Tag Archives: Western mistakes

Remembering Alexei Navalny and helping Ukraine

by Peter Emerson

In view of Alexei Navalny’s heroic life and tragic death, and the continuing horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is important to understand our own mistakes in Russia’s recent history. To quote the Russian/Ukrainian philosopher, Vladimir Vernadsky, “everything is connected,” (‘всё связано’).

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union of 1985, this was the end of the Cold War. In theory, it should have led to demobilisation and huge waves of disarmament. But no; and in fact, since that time, NATO has expanded. Many western ‘experts’ went to Moscow to advise him, not on peace, but on privatisation and democratisation, with a focus on, respectively, the free market and majoritarianism, i.e., majority voting/majority rule. But the original Russian translation of this term was ‘большевизм’ bolshevism; (a replacement has now been concocted, majoritarnost).

Two years later, ethno-religious clashes erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. The headline in Moscow’s main newspaper Pravda was “Вот наш Ольстер,” (‘Vot nash Olster’), “This is our Northern Ireland.” In effect, the right of self-determination was a cause of conflict. After all, if Ireland can leave the UK, or if Azerbaijan can leave the USSR, then Northern Ireland could leave Ireland, or an enclave like Nagorno-Karabakh could leave Azerbaijan. And the Caucasus was full of enclaves. “Why should I be in the minority in your state when you could be in the minority in mine?” asked one Vladimir Gligorov in Yugoslavia, a land of one language, two scripts, three religions, four …. five republics, and six neighbours. And like the famous Russian dolls, the matrioshki, inside every majority there was yet another minority.

In those days, the Soviet Union was still a one-party state. In their first elections of 1989, therefore, every candidate was a communist… but there were green, red, blue, brown – all sorts of communists. And those who might otherwise have been in a Green Party were members of ‘the ecological union.’ They held a meeting in Moscow, in 1989, and there I met Zurab Zhvania from Georgia. We spoke about consensus and all that, and so, one year later, he invited me to go to Tbilisi to give a press conference (in Russian, my Georgian isn’t) on power-sharing.

Now initially, the West supported the maintenance of the Soviet Union, not least because of the oil in Siberia. We wanted this stuff to be available, which requires inter alia political stability. And we wanted it to be cheap, so we advised firstly, a free market – Friedman economics. But no country should ever adopt a free market at a time of deficits in the basics, like food. The law was passed; lots of unscrupulous went to the supermarket, bought up everything, set up a table outside the metro stations, and sold it all at ten times the price. Hence the oligarchs. Secondly, the West advised a freely convertible currency, i.e., Russia should float the rouble. It sank. And Russian oil was cheap.

But back to self-determination. There soon followed disturbances for independence in Georgia, Azerbaijan – Ukraine initially was relatively quiet – and then, in 1991, in Lithuania, which was different, apparently; it was more ‘European’. At this point, the West made a huge mistake: we ditched the reformer, Gorbachev, in favour of the unprincipled Boris Yeltsin. Like his English namesake, this man had one thing only (apart from a love of the vodka): ambition. Originally, he was Gorbachev’s protégé, but when given the chance, he wanted power. Over what? Oh anything, or even everything. Over the Soviet Union? And when Yeltsin realised his path to power would be better served by supporting the break-away republics, he did so. And he could become not a Soviet, only a Russian tsar.

Now Russia, in a way, was similar to England, in that in their day, both ruled empires, and both thought God was on their side. Russia with its capital of Moscow, was the third Rome. Christianity, it was argued, started in Rome, moved to Constantinople, and the one true faith was now in Moscow. And with God on its side, Russia survived the invasion of Poland during the Times of Troubles, at the turn of the 17th Century; defeated Sweden in 1709, when Peter the Great won the Battle of Poltava (which is in today’s Ukraine); halted Napoléon at the Battle of Borodino in 1812 (and hence Tchaikovsky’s famous overture); and won the Great Patriotic War against Hitler. And today, the same good God was going to save Russia from the advances of NATO.

Now just as many a Moscovite regarded the two adjectives – Russian and Soviet – as very similar, so too (in days not that long gone), many Londoners regarded the words British and English as all but synonymous. When the Soviet Union was established, or concocted, the Bolsheviks decided that every republic should have its ‘own’ communist party; hence the Georgian, the Lithuanian, etc. But there wasn’t a Russian one. Oops. In 1989, the ‘error’ was realised; the Russian Communist Party held its founding congress. Yeltsin, now a rival to Gorbachev, stood for the presidency. But Gorbachev’s man won, and Yeltsin lost. The latter then ripped up his party card and converted to Orthodox Christianity. It was just so obvious that the man was ambitious, and nothing else. Sadly, the western media, including The Irish Times, decided to support him. (Western journalists often shared the same block of flats, and frequently the same interpretation of events.)

