The return of national identities and enemy stereotypes

Today (Saturday 29 November 2014) O҂O (“Oorlog is geen Oplossing NL”, War Is No Solution) organised a debate on the situation in Ukraine in Utrecht. There was an introductory talk by Professor Kees van der Pijl, who regularly publishes on this issue on the O҂O weblog, Oorlog is geen Oplossing NL, followed by three discussants, each representing a particular viewpoint represented in O҂O: one anarchist, one pacifist, one communist.

The meeting was concluded by a general discussion in which some fifteen others also participated, among them two Dutch citizens with an Ukrainian background, two people who have worked for shorter or longer periods in Ukraine, and Leon Wecke, conflict studies specialist from Radboud University Nijmegen.

Kees van der Pijl began his talk by recalling that the circle of acceptable opinion concerning Ukraine is narrowing all the time. Before you know it you have stepped outside the codex of accepted wisdom. What is accepted without much ado, on the other hand, is that the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, at the recent G 20 summit in Brisbane, greeted Vladimir Putin with the words, ‘I’ll shake you hand, but make sure get out of Ukraine’. Putin is said to have replied, ‘we are in fact not in Ukraine’.

According to Kees van der Pijl, both men were wrong in what they claimed.

Putin is wrong because Ukraine has always been part of Russia and the Soviet Union, respectively. In the Russian empire lived some 194 ethnic groups; under the tsars, all non-Russian minorities were repressed and if possible, russified. The Bolsheviks introduced a socialist nationality policy based on a combination of internationalism and autonomy. This approach, articulated notably by Lenin and Stalin, was developed also Austria-Hungary, but differently. There Otto Bauer was the main theorist, and his ideas were later applied in Yugoslavia.

Although the practice usually proved quite different from the theory, the idea is that of a fundamental equality between the peoples in a larger, multinational entity. This contrasts with the Western, liberal approach of national self-determination combined with rights for minorities. Right after the First World War this led to the establishment of a series of national states in what is now Central and Eastern Europe. However, in those national states majorities ruled the roost, and minorities depended for their freedoms on each majority. This continuously produces conflict between majority and minorities. When the United Nations asked Yugoslavia in 1979 how the rights of minorities in that country had been anchored, the reply was that the country did not recognise minorities. All communities had, in theory of course, equal rights.

The Bolsheviks advocated the idea of internationalism and autonomy also because they did not think that establishing small (national) states would be viable. To create a well-functioning economy you need a larger whole. After the collapse of the communist order, the Soviet Union was dissolved into 15 more or less national states which today suffer serious problems because of the presence on their territories of populations of different nationalities. In various places this has given rise to tensions and (armed) conflicts.

Until recently Ukraine was the republic that was most nostalgic for the Soviet era—only in Armenia this sentiment was stronger. That is not only a matter of nationalities, but also relates to the old Soviet economy which did not conform to the boundaries between the separate republics. The eastern Ukrainian Donbass, with its mines and heavy industry, was an economic heartland serving the entire Soviet Union and still today remains economically connected with other former Soviet republics. In fact it cannot exist without those past economic relations.

The French economist, Piketty, in his much-acclaimed Capitalism in the 21st Century has pointed out that in the West, in the period between 1910 and 1980 (so roughly in the period that the Soviet Union existed in the east), a middle class was formed which to some extent checked the unrestrained power of the economic propertied classes. This middle class is absent in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, The political and economic power struggle, notably in the successor states of the USSR, was therefore fought out mainly between oligarchs. In Russia this was certainly the case under Yeltsin , but Putin, using an authoritarian style of government, has been able to correct this. The continuing role of Russia as a raw material supplier has made this possible; of the status as an industrial world power, which it still was during the Soviet era, little remains. Indeed among the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), Russia is the weakest and is still suffering an economic decline whereas the other BRICS countries are mainly seen as ascendant economies.

