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Black Sea Changes

Georgia, Ukraine, and the fading blossoms of revolution.

By From the April 2013 issue

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In the summer of A.D. 95, the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom sailed across the Black Sea’s brine-salt waves to the city of Borysthenes, a once-stirring center of trade nestled along the right bank of the River Bug, in what is now Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast. Strolling along the riverbank one noon, Dio mused upon the state of his host city, whose size did not “correspond to its ancient fame, because of its ever-repeated seizure and its wars.” It dawned on the visiting rhetorician that the fortunes of the locals had “reached a very low ebb indeed, some of them being no longer united to form cities, while others enjoyed but a wretched existence.” Centuries before, the Black Sea had been dubbed the Pontos Axeinos, the “inhospitable sea,” by dint of its navigational challenges and rebarbative tribes. Decades of colonial efforts resulted in a euphemistic name change to the Euxeinos Pontos, the “hospitable sea,” but by Dio’s time it appeared that a return to ancient form was in the offing.

The solicitous philosopher, approached during his midday promenade by the youthful soldier Callistratus, tried to buoy his new acquaintance’s spirits by citing a maxim of the poet Phocylides:

The law-abiding town, though small and set / On a lofty rock, outranks mad Nineveh.

Was it not a comfort, Dio asked Callistratus and the small crowd that had gathered on the waterfront, “that a small city on a rugged headland is better and more fortunate, if orderly, than a great city in a smooth and level plain, that is to say, if that city is conducted in disorderly and lawless fashion by men of folly?”

Dio’s audience remained unconvinced. “For of course you know,” Callistratus shot back, “that yesterday the Scythians made a raid at noon and put to death some of the outposts who were not on their guard, and in all likelihood took others captive; for we do not yet know definitely about that, because their rout took them some distance away; for their flight was not toward the city.” The preoccupations of basic security necessarily took precedence over political dialectic, and looking back at Borysthenes, Dio could see the gates shut fast against outsiders, and “hoisted on the ramparts the standard that betokens war.” All the aeriform rhetoric in the world concerning that ideal civic “dance of happiness coupled with wisdom and supreme intelligence” was bound to ring decidedly hollow in this harsh land fraught with clashing civilizations and Gordian difficulties.

HUMAN SETTLEMENT around the Black Sea,” observed journalist Neal Ascherson rather more recently, “has a delicate, complex geology accumulated over three thousand years,” with “unpredictable outcrops and striations” forged by the Vulcanian forces of history. These multiethnic landscapes have been held together by necessity, and “any serious tremor may disrupt them, setting off landslips, earthquakes and eruptions of blood.” Addressing the resultant challenges, which are indeed geological in scale, has constituted one of the great political projects of the post-Communist era, as nations wracked with internecine conflicts and internal ethno-linguistic tensions eagerly await the vindication of a better age.

Within the last decade, it began to seem that significant headway was being made in this regard. In 2003, the bloodless Georgian Vardebis Revolutsia, or “Rose Revolution,” ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and brought the liberalizing Mikheil Saakashvili to power, to the widespread delight of Western observers. Ascherson, for one, praised Saakashvili’s goal of a “law-bound, honest, reasonably fair democracy,” and perceived a “Georgia in Europe” on the horizon. For another Georgia-watcher, Georgetown University’s Charles King, the Caucasian nation had become a “rose among thorns,” the “positive example for eastern Europe and Eurasia that observers have long hoped for.” It was not long before Ukraine followed suit, in the form of the 2004–2005 Pomarancheva Revolyutsiya, or “Orange Revolution.” As Dennis Soltys put it shortly thereafter:

 Ukraine can now be called not just a “managed” or “plebiscitary” democracy, but something much closer to an authentic democracy, for recent events have affirmed the sovereignty of the people; these events themselves can be called revolutionary, for they have overturned an old pattern of state-society relations and augur a rule-of-law regime. The appearance, success, and peacefulness of the orange revolution indicate profound social or civilizational features that deserve attention in their own right; these features also draw Ukraine away from more insular Russia.

