Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Georgia on my mind

The blogosphere has noticed that something is going on in Ukraine. As it turns out, I have been studying Ukrainian ethnic politics for the last couple of years, so I have been following this very closely. From what I can tell, it appears that the regional/ethnic political divide which I have been writing about has played a very important part in the election. The tide seems to have turned against the Russians, and the Ukrainians seem to have passed the tipping point. Kuchma will not be able to pass the torch to Yanukovich without substantial help from Moscow. And it looks to me that Putin is not willing to plunge over the brink.

I was at a conference on Ukraine a month ago in Ottawa and there was a panel discussion about possible election outcomes. Everyone assumed that Kuchma would use as much influence as possible to sway the populace away from voting for Yushchenko, but that this would not be enough and in the end he would have to falsify the election results in order to declare Yanukovich the winner. In this they appear to have been right on the money.

People differed on what would happen next. First there was the question of whether the fraudulent results would be close enough to convince the populace that they could make a difference by hitting the streets and protesting. They seem to have been close enough, because people are turning out in huge numbers.

This being the case, there were predictions that Kiev would be closed from the west and flooded with folks from the East, in order to suppress popular demonstrations in the capital. This has happened.

There were disagreements on how much Russia would intervene. So far, Putin has congratulated Yanukovich as the winner and then recanted and said that he only offered him congratulations based on early returns and that he is waiting to see who is officially declared the winner. There are also very credible reports of Russian spetznats troops in Ukrainian military uniforms deployed in the capital to protect Kuchma, but so far to my knowledge there has not been any shooting. Russian intervention is still an open question, but it appears that Putin is playing it cautious.

There was also disagreement at the conference about the way that the Ukrainian military would respond. The consensus was that Kuchma had carefully selected which units would be allowed to mobilize, on the basis of their supposed loyalty to him. Some predicted massacres of protestors, but this has not happened yet. So far, protestors have replayed scenes from the US in the sixties, pinning orange flags (for Yushchenko) and flowers on the soldiers and their guns. The defense minister has been playing it cool and has said that there would be no mass mobilization to maintain order. Given this reaction, I would suppose that the opposition has been talking to the defense minister, as Yeltsin and his people talked to important officers during the hardliner coup. I would have thought the Russians would be aware of such dangers, but perhaps the defense minister is more firmly in Kuchma's corner than he appears to be at the moment. And, in a move that I did not hear predicted at the conference, some Ukrainian militia units have been swearing loyalty oaths to Yushchenko. It is not clear how widespread this phenomenon is, but I naturally suppose that it is most prominent in the west. If this is so (and I see no reason to believe otherwise), this could mean civil war if people start shooting.

Another event I did not see predicted at the conference is that the Greek Catholic church has declared Yushchenko the winner. To my knowledge, other churches have not taken sides. It will be interesting if they do.

My prediction? I think we will see a Georgia-style popular revolution with little violence. The real question is whether Putin's support will embolden Kuchma (and to a lesser extent, Yanukovich), but for the moment at least Putin seems to be wary of throwing Russia's full weight behind their boys in Ukraine. Without such support, the spark for conflict would have to come from the west, which I think is less likely.

But I guess we will see.


PS - To my imaginary readers: My apologies for the lack of links. Work schedule permitting, I will put more in later.

PPS - To my professors who thought that my conclusions were too strong: How ya like me now?

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