It seems the UK government are going to join Angela Merkel in boycotting Euro 2012 games held in Ukraine. I’m not going to attempt to unravel the ins and outs of Ukrainian politics since the nation became independent, but it is worth asking what exactly prompted this decision to be made. Ultimately, the move seems to be less to do with human rights than with geopolitics and a very particular conception of one-size-fits-all ‘democracy’.
Yulia Tymoshenko, currently imprisoned in Kharkiv after her hotly-disputed conviction for abusing power during her period of prime ministerial office, was one half of the Western-friendly image of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004/ 2005. While her ally Viktor Yuschenko provided the narrative about the unscrupulousness of the Soviet-successor establishment, Tymoshenko represented the promise of the future: a smartly-dressed middle-aged businesswoman who could help her country’s politics transcend Soviet-era bad habits and pull it into line with neighbouring Ryanair Europe. You could tell that this was the case, because Michael Palin went to visit her, her daughter and her son-in-law – a biker from Leeds! – when making his documentary New Europe. No more bread rationing, no more poisoning, no more mismanagement of nuclear power stations: Ukraine was conspicuously westernising.
Of course, the Orange Revolution was just one of several of ‘colour revolutions’ occurring in the former USSR during the noughties. In Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution against Gorbachev-era dinosaur Eduard Shevardnadze: this regime change was received even more uncritically by the West than Tymoshenko and Yuschenko’s in Ukraine. The sense that the one-time peripheral states of the Soviet Union were striving to throw off Russian influence and open themselves up as stag-party destinations gained weight when Russia and a Saakashvili-led Georgia fought a brief war over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. No-one but long-time Caucasus watchers understood the South Ossetian conflict in Washington or London, but the press (and, with massive predictability, Bernard Henri-Lévy) were firmly of the opinion that the Georgians were in the right. Given the dubiousness of much of Saakashvili’s activities – he’s been accused of many of the things which Shevardnadze was removed from power for – it seems clear that the kneejerk backing of the underdog arose largely out of Western anti-Russian sentiments, which generally show themselves eventually to be anti-communist sentiments.
Ukraine is read according to the same principles as Georgia in this area. Although Moscow itself is critical of Kiev’s treatment of Tymoschenko, there’s still clearly an associative logic at work in Western Europe and the US that maps her with democratic (ie. non-Russian, non-communist) values of transparency, electoral fairness and political altruism. She’s long been the beneficiary of a generic humanism that frankly can’t be bothered to ask itself what the outcomes of her period of office were for people who actually live in Ukraine or what the circumstances were which brought incipient pariah Viktor Yanukovych to power in 2010. It’s European politics as appraised by Sting & Trudie Styler, a set of circumstances where the phrase ‘human rights’ acts as a veto on any attempt at comprehensive analysis.
As I said in my discussion of the Panorama documentary, the hosting of the tournament in Poland and Ukraine is premised entirely on the modernisation – in other words, the assenting to neoliberal consensus – of both countries. The Tymoschenko issue represents, in a slightly convoluted way, this not happening. While reserving judgement on whether or not the British government have made the correct choice here (and they may well have done, albeit for the wrong reasons) for them to have sent representatives to Donetsk while Tymoshenko remains in prison would, on some level, have felt for them like a betrayal of Thatcher-era Cold Warriors.
Posted by Joe Kennedy