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Are Ukrainians taking the streets for neoliberalism?

Protester at a pro-EU rally in Kiev on November 24. (Flickr/Ivan Bandura)

Protester at a pro-EU rally in Kiev on November 24. (Flickr/Ivan Bandura)

Debates over nonviolence and its connection to neoliberalism are nothing new, but the current wave of civil resistance in Ukraine makes them seem especially pressing. This past Monday, protesters created a blockade around the main government building in the biggest public rally in the country since the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005.

What is the cause? President Yanukovich abandoned the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would integrate the country further into the European Union. In doing, it would allow European capital greater access to Ukrainian companies by reducing trade barriers. One step closer to the EU, however, means one step away from Russia, and it appears to be due to Kremlin pressure that Yanukovich backed away from the deal. The protests, therefore, seem to be staking out a position against Russian influence, but in favor of neoliberal economic policies. Today, Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovich flew to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin as protesters continued to defy police.

In an article for The Independent, opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk is quoted saying that “Ukraine has woken up in a different state after Yanukovich refused to sign in Vilnius. It is no longer Ukraine.” He compared his country’s current direction to that of autocratic Belarus.

Ukraine would not be the first country in the region to experience trade liberalization as the result of protests. According to the Index of Economic Freedom, a scale for free-market principles created by the Heritage Foundation, a U.S. right-wing think-tank, the 13th most liberalized market in the world is Estonia, one of the participants in the Singing Revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, Estonia and fellow post-revolutionary state Poland are, according to the Index, “among the world’s 10 most improved.” Estonia boasts low tariffs, a corporate income tax of 21 percent, a mere 38.2 percent government ownership of the gross domestic output and a regressive flat tax on personal income.

In their recent article, which provoked a rich discussion on this site, Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi argue that nonviolent resistance in the tradition of theorist Gene Sharp often leads to trade liberalization. It’s a tradition that emphasizes opposing political authoritarianism (e.g., the EU over Moscow) rather than opposing the dangers posed by unrestrained capital. Chabot and Sharifi contend:

Sharpian scholars usually fail to mention that victorious strategic nonviolence has consistently produced political systems favoring global neoliberal capitalism, the prevailing imperiality in the twenty-first century.

Not all agree with Chabot and Sharifi. On WNV‘s recent blog post about the relationship between Sharpian nonviolence and economics, Stephen Zunes commented that, although it may not be a sufficient condition for a progressive government, political liberty may be a necessary one:

Free elections and political liberty do not guarantee a progressive government or a just society. However, without individual liberties and accountable government, building a just society becomes virtually impossible. Democracy affords a political opening whereby a democratic left stands a chance of challenging the excesses of national and global capitalism.

As we seek to understand the uprising in Ukraine and draw lessons from it, some questions remain that resonate with resistance movements around the world. Is Ukraine’s ongoing civil resistance the kind that Chabot and Majid Sharifi warn against? Does the movement have to choose between Western trade liberalization or Putin-style authoritarianism? Or is there something it can do to confront both at once?