Putin’s Eurasian Union is intended to create an alternative economic order in a wider space. One of the key architects of this project are the Russian railways under Yakunin. With support of Italian banks he is engaged in creating a vast infrastructural corridor from Russia across Central Asia to China, with high-speed rail links, but also data transmission, and a series of new urban centres along the route reminiscent of Silicon Valley.

Kees van der Pijl recognises the darker sides of the Eurasian ideology, such as a conservative religious undertow and a pronounced nationalist, if not racist agenda. The Eurasian idea is mainly focused on Belarus and Kazachstan. Ukraine plays a less prominent role in this project and for Russia the mostly antiquated Ukrainian economy in fact is not to important any longer.

Hilary Clinton has adopted a strongly antagonistic position towards the development of the Eurasian Union because she detected in it the contours of a new superpower. Instead she insists on the Western idea of (small) national states which should be fostered in this region too and which can be played off against each other.

That is how we get from Putin’s agenda to that of the West. You can call it ‘imperialist’, but that is an incomplete explanation. The issues according to Kees van der Pijl is that capitalism since 1980 has acquired a strongly financial, much less production-oriented nature. Ever since Reagan and Thatcher, a reorganisation of global production has been in progress in which the existence of national states currently poses potential obstacles. Thus the United States only produces some 15 percent of its consumption goods itself; the other 85 percent is produced elsewhere and this raises the issue of how to control this vast network. Here regime change enters the equation.

The ultimate goal is regime change in China, but this can only be achieved along the route running through Ukraine and Russia. The aforementioned Yakunin was one of the first Russians on the sanctions list, although he had nothing to do with Ukraine but a lot with the Eurasian Union. Economic sanctions constituted an important instrument to impose Western hegemony on other countries. A second instrument is the apparatus for ‘democracy promotion’, exploiting uprisings against incumbent governments according to the recipe of Gene Sharp; and finally it is the enormous military might of the United States – which is as strong on its own as all other military powers combined – that plays a role here.

Jan Bervoets presented the anarchistic perspective. He began with a correction: the ‘democracy promotion’ infrastructure would not stand a chance to exploit popular uprisings if there would not be a strong movement among the population to begin with. In Ukraine this was not in short supply. First because of the already mentioned fire-sale of the country’s economy to the oligarchs, but also because of the struggle among the oligarchs themselves following it, in which the contest over political power leads to the regular imprisonment of those losing elections by those winning them.

The Orange Revolution initially was an uprising against these abuses. That also holds for the Rose Revolution which terminate the Shevardnadze presidency in Georgia. It may well be that the West adroitly played into all of this, but in fact those in power dug their own graves. Yanukovych could have solved the Maidan insurrection in a civil way but instead clamped down on it with full force, using the anti-demonstration legislation introduced by Putin in Russia and which includes a no-strike clause for the trade unions, Everyone was immediately labelled an extremist and because of those measures the actual fascists gained more and more support of the population in their fight against the incumbent government because according to the official propaganda, they were supposedly leading the uprising.

Jan Bervoets emphasises that both in the Donetsk area in the east as in the once Austro-Hungarian west of the country, authoritarian and fascistoid groups wield power. The All-Russian Defence which rules the roost in the Donetsk area with the help of Russian volunteers indeed have little to do with Putin. They are the people who beat up Chechens in Moscow, and now also Ukrainians. For many Ukrainians the dangers comes from the east as well as from the west. Here in the Netherlands we must take the side of the average Ukrainian population, we cannot side with those who are in power in the east and neither for the people who run the show in the west. We must oppose all forms of military intervention and no longer put the blame for the entire situation with Putin.

Coming from a pacifist perspective Jan Schaake fully agreed with the call not to intervene military, but pacifism according to him includes more than that. It involves not just the rejection of violence but also the building of peace by seeking reconciliation and (economic) cooperation agreements. What is becoming apparent in the current situation in and around Ukraine is that ‘we’ in the West ever since the end of the Cold War have continued to think in terms of having to defend ourselves against a military threat from the East. Initially there was disarmament but always in such ways as to avoid disturbing the balance as we perceived it. Central and East European countries were encouraged to join NATO as military defence alliance and because of its absolute military dominance the West abandoned all reticence to begin ‘solving’ conflicts elsewhere in the world with military might. Parts of the peace movement and left political parties have joined the supposedly problem-solving capacity of military means and have gradually come to accept NATO and its military power, something they opposed so strongly during the Cold War.

