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On the Ukrainian Waterfront

Permit me to share a few comments I received from an Eastern European diplomat (who asked to remain anonymous) about Western stereotyping of Eastern Europe in general and of Ukraine in particular. The diplomat’s remarks were prompted by my two-part blog post on “Germany, East Central Europe, and Morality.”

I must admit your last few pieces in the World Affairs Journal have been very necessary. It’s an uphill battle, I know, but since one of my own hobby horses for the past 20 years has been the simplistic and misguided, often racist, views of Eastern Europe, your efforts are highly appreciated. Indeed, I have been long convinced that the only peoples these days towards whom you can be outright bigoted and remain comme il faut and salonfähig in our politically correct world are the Zwischenländer—the lands in between the West and the East. In fact, even Nobel Prize winners with regular columns in the New York Times get away with it. So, good luck.

Aside from ranting and railing, however, there’s one other way of changing things: being better. My rants on “Polish plumbers” in France, “Estonian criminals” in Finland, and corrupt Eastern Europeans have at least embarrassed some Frenchmen, Finns, and other Western Europeans to the point where they know they will be called out. Being better is harder, but the euro crisis has helped level things a bit. At least Poland and Estonia today have gotten some grudging, very grudging, acceptance, though Paul Krugman–like lefties still feel free to bash. 

With new dividing lines developing in Europe, along the lines of North vs. South, and not history, there is some hope. This is why I am so unhappy about Ukraine. Unless you have something good to show, unless you can offer positive surprises to received ideas, those received ideas will not change. The Yanokovych kleptocracy is no worse than Putin’s, but since there’s no energy dependence on them, no military threat, Ukraine has become the ideal Eastern European “Other.” Hence, there is no need to be civil toward Ukraine, as there is nothing to lose. Does anyone believe Western leaders will stay away from the Sochi Olympics because of Khodorkovsky or Magnitsky in the way they boycotted the Ukrainian half of the UEFA 2012 soccer matches?

It’s that “I coulda been a contender” feeling of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Coulda. But instead, with every new bit of thuggery coming from the Yanukovych regime, those received ideas get renewed empirical corroboration. And Ukraine simply becomes the stand-in for the contempt with which Europeans hold Russia no less than Ukraine, but will never say.

What a revolting fate for Ukraine: to be Russia’s stand-in!

If you’ve seen On the Waterfront, you’ll know that Brando does in fact stand up for the good at the end of the film and thereby finds redemption. There is of course no chance whatsoever that Viktor Yanukovych or his cronies would or could ever develop the moral and political backbone to do the right thing and stop treating Ukraine and Ukrainians as their personal property. Too bad. Yanukovych could have been a “contender.” All he had to do after being elected president was to introduce some reforms, curb some appetites, and behave as the president of all of Ukraine. The task wasn’t too tall, but it did require turning his back on the thuggery of the Regionnaires and regarding the Donbas underworld as only one part of Ukraine. Instead, Yanukovych chose to become Brando’s counterpoint in the film—the crime boss, Johnny Friendly.

No longshoreman likes or even respects Johnny, and his power rests exclusively on the failure of the broad masses of the population to stand up for their rights and say No to the muscle-bound hoods who run the waterfront. When Brando does say No, and challenges Johnny to a fight, the longshoremen lose their fear and turn against Johnny. One of them even pushes him into the filthy waters of the Hudson River, while the rest break out in laughter. As a friend in Ukraine told me, “The Regionnaires understand only strength. If you stare them down, they’ll slink away.”

Yanukovych would do well to study the film. Whether or not Ukrainians say No to the mob in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in October, sooner or later they’ll shove him into the Dnipro. Now may be the time for the Prez to invest in some drip-and-dry Armani suits. 

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