(By this time, my co-author and I had written an article in Moscow News on consensus, which had created a huge amount of interest… in Russia! As a result, we published a number of other essays, not least one in Novy Mir (New World), Russia’s leading literary journal with a print run of three million, where we appeared alongside Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The Irish Times, I’m afraid, was just not interested in these achievements of another Irishman.)

In 1991, then, Yeltsin took over, not as a Soviet imperialist, but as a Russian one. The last thing he wanted was the right of self-determination to be popular among the various peoples in Russia, the Sumi and Komi up near the Arctic, the Tartars and Maris on the western side of the Urals, and all the various folk in the Northern Caucasus, let alone the dozens in Siberia, the Buryats near Lake Baikal or the Chukchis on the Pacific coast, for example. (In fact, the authorities themselves weren’t sure how many different peoples there were; the official figure was between 60 and 120). So Russia opposed any attempt by any people to hold a referendum and break away – matrioshki nationalism, they called it – and hence Yeltsin’s first war in Chechnya in 1994.

The Caucasus was in a mess. There were Georgians (Orthodox) in Chechnya (Muslim), fighting the Russians (Orthodox); Russians and Chechens in Abkhazia (Muslim) fighting the Georgians. And Russia was also supporting another enclave, South Ossetia, where everyone was Orthodox. Violence, as always, was breeding yet more violence. There followed a second war in Chechnya in 1999, and hence too Yeltsin’s own protégé, Vladimir Putin.

The Soviet Union was now dead, all the republics were now independent, including in ’91 Ukraine, a country of mainly Christian Slavs – with just a few minorities like the Crimean Tatars. Unlike Russia, other lands were also mainly Slav: Poland, Czechoslovakia (as was), Bulgaria and, not least, Yugoslavia (the southern Slavs).

Unfortunately, the West again advised majoritarianism – and Ukraine now divided into two: a Russian-speaking Orthodox ‘half’ versus a Ukrainian-speaking Catholic/Uniate ‘half’. That is what often happens when decisions are taken in binary votes, and when elections are conducted in the two-round system. The divisions worsened. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko won the presidential election, by a whisker, and he was pro-West; in the spontaneous celebrations which followed in Kiev, some were flying confederate flags, others the Georgian flag, and many were sleeping in (spontaneous?) tents supplied from abroad. But Yushchenko was the president and, with the polity of majority rule, he could ensure Ukraine was pro-West. (At the time, I wrote in Fortnight that Ukraine could perhaps join the EU, but not NATO. As happens so often in human history, one side fails to understand how the other lot think.)

Six years later, the other Viktor, Yushchenko’s old rival, Yanukovich won, again by a whisker; oh dear, was the reaction; he was pro-Russia, and it was still majority rule. The protests in Maidan turned violent. Only in 2014 did the West change its mind: democracy was not majority rule after all, apparently; as in Northern Ireland, it was (sort of) decided that it was now power-sharing. An EU (EC as was) delegation rushed over to Kiev but…too late; on the day it arrived, Yanukovich ran into exile.

Meanwhile, the newly independent Georgia had also divided, only to fight two ethno-wars in the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – (there was very nearly another war in Adjara) – and all over self-determination. There then followed the civil war, after which Eduard Shevardnadze restored some order. Next, in 2004, came the so-called velvet revolution, which wasn’t a revolution at all, really, but the elections did involve a changing of the guard. Shevardnadze, however, was still in his dacha in Tbilisi, not far from the hotel where I and other OSCE election observers were staying. Georgia now had a new prime minister, (my colleague), Zurab Zhvania. In 2005, he died. In a gas leak? That was the official line, but many Georgians thought he’d been murdered on the orders of the then President, Mikhail Saakashvili. They also believed that if Zhvania had still been in office on 1st August 2008, Georgia would not have gone to war with Russia in South Ossetia. But war it was. One week later – with Putin in Beijing for the Olympics – Russia recorded its first casualties. He rushed home. That war was started not only by Putin.

