Ukraine’s decision point

Protests in Ukraine, active since November, have turned increasingly violent this past week in the face of government crackdowns. As I’ve argued before on this blog, while the Ukraine/EU/Russia triangle is a highly complex and multifaceted problem, a lot of the present crisis ultimately ties back to and derives from Ukraine’s unwillingness to deal seriously with its huge divide between its ethnically Ukrainian population and its ethnically Russian population. No matter which one is in charge, the other is upset and ready to protest.

Yes ethnically Ukrainian protesters should have a right to express themselves peacefully and freely. Yes the current ethnically Russian-led government should be able to enact some major policies its base supports, assuming they don’t oppress the other side or restrict freedoms by group. But the protesters and elected officials — who are mutually antagonizing each other into ratcheting up the stakes and responses — all need to realize that the state should accommodate the interests and acknowledge the views of all its citizens, including both those who elected the ruling party and those who did not.

That means the ruling party sometimes watering down policies more than its base would like (to protect the other side from abuses) and the opposition sometimes accepting that policies will be enacted even if they don’t agree with that course (because sometimes the majority has to get its way).

There has to be a unified, national identity to make the country function and cohabitate peacefully in the long run. It can’t always be about trying to impose the will of one group on the other group or resisting the winning party’s agenda at all costs.

And in turn, however, the West needs to step up to the plate and stop hovering anxiously as if they have no role or influence. They can put pressure on Russia to stop pressuring/intimidating the Ukrainian leadership and its eastern, ethnically Russian population.

They can also reiterate to the pro-Western protesters (and the pro-Russian government for that matter) that there’s a middle ground between never getting your way and getting your way by any means necessary. To be part of the European project, those protesters can’t light the country on fire. That doesn’t fly in liberal-democratic communities. Sometimes you have to be willing to allow for differences of opinions and policy — such as whether to form trade partnerships with Russia versus with the EU — without taking to the streets and brawling with the police.

Right now, Ukraine is standing at a decision point about what kind of a country it wants to be, both politically and as a people. It’s a dangerous moment because the West is dithering and refusing to take action or speak up seriously. It’s time for a public expression of the nuances that come with liberal democracy… as well as a reminder that a unified nationalism, divorced from ethnic divides, will be necessary to make Ukraine work.

Anne Applebaum expressed a similar sentiment in Slate tonight:

It will take a while for these new truths to sink in, but once Ukrainians realize that the ideal of the color revolution is dead, and that the West has no tools to revive it, there may be consequences. If peaceful demonstrations don’t work, after all, some may logically conclude that it’s time to use violence. Ukrainians have indeed constructed violent resistance movements more than once in the past century. It’s even possible that the Ukrainian government hopes they will do so again, as that might rapidly render all opposition illegitimate.

There is a less worst-case scenario, but it will require more patience than almost anybody has, and more thinking than almost anybody wants to do. What Ukraine really needs now is a slower, deeper, cultural change, led by Ukrainians who want to live in a less corrupt state. The Ukrainians need to create strong alternative institutions such as media, or trade unions or schools, as well as political organizations. They need to persuade their businessmen to change the climate. They need to found companies that refuse to do “business as usual.”


Building a nation and a true liberal democracy is tough stuff. There are no easy solutions here. Both sides are intensifying the situation and responding inappropriately (and would likely do the same if power roles were reversed). Everyone needs to step back now and figure out if this path is the one they really want to go down. There has to be something that can bring everyone together as one nation, without regard to language or ethnic differences.

For more discussion, listen to our most recent radio episode, “Arsenal for Democracy 70 – Afghanistan, Ukraine, Christie.”

Croatia and the drawbacks of the EU

There have definitely been some benefits to Croatia through the process leading to E.U. membership (some of which I’ve seen firsthand), especially in terms of anti-corruption efforts and resolution to some lingering war crimes/human rights problems from the Balkan wars.

But there have also been some serious drawbacks, and the E.U. regulations and anti-tariff/subsidy rules are going to cripple a lot of smaller, locally-owned businesses and put a lot of workers in subsidized industries out of work. The latter has already begun due to forced-privatization as part of membership planning.