Obvious stumbling blocks might lie ahead, Soltys acknowledged, but nevertheless “one may reasonably anticipate that the current confusion in [post–Orange Revolution Ukraine’s] government will turn out to be merely normal politics in a new democracy.” There were others, like Nina Khrushcheva, who went even further. In a provocative 2008 essay, “Russia’s Rotting Empire,” Khrushcheva put forth a rather fantastical scenario in which

Ukraine will become Russia’s salvation. If Moscow’s anti-Western paranoia continues and the Byzantine fantasy lasts for the next 15 to 25 years, both forces will lead to China, the new global superpower, swallowing whole the Far East and Siberia. A vastly weakened Russia then will lose also the Northern Caucasus and the Volga region to their growing Muslim population, and Ukraine comes marching in. Kaliningrad will once again become German Konigsberg. Russia will lose its 11 time zones and would then no longer have claims to be Greater Russia. So the remaining lands will have no other choice but to attach themselves to Ukraine, by then a successful member of the European Union. And only then will Moscow return to its historical origins, Kievan Rus—after 1,000 years wandering the paths blazed by Mongol hordes, empire, communism, and Putinism—and complete a historical circle that will finally bring change to Russia.

Even in the heady days after democratic protesters filled Independence Square in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to oppose rigged elections and Russian interference, such a scenario was less than plausible. But few would have gainsaid that the Black Sea basin’s European trajectory had been assured, and that the two colored revolutions could be seen as the thin edge of a global liberalizing wedge—no minor achievement for a brace of geopolitically marginal, internally divided republics.

Much, of course, has changed since those days, in the Black Sea region as elsewhere, and few looking at developments in Georgia and Ukraine would conclude that the rose and orange blossoms have not faded with time. This was very much in evidence at a think tank conference in Kiev last November, when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was asked whether he feared arrest and trial for abuse of power in light of the resounding defeat of his United National Movement party by a pro-Russian coalition in the recent parliamentary elections. Laughing off the question, Saakashvili insisted that he is “never afraid,” but he could hardly ignore the fact that a dozen of his allies had just been charged in the weeks before. The conference’s location added particularly interesting context to the question. Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko have come to know well the consequences of political sea change, submerged as they both are in the depths of Kiev’s Lukyanivska Prison.

REGARDLESS OF THEIR legal or moral justifications, the politically motivated prosecutions of rival officials initiated by Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have raised hackles at home and abroad, casting something of a pall over the legacies of the Rose and Orange Revolutions. The gears of political retributive justice seldom grind smoothly, after all. While Saakashvili maintained that “in the short-term there is sure to be turbulence, but in the mid- and long-term I am very optimistic,” it has become apparent that the colored revolutions were phenomena with initially spectacular but increasingly circumscribed legacies.

The chief reason for this is obvious enough: Russia’s revanchist tendencies. Though Dmitri Trenin raised the specter of the “end of Eurasia” more than a decade ago, the concept is as relevant as ever. Russian hegemony over the blizhnee zarubezhe, the “near abroad,” has for centuries constituted a matter of existential importance to policymakers in the Winter Palace or the Kremlin. As Nina Khrushcheva noted, “There is one thing important to keep in mind when talking about Russia—it doesn’t change.” And yet in this context, what Khrushcheva characterized as a liability becomes a major geopolitical asset. That sense of historical continuity, that sense of eternal interests, has allowed for a consistent approach to an inconsistent region. The occasional geopolitical landslip—say, a democratic revolution in a former satellite state—can be repaired over the course of the longue durée.

Given the wide variety of tools at the disposal of the Russian state—from the sticks of embargoes, natural gas shut-offs, and military invasions, to the carrots of customs union, Orthodox solidarity, and the lavish funding of “political technology”—it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin is willing to play the long game within its sphere of influence. Few neighboring nations, regardless of their strength or intentions, are likely to withstand in isolation the exertion of such pressure. How difficult it is to remain, as Georgia must, in a constant state of military readiness, given Saakashvili’s policies of “total defense,” wherein every Georgian “settlement and neighborhood, each house and family” is a “bastion, a fortress of resistance,” and when “every square meter of the Georgian land should burn beneath” the potential Russian invader’s boot. And how difficult it is for Ukraine to forge its own path when, for example, the sovereign decision to stay out of a Russian customs union in favor of the pursuit of a EU association treaty is immediately met with the threat of cut-off natural gas flows and a $7 billion fee.

