Ukraine: Prospects for a Just Revolution – Anna Floerke Scheid

Catholic Social Ethics, Current Events

Having spent the last several years researching and writing on the ethics of revolution, I listened to initial reports about the protests in Kiev with hopeful, empathic interest. Ukrainians seemed to be claiming political power against a corrupt and incompetent government, and largely nonviolent protests seemed to pressure a tyrant from his throne.

Of course this narrative fails to capture the complexity of what is happening in the Ukraine. In his post on this site on Wednesday, Carl Raschke describes well the competing narratives surrounding the latest back-and-forth power plays between Russia and the U.S. as they engage in a kind of tug-of-war over Ukraine, especially the Crimean peninsula. Raschke rightly refers to the situation as a “puzzle” and a “muddle.” There were rumors of U.S. influence, and reports of right wing radicals infiltrating the protests; and depending on one’s perspective, President Putin is either violating the sovereignty of the Ukrainian interim government, or defending the sovereignty of his region against encroaching Western powers.

In devising principles for just revolution, one of the things I’ve argued is that all revolutions ought to begin with nonviolent practices. Nonviolent resistance can bring enormous pressure to bear on unjust governing structures, and it has generated successful regime changes. Consider, for example, the fall of East Germany in 1989 and the “Bloodless Revolution” in the Philippines in 1986. One of the positive trends in revolutionary activity over the past decade – from this most recent ouster of Viktor Yanukovych, to the revolutions across the Middle East – is that they have all started with nonviolent demonstrations. A next step will be to find ways of keeping nonviolent, just revolutionary activity from being infiltrated by factions with less than just intentions. One way of doing this is for nonviolent movements to clearly define who, for them, is a legitimate authority.

Drawing on the just war tradition, I have argued strongly for the need for revolutionary movements to demonstrate a legitimate authority. For example, the presence of the ANC as a legitimate authority was instrumental in the successful movement against apartheid in South Africa. By contrast, while Egyptian citizens toppled the Mubarak regime with what Wael Ghonim called a “leaderless revolution,” the lack of a legitimate authority in that revolutionary movement has proved problematic in the aftermath of Egypt’s Arab Spring, where problems of competing authorities have resulted in a rocky and violent transition from repressive rule.

While the criterion of legitimate authority as it is understood in the just war tradition seems to mitigate against the idea of revolutionary activity, I’ve argued that in the context of revolution, legitimate authority (1) encourages the already emerging political participation of all for the sake of the common good, (2) enjoys the support of the broader population, and (3) controls and limits violence in the face of a regime which uses violence with impunity to repress the people and maintain power. It remains to be seen whether the interim government in Ukraine will qualify as a legitimate authority under these conditions. Since popular protest fomented regime change, the first two of these principles will be especially important for an interim regime, and they seem at best only partially met so far.

In the midst of the political instability in Ukraine, one thing that is clear is that neither Russia nor the U.S. qualifies as a legitimate authority to decide the future of the Ukrainian people. Furthermore, international recognition alone does not make an authority legitimate. The interim government must prove itself to the Ukrainian people themselves, by acting on behalf of the common good and in accordance with the will of the people.

But the Ukrainian situation has quickly moved beyond a popular revolution. The self-interested influence of Russia and the U.S. have so complicated domestic politics in Ukraine that it will be difficult for outsiders to determine what it is the people of Ukraine actually want for themselves. Russian military presence and attempts to annex the culturally-Russian Crimean peninsula are a clear violation of the Ukrainian Crimeans’ right to self-determination. Free and fair elections are necessary but unlikely if a referendum occurs under the watchful eye of the armed and intimidating Russian military. Only disinterested third parties should act as peacekeepers and election monitors. For example, the secession of South Sudan was monitored and approved through joint efforts by the Carter Center, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations. If Crimea were to secede via a referendum, it should not be a hastily organized affair overseen by Russian soldiers representing a nation with clear political and economic stakes in the outcome.

As someone who has observed with keen attention and compassion the revolutions across the Middle East, and the more recent activity in Ukraine, I am struck by how difficult self-determination is for many of the world’s peoples. The interdependence engendered by political and economic globalization means that few nations are truly “sovereign” such that they are not subjected to the self-interest of other, often more powerful, nations. What may have begun in Ukraine as a just revolution has quickly become a high-stakes game of geo-political chess. I’m left with little faith that the Ukrainian people’s human right to self-determination will be fully respected.

Just revolutions are possible. But they do require (among a variety of other things) time and patience – not only on the part of the revolutionaries and the citizens of a nation seeking liberation, but also for us bystanders who watch with eager anticipation, with questions about what this means for us, and even with hope for a just peace. If Ukrainians are to leverage their revolution into a just peace, it will be because the international community gives them the time, space, and support to determine themselves.

Anna Floerke Scheid, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University where she teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with attention to the just war tradition, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconciliation. She is currently researching and writing a book entitled Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation. Her work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Horizons, and Teaching Theology and Religion.

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