
Tibetans have fought against Han Chinese hegemony for decades, and tensions between the Mandarin-speaking North and the Cantonese-speaking South are never far from the surface.
The point is that the idea of the unified nation-state is being challenged everywhere and with it Western liberal democracy. Radical Muslims whether in Nigeria or Mindanao want Sharia Law. Al-Qaeda has made no attempts to hide its disdain for the West and its corrupt traditions and its desire to promote an Islamic Caliphate. At best Iraq will survive as a loose federalism defined by Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regions or power-centers.
America’s democracy is no longer the absolute model for reform. All US hopes for a progressive Middle East after the Arab Spring have been dashed, and country after country expresses its wishes to be sectional, sectarian, or factional. Russia is finally fed up with American arrogance and superciliousness, having been treated like a defeated, poor Third World country for twenty-five years. It is no coincidence that Putin’s Russia is increasingly nationalistic, proud, and resurgent; nor is it a surprise that he is autocratic, simply the next in a line of strong rulers since the Tsars.
Putin understands historical determinism and knows that ethnic allegiance is more powerful than assimilation into a watery democratic, multicultural soup. Not only does he see the ethnic imperatives being expressed in Ukraine, but he cannot help but notice the nationalistic trends in Western Europe. The Right and Far Right are not just freaky phenomena, but strong statements of cultural pride and historical reference. The French are very concerned about losing their national identity the origins of which are in ancient Gaul, Roncesvalles, and the battles against the Muslim invaders over 1000 years ago. France is becoming fractured along ethnic and religious lines, and its leaders are flummoxed and in disarray. They don’t know what to do.
America to these conservative international critics is now a Baroque democracy – all excess and showy display, but far from the respected values of the early Republic. Not only devout Muslims but Western and Orthodox Christians as well are questioning the secularism and materialism of their democracies which dilute longstanding and honored traditions and values.
India is perhaps the best example of how ethnic differences can be ignored or at least put aside. There are 28 states in India, most divided along linguistic and ethnic lines; and rarely if at all have their been conflicts between states. Minor disputes over trade, borders, and commerce; but nothing that has ever escalated into violence.
The violence in India has been sectarian. Hindus and Muslims have killed each other in rampages of violence ever since Partition; and as the Muslim population grows larger, as its proportion of the total increases, and as it becomes increasingly radicalized, violence is likely to increase. It is no surprise that a nationalistic Hindu party has won recent Parliamentary elections.
Ethnic and religious minorities reject inclusivity if it means a loss of identity. Americans cannot understand this because for over 200 years we have accepted all comers who have become quickly and easily assimilated. Most immigrants have come for economic reasons, are in the main Christian, and have no brief against the American system. Western Europe and the rest of the world are not like us.
Perhaps the institution of a worldwide liberal democracy is only a matter of time. Once economic inequalities are evened out and the benefits of a pluralistic, competitive, but cooperative nation-state are realized, ethnic and religious differences will subside. This, however, if it happens at all, will happen in the far distant future.