Russian actions such as these are hardly those of a country woefully beset by Byzantine decadence, though purely ideological factors are certainly at work. Commentators like the Daily Beast’s Peter Pomerantsev may poke fun at “Putin’s god squad,” and the Observer’s Nick Cohen may warn that the “marriage of the Kremlin and the [Orthodox] church” is nothing more than an “evil collusion,” but the lingering influence of the age-old Russian formulation of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” speaks for itself. Indeed, the propaganda value of, to take a recent and rather subtle example, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s January 11 message to Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II on his 80th birthday—that he appreciated the patriarch’s “personal efforts, your calls for peace, love, creativity, accord and unity”—should not be underestimated, though there is a temptation to do precisely that in an increasingly postmodern West.

To wit, the overall capriciousness of the West must also be taken into account when considering Russian revanchism and Black Sea democracy. The Kremlin’s autocratic consistency is invariably met with the pendulum swings of democracy, as seen in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presentation of a “reset button” to her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, a cringe-inducing gesture even before its infamous mistranslation came to light. Yet four years later, Secretary Clinton would warn of Russia’s “move to re-Sovietize” Eurasia, adding that “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” (Around the same time, presidential candidate Mitt Romney was being roundly criticized by the Obama campaign for having referred to Russia as “without question, our number-one geopolitical foe.”) In the halls of (soft) power in Brussels, meanwhile, the usual tools in the postmodern diplomatic kit—European Union enlargement, or the inculcation of human rights and environmental norms—are of limited utility in the face of eternal interests and time-hardened strategies. The European Union’s dysfunction, not to mention many of its member states’ reliance on Russian commodities, further forestalls any meaningful pro-democratic intervention.

Geopolitical vacillation this marked does not pass unnoticed for those with a stake in the new Great Game. As Western policymakers and diplomats stagger from international crisis to international crisis with little rhyme or reason, favoring one militant faction here and propping up a decayed ruling house there, while cancelling missile defense programs here and ramping up arms sales there, liminal countries like Georgia and Ukraine can easily lose their footing. The project of establishing what the slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya described as “manifestly anti-byzantine, anti-bureaucratic, anti-hierarchical” governments in places like Georgia or Ukraine, with leaders “totally orientated towards the West,” and with “no helmsman to the north-west,” was never going to be entirely straightforward. But without support from sympathetic democracies, that project is bound to founder on the inhospitable shores of the Black Sea.

NEARLY TWO MILLENNIA AGO, Dio Chrysostom assured his audience that the beleaguered polis of Borysthenes outranked even Nineveh thanks to its noble constitution and good intentions. The prosperous wickedness of the men of folly, in their disorderly and lawless city, would ultimately pale in comparison, the philosopher proclaimed. Yet Dio’s blithe assertion fell on unreceptive ears, due to the very real threats looming quite literally over the horizon. Today, policymakers and analysts are wont to make similar assurances, again without the geopolitical guarantees to back them up. As a consequence, the recent triumph in Tbilisi by Georgia’s pro-Russia Dream Party and the solidification of power in Kiev by President Viktor Yanukovych’s “family” (whether bound by blood or business ties) have together nearly put paid to the twin revolutions of the last decade. This is not to say that Saakashvili and the quondam orange revolutionaries invariably lived up to their lofty ideals. But outside actors cannot be absolved of blame when Georgia’s new prime minister holds up Armenia as a positive example of balancing Western and Eastern trajectories, implicitly rejecting the former entirely Western path, or when Ukraine succumbs to an Eastern embrace while electoral fraud and selective prosecutions become the norm.

It was not so long ago that we were informed by the likes of Yale University’s Timothy Snyder that the postmodern European Union was attractive to Ukraine and other countries not only “for its acquis communautaire, its body of law and practices, but for its savoir-faire, its reputation and civilization.” And it was not so long ago that President George W. Bush told an assemblage in Tbilisi that Georgia’s revolutionary “courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world: Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth,” and that “as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you.”

Recent developments have hardly bolstered such confident proclamations, though all is far from lost. What is clear is that democratic reformers in the region are in need of unwavering support from what is at present a navel-gazing West, and without that support, there is a danger that the centuries-old wheel of Black Sea history will continue to turn about its axis, grinding down the brief-lived hopes of our era. The democracies of the West, those sponsors of political reform in the region, are now faced with a limited amount of time to act accordingly, or, failing that, a great deal more time with which to ponder the consequences of their inaction.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.