It’s been a long time, but once again Ukraine is on our radar screen. Now maybe a few more of my countrymen can find it on a map. Or at least might be curious enough to Google it.
I’ve written about Ukraine on these pages whenever I thought people might pay attention. Despite being blessed with legendarily fertile soil at the crossroads of Europe, the country has lived through centuries of conquest, suffering and misery.
From Germany in the West to Russia in the East, great powers have fought over Ukraine time and time again, leaving a legacy of bloodshed and slaughter. Stalin’s planned famine in 1933 starved millions of Ukrainians through outright confiscation of their grain and sending it all to Mother Russia. If you have the stomach for it, read Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”, or watch the film “Mr. Jones” when it comes out this November. But only if you can bear the thought of orphaned children so hungry they resorted to cannibalism.
Ukraine gained independence shortly after the Soviet Empire collapsed. But unlike its former socialist brethren of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the benefits of Western freedom and democracy have been slow in coming. The yoke of Soviet oppression, the bureaucratic Soviet mentality, the Russian occupation of the Donbas in the east, and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea have placed incredible barriers in the way of Ukrainian progress. Liberalism and markets are struggling with cronyism and oligarchs in a battle for Ukraine’s future.
There are signs of hope. A recent piece from the Atlantic Council spoke of Ukraine’s libertarian revolution. According to its author, an American reporter writing from Kiev, the newly elected president has cut the number of ministries by a third, is opening up farm land to private ownership, and turning over crony-run state monopolies to private investment.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister even told one newspaper “Eventually, people will stop noticing the government. They’ll be using it like they use Uber or Booking.com — only when they need it.” Pretty heady stuff for a post-communist country.
That said, Ukraine remains mired in corruption. Transparency International ranks it 120th in the world (tying with Liberia, Mali and Malawi). Ukrainians have been inured to corruption for so long they notice it no more than a fish notices water. The replacement of cronyism and the rule of brute power with market liberalism and the rule of law is a vital step in the transformation of Ukraine from kleptocracy to democracy.
That’s why our president’s attempted strong-arming of their president is so tragic. Russia and China are authoritarian regimes, dedicating to show the world that a government bound by a constitution that protects individual rights and civil liberties brings nothing but anarchy and chaos.
Ukrainian liberals look to the west, and to America specifically, for bold opposition and leadership in this battle of ideas. Our president’s attempted manipulation of their president for his own political purposes, if that is in fact what has happened, is a page from Ukraine’s old Soviet playbook. A book Ukrainians had hoped to bury long ago.
I have followed Eastern Europe for a long time. My ancestors were forced to live there by Catherine the Great. They fled to America to stay ahead of “pogroms”, state-sanctioned attacks against Jews by the Tsar. Or the Bolsheviks. Or the Polish Army. Or the White Army. Or the Red Army. One loses track after a while.
Over the past two decades, I’ve lived and taught in Russia. I’ve spent a day walking through Chernobyl. I’ve stood in the Maidan Square where Ukraine’s Orange Revolution took place, and had dinner in a McDonalds on the Crimean Peninsula before the Russians took it over. I’ve been to Ukraine too many times to count. Through it all, I’ve been watching for signs and hoping for the Americanization of Ukraine. Not the transformation of Ukraine into a cookie-cutter version of my country, or some sort of lackey puppet state, but a truly independent sovereign nation with a meaningful constitution, fair elections, markets, property rights, and most importantly the rule of law.
Now, however, America has elected a billionaire president who shows no qualms about using the power of his office to enrich himself and damage his political opponents. At this moment in history, hopes for the Americanization of Ukraine look naïve. We should worry about the Ukrainization of America.
Barry Fagin is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar to the Russian Federation. His views are his alone. Readers may contact Dr. Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.