The escalation of the Crimean crisis has all but obscured the events in the Ukraine during November 2013 – February 2014 that led to it and which alone make it intelligible. What took place during this period was a revolution in the full sense of the word, i.e. without the qualifying adjectives such as ‘velvet’, ‘colour’, etc., that we have become accustomed to. What aligns this revolution with the classical revolutions of modernity was the radical affirmation of popular sovereignty or constituent power as the foundation of any constituted structure of authority.
While the ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet states during 2003-2005 are best understood as inter-elite conflicts with an element of popular participation, the Euromaidan movement is clearly irreducible to the support for any established political force or orientation. The much-discussed tensions between the movement and the parliamentary opposition parties throughout the standoff with the Yanukovich regime testify to the autonomous operation of constituent power, which as of now has not yet exhausted itself in any new regime.
While this makes the Ukrainian revolution quite a bit messier than the largely peaceful transitions of power in 1989-91 or 2003-2005, it is important to recognize that this very messiness, including the much lamented use of violence, expresses what contemporary Europe may have largely forgotten but which remains at the foundation of its democratic principles: the locus of sovereignty is not the state let alone the current holders of state power but the people, that constitutes itself and exists as a political subject, rather than as a statistical population, only to the extent that it is capable of asserting this sovereignty directly and immediately.
It is this revolutionary expression of popular sovereignty that has been perceived in Russia as both an affront and a threat, leading to the deterioration of Russian-Ukrainian relations to the lowest level in post-Soviet history. From its very beginning, the Putin regime has been extremely wary of and hostile to revolutions. Indeed, the consolidation of authoritarianism since the second term of the Putin presidency has been interpreted as the reaction to the Orange Revolution of 2004 that sought to make the regime revolution-proof, crushing any ‘extra-systemic’ challenge at its root.
The fear-mongering against the ‘orange opposition’ that in 2005 gave the world the dubious pleasure of the Nashi movement is presently taken to an even more hysterical level in the anti-Ukrainian propaganda, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the very fascism it claims to find on the streets of Kiev. The extreme aversion to revolution also explains Putin’s somewhat paradoxical attitude to the deposed Yanukovich, who is vehemently affirmed as ‘legitimate president’ while being treated with barely disguised contempt.
We may also recall that during the period of colour revolutions Russia persistently supported the discredited regimes whose ‘pro-Russian’ commitments were at best dubious. This support was less a matter of tactical or strategic interests than of acting on a fundamental, if somewhat paradoxical, principle that any authority, once established, is sacrosanct, while revolution is always illegitimate. Since the Ukrainian revolution marks the most definitive and decisive abrogation of this principle in post-Soviet history, the Russian response is similarly unprecedented in its scope and intensity.
The irony of the moment is that Russia does not oppose what it perceives as revolutionary chaos and turmoil in the Ukraine with any stabilizing measures, but with a radical ‘revolutionization’ of the post-Soviet territorial order, whose basic principle was the inviolability of the administrative borders of the former Soviet republics. While before December 1991 there were numerous debates on and scenarios of border revisions in case of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, after the Belovezha Treaties the principle of the territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states was virtually uncontested, simultaneously delegitimizing any border revisionism along the lines of the Yugoslav scenario and making possible separatist conflicts in Chechnya, Transdniestria, Abkhazia, etc.
Until 2008 Russia upheld this principle, being both staunch in its own campaigns against separatism and lukewarm in its support for pro-Russian separatist movements in other post-Soviet states. The 2008 war in Georgia that resulted in Russia’s recognition of the independence of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia marked the first stage of the breakdown of the post-Soviet territorial order. The ongoing annexation of Crimea arguably marks its complete annulment.
It is hardly surprising that no post-Soviet state has so far supported Russia’s actions in Crimea, which seem to respond to the ‘revolutionary chaos’ in Kiev with fostering counter-revolutionary chaos in the entire region. While few were happy with the previous order, which, after all, had no other foundation than the internal administrative structure of the Soviet Union, this order nonetheless proved effective during the two decades of its existence, making the post-Soviet space a far less conflictual space than many had feared in 1991. Its dissolution transforms the region into a zone of anomie, in which every square inch of territory is in principle contestable. A Greater Russia has become possible, as has, of course, a lesser Russia, and the same applies to all post-Soviet states.
If Russia’s actions are grasped as a counter-revolutionary insurgency that responds to the domestic revolution in the Ukraine by the revolutionization of the post-Soviet order, we ought not to be surprised to see it resort to exactly the same methods that were used to prevent the ‘orange revolution’ in Russia. The occupation of Crimea by unknown soldiers without insignia is not that different from the takeover of corporations by front companies such as Baikal Finance Group or the takeover of oppositional parties by friendly ‘political technologists’. The reliance on ‘unidentified’ people and forces for the more shadowy and dubious operations is merely one of the many strategies of scheming and plotting that were developed in contemporary Russia as the substitute for political practice.
What is taking place today is merely the belated adaptation of foreign policy to the modus operandi long at work in the domestic politics, whose proverbial stabilization under Putin merely stabilized, without transforming, the ruinous scene of post-Soviet anomie, corruption and violence. This anomie is presently spilling over beyond Russia’s borders as a weapon against the revolutionary anomie allegedly arising from Kiev.
The annexation of Crimea is merely the first step in the attempt to crush the revolution, the step that is logistically the simplest, militarily the least risky and the most likely to enjoy public support in Russia, at least in the short run. Since by itself it does nothing to undermine the revolutionary Ukraine and might even consolidate its unity, it is likely to be followed by other attempts by ‘unidentified’ forces to destabilize the situation.
