Friday, December 31, 2004

LRB 27,1 Jan 6th 2004

The first London Review of Books of the New Year arrives. Always welcome is Alan Bennett's diary of the last year as a measure of a certain sort of nostalgic and common-sensical opposition to New Labour and the stupidities of neo-liberalism. For 2004 I am most struck by his entry for Paul Foot's funeral. Bennett's praise for Foot and his surprised response to the mourners is charming. I hoped to be able to post it here, but sadly access denied for copyright reasons. Must be going into a book.

Elsewhere a long report from Neal Ascherson in Kiev 'Is this to be the story?' puts the events squarely in the 'genus revolution'; acknowledges the American role, but downplays it and finds the people on the square to be sharply critical of the US. Instead Ascherson sees it as a second round of the European revolutions of 1989 in a process that started in Georgia last year and if successful will spread to Belarus and maybe central Asia and Russia itself. Ascherson uses the excellent term 'demokratura' (a play on the old 'nomenklatura') for these regimes, in which he 'furniture' of democracy is really a front for manipulation and the maintenance of the privileges of post-communist elites. Are these revolutions just 'succession wars' between competing elites, who just use the crowd for their own purposes, or genuine transitions to genuine democracy. Ascherson cites events in tiny Abkhazia in November to show the bad pattern and outcome, but for the Ukraine (writing on Dec 17th) he thinks the process has gone to far, the protests lasted too long and were too big. '..the Orange Revolution took on a life, spontaneity and consciousness of its own.' The crowd in Georgia was demobilised, too late for that in Ukraine.

On the streets Ascherson finds a new Ukrainian identity and constant evidence that 'the movement was out of its box and under nobody's orders'. The personality cult around Yushchenko and even the 'millionaire oligarch' Yulia Tymoshenko he finds superficial. And in the vast exultant crowd on the Maidan, Ascherson finds neither fear or aggression.

Ascherson also visits the city of Lviv (which I think I've always thought of as Lvov) near the Polish border, which he predicts will be a 'painted and pedestrianised honeypot for tourism' in 10 years time, but for the moment still deeply rooted in a tragic and violent history. Ascherson finds the 'happy public smile' for Yushchenko rather forced with pro-Orange figures deeply implicated in democratura and a disastrous and dwindling economy. The rural population is falling as migrants go to jobs in the places that provide migrant labour for Western Europe.

Ascherson's point is that in much of the Ukraine if Yushchenko turns out to be just another democratura disappointment or if the old forces strike back, democratic forces might well be weak and dispersed. Ukraine is brilliantly described as a 'sort of service industry in itself, stretching from the billionaire oligarchs who own Ukraine’s resources, through the clientship and clan networks of local power, down to the millions of underpaid bureaucrats and policemen who must extort bribes to feed their families. The result is an unreal economy. A huge labour force in the Donbas still digs coal that can’t be sold, while the black earth of Ukraine, which used to feed the Soviet Union and much of Europe with its bread wheat, is neglected (in Odessa recently, I saw something once inconceivable: an American freighter unloading wheat).'

Ascherson sees all ways of 'tackling' this as dangerous and sees hope in an alliance with the EU, especially Poland. He's provided a brilliant account of some aspects of the limited, contradictory, but still inspiring revolutionary events of the Ukraine, but his own romantic iberalism shines through. The quote above sounds like sort of situation the forces of global neo-liberalism would like to get their hands on. Ascherson sees the political dangers and problems, but not the underlying economic dangers. The political economy of the situation remains beyond him, but it's still a brilliant piece of writing.


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