Generally, I’m supportive of increased international trade and decreased restrictions, but European Union governments over the past two decades have proved extremely bad at managing the resulting social/economic problems and helping the people hurt. This is only going to get worse with tightening budgetary restrictions from the eurozone crisis, as national governments are forced to cut deficits by cutting unemployment benefits, jobs programs, and social programs.

What’s more, the E.U. has — I now believe — been a fundamentally undemocratic, elite-level project from the start that has not brought the popular support I might once have expected because it has not helped average people.

Croatia, rather unusually, has taken the step of opening the membership decision to a popular referendum. However, this referendum is being held just 20 days after it was announced/scheduled, and the government is putting $800,00 USD in public money behind the pro-E.U. campaign, while the opposition coalition has just $5,000 in private funds to campaign against membership.

Even if one supports membership and the continued growth of “the European project” (despite the current crisis), this seems massively unfair and undemocratic and will continue the trend of the Union being a very undemocratic project executed in a deeply problematic manner.

A New York Times article yesterday provides a lot more specific examples of how the path to membership has both helped and hurt Croatia, and perhaps more importantly who’s going to benefit from membership and who’s not. Hint: A lot of big corporations from other E.U. countries are going to benefit from reduced trade restrictions and industry standardization. Local companies, not so much.

Denmark: F@#$ YEAH!

If you were to ask me what my favorite country in the world is (besides the US of course, ILYSM) I would definitely pick Denmark. I have visited Denmark several times and I have some Danish friends, and I have got to say it is pretty cool in lots of ways. They are masters of alternative energy, particularly wind power (the world’s biggest wind turbine company, Vestas, is Danish). They have supertrains everywhere that completely put the “T” and Amtrak to shame. The entire country is bike friendly and there are bike lanes on pretty much every road (I would know – I’ve biked across the country). The Danes are a warm, socially tolerant, friendly, and beer-loving people. (Oh, and full disclosure, my uncle was the US Ambassador to the country in the 90s). But there’s another reason why Denmark is kickass: its economy.

John Cohn at TNR explains that America isn’t turning French, its turning Danish, and why this is good. (Video no longer available. Sorry! -ed.)

Cohn also wrote a terrific piece about Denmark in TNR two years ago. It’s not on the website anymore (TNR has sucky archives), but I found it.

If you believe the conservative rhetoric on economics, this combination of high taxes, a large public sector, and lavish welfare benefits ought to be killing the Danish economy. But it’s not. In fact, Denmark’s economy has thrived. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the job market. By the time Rasmussen left office in 2001, the unemployment rate had fallen from a 1994 peak of 9.6 percent to 4.3 percent; in 2002, it fell below the U.S. rate, where it has remained ever since. For the most recent quarter of 2006, Denmark’s standardized unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, compared with 4.7 percent in the United States. Moreover, while Europe has a reputation for fostering cadres of idle youth (a reputation that, in countries like France, has at least some basis in reality), in Denmark, a mere 3 percent of its 15- to 19-year-olds are neither in school nor working–the second-best rate in the developed world. (Tiny Luxembourg is first.) In the United States, by comparison, the figure is about 7 percent.

Bob Kuttner also wrote about Denmark’s pwnage in Foreign Affairs (subscriber wall, sorry).

Reading Adam Smith in Copenhagen — the center of the small, open, and highly successful Danish economy — is a kind of out-of-body experience. On the one hand, the Danes are passionate free traders. They score well in the ratings constructed by pro-market organizations. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index ranks Denmark third, just behind the United States and Switzerland. Denmark’s financial markets are clean and transparent, its barriers to imports minimal, its labor markets the most flexible in Europe, its multinational corporations dynamic and largely unmolested by industrial policies, and its unemployment rate of 2.8 percent the second lowest in the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

On the other hand, Denmark spends about 50 percent of its GDP on public outlays and has the world’s second-highest tax rate, after Sweden; strong trade unions; and one of the world’s most equal income distributions. For the half of GDP that they pay in taxes, the Danes get not just universal health insurance but also generous child-care and family-leave arrangements, unemployment compensation that typically covers around 95 percent of lost wages, free higher education, secure pensions in old age, and the world’s most creative system of worker retraining.

As these quotes make clear, the key to Denmark’s success is, the combination of dynamic, free market economies, and strong social safety nets. Of course, the US and Denmark are very different countries, so we can’t adopt these policies overnight. But Denmark’s example does point the way forward for liberals and America in the future.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.