It is certainly ironic that it is precisely the counter-revolutionary ‘force for order’ that for a decade has enjoyed frightening itself with stories of revolutionary chaos that has single-handedly destroyed the post-Soviet territorial order, creating the worst crisis in Europe in over twenty years. Yet, it is hardly surprising, since the valorization of constituted authority as such, the defense of any order once it is established is a supremely nihilistic gesture that affirms nothing but the power of those who have power. Such power can sustain itself almost indefinitely through intrigue, corruption and violence, yet it is incapable of creating anything new and for this reason lives only in the sense of delaying its death.
Sergei Prozorov is Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki.
Really interesting article.
Doesn’t the Ukrainian ‘revolution’, though, destabilise the idea of constituent power as an implicitly positive force of the people against power? Given that, as I understand it, the vanguard of the revolution has been far right nationalists, the demands of the revolution mostly reactionary nationalistic claims, and the result in the end is a right-wing minority coup against a democratically elected government that, for all its faults, surely represents the majority of Ukrainian voters more than the new regime. Thus the left now has to take seriously the potential dangers of constituent power?
That’s my take on it from only a relatively shallow understanding of the situation; I’m keen to be challenged on my present perception of Ukraine and to be enlightened if I’m way off the mark.
Thanks for your comment! I’m afraid I do not share the representation of the revolution as ‘nationalist’, ‘reactionary’ or a minority coup. While right-wing forces have been present in the Euromaidan movement alongside liberal and centrist ones, they have been neither dominated its agenda nor attained any advantages from it. The first polls after February 21 actually demonstrate the decline in support for the Svoboda party and the growth in support for the moderate or centrist representatives of Euromaidan, while support for Yanukovich’s Party of Regions has in fact dwindled.
More generally, constituent power is undoubtedly dangerous, precisely because it disrupts established divisions, including that of the institutionalized right and left. It is an event of radical novelty that may or may not produce outcomes faithful to it – after all, most revolutions end in disappointment. Yet, its very occurrence testifies to authentic political subjectivity, which its current antagonist has all but eradicated domestically.
I am sorry in advance I am not going to engage in a theoretical argument, but I just couldn’t let your comment about the “right-wing minority coup” and “reactionary nationalistic claims” without a response since I hear it so often.
If you look at the Cabinet of Ministers, you can see that 4 out of 20 represent there the only right wing party “Svoboda”.
Do you really think that they can have a hegemony over making political decisions?
Moreover, if you look at the profiles of the heads of the economic and financial ministries, they all were chosen to perform neo-liberal economic reforms, two of them were already in power during the rule of Yushchenko – Prodan and Shlapak (difficult to call them representatives of the far right), and Sheremeta is new in politics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavlo_Sheremeta), however very much oriented on the liberal West.
The only minister from the right wing “Svoboda”, who could have actual influence, the Minister of Defense, absolutely discredited himself with his indecision during the annexation of Crimea, being unable to give any commands and failing even to withdraw the troops from the peninsula in the proper way. Doesn’t look to me as a scary fascist in power.
The current government is not supported by many people indeed.
Not only because it has the representatives of the right-wing parties (although “Svoboda” is harshly criticized in Ukraine, this fact is not unique about Ukraine, right parties gain popularity and partly come to power not only here). And not only by those pro-russian of pro-Yanukovich Ukrainians, but also by the people who took part in Maidan.
One of the main reasons Maidan is very critical about it, is the way the portfolios were distributed, not with regard to the actual knowledge and skills of candidates, but according to their party affiliation (representing mostly “Batkivshina”).
But the way the previous government was overthrown was definitely the will of people, and not of the minority of people, but huge self-organised networks and structures of different people who struggled against criminal government of Yanukovich all over the country. And many people are willing to organize to keep officials accountable in the time after revolution.
I also wanted to remind you that Yanukovich has run from the country, wasn’t fulfilling his responsibilities, and the same “democratically elected” parliament which existed during his rule voted with majority voices in support of his resignation.
“reactionary nationalistic claims”
Which of the Maidan’s claims were reactionary and nationalistic?
(if we don’t take the claims of the particular groups)
Maidan as a civil movement on its different stages had several main claims: 1) EU integration (which for Ukrainians mostly meant the rule of law and end to corruption); 2) Bringing to justice those responsible for beating students; 3) End to police violence and impunity of authorities.
P.S. I think it was the big mistake of Maidan not to recognize the presence of the far right in the protest among all others from the very beginning. This allowed Putin to play with this card later, speculating on the memories about the 2 WW, demonizing Ukrainians with their colonial nationalism while himself encouraging expansionist conservatism, nationalism and traditionalism in Russia. And I think that the threat of far right in Ukraine is extremely overestimated, at the same time when the threat of neo-liberal reforms is tragically underestimated.
From its very beginning, the Putin regime has been extremely wary of and hostile to revolutions…
I think you will find that political leaders who are not wary of revolutions against them are very thin on the ground. The reaction of the US government to the Occupy movement, expressing more dissent than revolutionary impetus, is paradigmatic, but even before Seattle 1999 and Genova 2001 I think prove without a doubt that Western democratic governments are just as wary of revolutions as Putin is.
What the events in Crimea have proven is that the West will not react to the overthrow of a democratically elected government provided it is executed in the name of EU-style market fundamentalism and it responds to the wishes of NATO.