He now saw that referendums could be, er, useful. Russia had opposed the referendum in Kosova – yet more matrioshki nationalism – but he changed his mind (again) to support the 2006 referendum for self-determination in South Ossetia (and ignored the other referendum in Ahalgori, a Georgian enclave in South Ossetia, which voted in the opposite way). It was a repetition of what had happened in Croatia where in 1991 the Catholics had voted for independence while, one week earlier, the Orthodox had voted for the opposite; and where, in the name of democracy, partners in and adult children of mixed relationships were just, well, disenfranchised,

Back to Ukraine where, in 2014, Putin’s man Yanukovich had lost and run away, and Putin doesn’t like losing.  So he wanted Crimea to reverse its 1991 referendum decision in support of Ukraine and instead to declare independence – (from Ukraine); (such a collective vacillation is also catered for in the Belfast Agreement – the seven-year ’never-end-em’). After the shambolic, ‘little green men’ referendum in Crimea, there followed other dubious polls in Donetsk and Luhansk, and 2014, you will recall, was also the year of Scotland’s referendum. A Russian separatist in Luhansk ‘justified’ his call to arms with the word Shotlandiya Шотландия, (Scotland). “Everything is [indeed] connected.”

After yet more violence, Putin wanted Donetsk and Luhansk, not to be independent at all, but to be incorporated – (into Russia). He’d changed his mind again, (like the EU). So in 2022 more referendums were held and, supposedly, apparently, and democratically, a majority of the people had also changed their minds, and quite by chance of course, in exactly the same way. This is all democratic nonsense; in many instances, as shown by Napoléon, Hitler and countless others, majority votes in referendums, parliaments and party congresses, identify not the will of the given electorate, but the will of the author(s) of the question. (Brexit, of course, a glaring exception, backfired.)

Can we never question our obsession with the 2,500-year-old binary vote? Even on problems that are obviously multi-optional, must everything be reduced/distorted, either into a dichotomy, as in the 2016 Brexit referendum, or to a number of binary questions, as in Theresa May’s indicative (sic) votes? In a similar fashion, the Good Friday Agreement says that Northern Ireland has to be either British or Irish; that, as in Croatia and South Ossetia, there are these two possibilities, only; that other options, for a compromise and/or peace, or an interregnum, whatever, shall not even exist let alone be on the ballot paper.

And the world blunders on, despite the facts that:

+ “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999);

+ the same now applies to the conflict in Ukraine;

+ both Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska want, and Anatoly Bibilov in South Ossetia wanted, yet more binary referendums, as do Sinn Féin and the SNP in their bailiwicks, as well as some Catalans, Taiwanese, Baluchis, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Finally, and, even more importantly,

+ majoritarianism, the majority coalition in the Knesset, is (not the but) a cause of the horrible violence that is now the cause of so much suffering and devastation in the Middle East.

So, what is to be done now? As before but now more urgently than ever, we must support those many Russians who are opposing the war, in particular, Yulia Navalnaya. The British and US ambassadors recently laid flowers at the memorial for her husband. They should do more to help (and, as I suggested earlier) support all forms of non-violent anti-war demonstrations, if only by their presence.

In addition, it would be wise to acknowledge some of our earlier mistakes, and to change those of our political structure which Putin is also using for his military aims: simplistic electoral systems and false-flag binary referendums.

As mentioned above, another complication comes from the war in the Middle East. Here too, we should question the western political structures which, inter alia, allow Netanyahu in the name of democracy to rule with Israel’s most extreme right-wing majority coalition ever! Suffice also to say that the ideal, a one-state solution, could not work if it were to be based on majority voting; if only from that point of view, we should be seeking a more inclusive form of decision-making.

A sense of urgency is required, not least because Putin is now trying to woo the Palestinians (and the ‘global South’), implying that he opposes (Israeli) violence and that his ‘special military operation’ is an act of defence against western militarism as seen, in his eyes, by the expansion of NATO.

It is important, of course – and I wrote as a pacifist who therefore believes in the principle of minimum force – to continue to supply arms and ammunitions. In many horrible instances of violence – when someone attacks a child, for example, or a violent man attacks a woman – the true pacifist will never do nothing: he/she should always intervene, if need be by putting their own body between the attacker and the victim. But we should also emphasise our long-term aspirations for a world without nuclear weapons; for a world where military expenditures are reduced; for a world in which all nations, and all parties/factions, cooperate to confront the existential problems of Climate Change.