Another area in which the peace movement abandoned its positions was to work for reconciliation among the different countries and peoples when, right after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there were opportunities to do so. All contacts between peace organisations in the West and official or dissident peace groups in the East dried up in the years after the Wall. During a peace conference in Poland five years ago, in which analysts and activists from Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Slovakia also participated, it became clear how much there is still to be done to reach a peace and reconciliation given what the different states and peoples did to each other in the recent past, and which is being rekindled again to fuel the fire of contemporary conflicts still further. 

Thirdly there is the pan-European Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which was founded in the middle of the Cold War in 1975 in Helsinki. It was neglected ever more in the past 25 years even though its concept of an inclusive security through (economic) cooperation might have prevented the problems caused by military and economic competition between NATO and EU on the one hand, and Russia and the prospective Eurasian Union on the other. Five years ago it was proposed by the peace movement to create, in analogy to the European Coal and Steel Community (after a series of France-German wars over these two resources), a Eurasian Union for Oil and Gas, so that economic policy would no longer be the continuation of war with other means.

From a communist perspective, Rik Min agrees with the idea of a collective security policy. In practice however he EU and NATO have consistently ignored Russia and China when it came to the veto’s cast by these countries in the UN Security Council, and have instead pursued regime change when it suited them. Because of this policy Russia and China feel geopolitically, militarily and economically threatened and the point has now been reached where they are drawing a line in the sand.

Thus in partitioning former Yugoslavia into small national states, the West has violated the Helsinki principles, which prescribe that national boundaries in Europe should be respected. Putin incidentally has violated them by annexing the Crimea and Rik Min therefore disagrees with that policy as well. He opposes national movements for secession, unless a secession comes about with purely non-violent means and with the consent of both sides. But the pattern of partitioning existing countries, stimulated by the West, continues. At this point in time it is happening in the Middle East and Rik Min would not be surprised if soon, it will be Indonesia’s turn too.

As far as economic cooperation is concerned, the West in the past has consciously sought not to import oil and gas from the Soviet Union and done what it could to ensure that communism would not be able to survive economically. Instead anti-democratic forces in Saudi Arabia were reinforced and this has led to creating a mortal danger which will need to be battled persistently in the years to come.

After the break it is emphasised in the discussion that a new Cold War presumes the de-humanization of a people. Recently Obama claimed that the Russians have never produced anything worthwhile, whilst McCain called Russia a gas station which you can avoid to fill up somewhere else. This sort of demonisation is generally the first step towards complete elimination. According to the speaker it is not a coincidence that this rhetorical battle is waged right at the time that the EU is under threat from all kinds of nationalist tendencies within member states at risk of dissolution. A common enemy may then produce new cohesion.

Leon Wecke adds to this from research into enemy stereotypes he conducted in the 1980s that in those days people distinguished between the Russian people and its leaders. In this perception the people were lazy and stupid; the leadership was aggressive, vicious and sly.

A media student proposes not only to blog original analyses but also to deconstruct mainstream media messages and especially the images used. There are already groups of students involved in this and he expresses his readiness to establish contact with them.

Other useful contacts might be with the committee of family members of the victims of MH17. From some of them disappointment has been aired that the death of their loved ones has led to raising tension in the relations with Russia. At the time there were also many relatives of people who died in the attacks on the WTC towers on 9/11, who took the lead in the protests against the war in Afghanistan because the death of their loved ones should not entail the deaths of others. They felt that their grief was being exploited.

Other calls from the audience were to ensure that both sides are being heard, and that we too must take steps to hear the other side time and again, and to ensure we continue a dialogue with Ukrainians and Russians living in the Netherlands.

Jan Schaake

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