The East Turned Upside Down

Carnival and conspiracy in Ukraine


Thousands of Ukrainians establish enormous tent cities in Kiev, braving the cold to protest an election they say was stolen. Volunteers distribute stew and coffee, warm clothes and medical care, balloons for children. Students seize government buildings; the workers there feed them. The staffers at UT1, the state TV station, declare that they're tired of "telling the government's lies" and announce, live, that they're going to join the protests. Outside the presidential administration building, demonstrators put flowers in the shields of the riot cops—an echo, surely deliberate, of one of the most famous images of the '60s. Members of the central resistance group, Pora, urge the police to disobey if the authorities tell them to crack down. Thus far, the order hasn't come—in part, Pora suspects, because the government is worried it will be refused.

As fragments of news flutter in from Ukraine, different storylines have tried to assert themselves. The dominant account in the west says that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate who was probably cheated at the polls, is a democratic reformer eager to overturn the kleptocracy that runs the country. Warier voices warn that Yushchenko's camp includes its share of oligarchs as well, and that the candidate does not have a consistent history of dissent. Several reports espy a struggle between eastern and western Ukraine. Further left and further right, some paint the drama as a proxy fight between the U.S. and Russia. Still others say that angle has been overstated.

They all agree on one thing: Behind the carnival in the streets, a deeper narrative is unfolding. And on that much, at least, they're all correct. But the carnival is a significant story in itself, an event much larger than either Yushchenko or the autocrat he wants to bring down.

The building blocks of politics are violence and consent: No state can exist without the threat of coercion, and none can exist unless its subjects are generally willing to acquiesce to its demands. As Foucault said in Power/Knowledge, "If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think anyone would be brought to obey it?" It requires the compliance of the governed. They must be persuaded to stay in their place.

But sometimes they reject their place in the pyramid; sometimes, indeed, they act as though the pyramid isn't there. If enough people ignore their orders, the whole edifice can crumble. Even the force of the government's arms can fade if the men who wield those arms refuse to use them. "If not one thing is yielded" to tyrants, wrote the sixteenth-century libertarian Étienne de la Boétie, "if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies." Such militant nonviolence deposed King James II in 1688 and Baby Doc Duvalier in 1986. It won independence for India in 1947 and for Eastern Europe in 1989. In the last half-decade, it has deposed Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. Now it is alive in the avenues of Kiev.

Those last three uprisings, along with an unsuccessful revolt in Belarus, have left some observers more suspicious than inspired. Otpor, the group that overthrew Milosevic, received some funds from the U.S. government via the National Endowment for Democracy and the Agency for International Development. Veterans of Otpor helped train the Kmara movement in Georgia, the Zubr movement in Belarus, and the Pora movement in Ukraine. The revolutions they inspired—part Yippie street theater, part Gandhian resistance—got a hand from some of the same financial sources, including George Soros's Open Society Institute. Washington has endorsed them warmly.

For some pundits, this adds up to a western conspiracy. In New Statesman, Mark Almond declares that "the two Georges"—Bush and Soros—may be enemies back in the States, "but outside America the missionaries of Soros's lavishly funded 'Open Society' foundations march in parallel columns with the Bush administration." In The Guardian, Ian Traynor argues that the campaigns were "an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes." He didn't use the phrase, but he was essentially comparing the revolts to viral marketing, the advertising technique in which publicists try to turn the illusion of buzz into the real thing—say, by posing as teenagers in chatrooms and talking up a new CD.

There's a bit of truth to this story, but only a drop. The resistance movements are indeed interrelated, and American money did help nudge them forward. But there's no evidence that they're a creation, let alone a catspaw, of the United States. "The whole U.S. assistance thing is way overplayed," argues Jack DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and co-author of A Force More Powerful, a history of "people power" revolutions. "It's an aspect of Washington-centrism that if the United States thinks favorably about something, or someone inside the Beltway thinks favorably about something, that must mean that person is responsible for it having occurred. Which of course is absurd." For one thing, DuVall points out, the offices in Washington that have assisted these groups are not exactly close to the Bush administration. For another, the U.S. government is hardly the only institution that has aided the uprisings. (When Otpor was fighting Milosevic, it posted all its donors on its website, in real time, to demonstrate the international breadth of its support. The diverse list undermined the claim that it was a tool of a foreign power.)

Most important, says DuVall, "You can't simply parachute Karl Rove into a country and manufacture a revolution." You need, he explains, a mass movement that's rooted in civil society, tuned to local conditions, and willing to take risks. Outside aid can be helpful. It can hurt the cause, too, by opening the rebels to charges of foreign manipulation or by fostering a dependence on grants. But in a successful insurrection, it plays a marginal role; change has to be built on the ground, not abroad. Otherwise, you get a dud like Zubr, the Otpor clone in Belarus that, as the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe put it in a 2003 report, "was [an] artificially created organization built by Western donors around a romantic appeal and relying on paid activists to distribute materials. In the end…it was unsupportable because it lacked a true base." That wasn't the case in Serbia and Georgia, and it doesn't seem to be the case in Ukraine.

"These movements are basically grassroots," agrees Gene Sharp, the most prominent theorist of nonviolent action. "They have said that they're not part of the U.S. government—that 'we'd be better off financially if we were, but we're not.'" The latter point is underscored by Discoshaman, the blogger behind the invaluable Ukrainian site Le Sabot Post-Moderne. "Anyone who spent any time around the Yushchenko campaign, PORA or the like would find the idea of a Western-organized conspiracy laughable," he writes. "Even by national standards, things are chaotic. NO ONE expected a social outburst of this magnitude, and organizationally no one was prepared for it. Everything people are doing has an ad hoc flavor to it."

"The only way you can get hundreds of thousands of people in the streets," DuVall adds, "is by stating the reason for action in terms that appeal to the deeply felt grievances of these people. And the way in which that appeal is made can only be understood by people who live in those countries. The desire for freedom is universal, but it can only be activated by good old-fashioned political organizing." Mind you, not everyone has the same grievances. In eastern Ukraine, where the population is more conservative and is culturally closer to Russia, there's been talk of seceding if Yushchenko prevails. They've been holding their own rallies; some areas have instigated a tax revolt. One potential outcome, if the secessionists really represent local public opinion, is two competing peaceful movements for change.

Another potential outcome, of course, is civil war. There's no guarantee the secessionists will stick to Pora's peaceful tactics—and there's no guarantee Yushchenko will remain nonviolent if he takes office. Even a peaceful transformation can have a brutal aftermath. Compare the English revolutions of 1642 and 1688. The first was violent; the second was not. The first established a theocracy; the second advanced religious liberty. The first created a centralized dictatorship; the second put limits on the executive. But both installed regimes that promptly screwed the Irish.

Still, the very experience of overthrowing a government this way—of building independent institutions, diffusing power through civil society, and learning first-hand that it's possible to say no to authority—unleashes something that's hard for any politician to control. Those tent cities aren't merely a demand for freedom. They're acts of freedom themselves: of men and women voluntarily assembled both to defy the old order and to build something new.