The pictures from Egypt pitted pro-democracy protesters in Tahrir Square against baton-wielding police – so there could be no doubt whose side western viewers would be on. An authoritarian ruler was duly toppled. A name formed for what was happening, not just in Egypt, but in Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere in the middle east: the “Arab Spring”. Built into that image of new life was the assumption that the overthrow of Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi would precede a new era of freedom, democracy and liberalism, western-style. What followed in Egypt was an Islamist Government with little respect for a free media, democratic pluralism or an independent judiciary. It failed to revive Egypt’s sclerotic economy, and protesters returned to Tahrir Square – only, this time, the alliance was people and the army against the Muslim Brotherhood, not people and the brotherhood against the army. The Islamist Government fell and the army now rules. Back to Square One.
Ukraine isn’t Egypt, but one parallel is striking: the simplistic temptation to believe that the cause of unarmed protesters must be right and the dawn of liberal democracy is nigh – especially when armed police have murdered some of them, the palace of a ruler is sacked, and a freed opposition leader addresses her supporters from a wheelchair. But is this likely to be any more true in the vast stretches of the Ukraine than it has been in the even larger ones of the Middle East? The country is divided between its west, which sees Europe as its natural political and economic hinterland, and its east, which looks instead to Russia. One respect in which Ukraine is certainly unlike Egypt is that Victor Yanukovych, the toppled President, was elected. As Peter Hitchens points out today, he won the 2010 election with 49 per cent of the vote against Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45.5 per cent – tallies that reflected those east/west divisions. This gives reason to be more cautious about the Ukrainian revolt than some were about the “Arab spring”.
The Government seems to think so. Colin Freeman wrote in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that it is ambivalent about whether the Ukraine should be pulled into the EU’s orbit or stay in Russia’s. The collapse of a proposed EU trade agreement helped to spark the Ukraine protests: “when [it] failed to sign the deal, following pressure from Mr Putin, No 10 deemed it a blow only to empire-builders in Brussels,” he wrote. William Hague was not among the trio of foreign ministers who flew to Kiev last week to try to resolve the crisis: France and Germany were joined instead by Poland. The Foreign Secretary has said what one would expect him to say – calling for an end to violence and Ukrainians to be reconciled. This is consistent with Obama and Putin wanting to patch the country up, prevent its division and calm the tug-of-war that is pulling it between the EU and Russia. Hague bobs up today saying that he is in “close touch with key partners” about events, which suggests that Freeman’s take is about right.
The Foreign Secretary could go further than push quietly for more liberty in the Ukraine – seeking to confront Putin and wrest it from Russia’s sphere of influence into the West’s (or, arguably, the EU’s). Putin is no friend of freedom or of Britain, but Russia’s interests are entangled with ours – in energy, in trade, in Afghanistan, in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Is it really in our national interest to challenge it over the Ukraine and risk division of the country? Kwasi Kwarteng wrote the following on this site after a recent visit to Egypt: “We have to be more cautious about backing particular groups. Our focus should be on humanitarian and, in some specific cases, financial support. We should not be trying to make active interventions in the political future of these states. Our actions are likely to lead to unforeseen consequences, and we will be caught out in the embarrassment of supporting sides only to reverse our positions when those we support are summarily ousted.”
Wise words. As I say, Ukraine isn’t Egypt, but the illusion that that good and evil are reducible to the TV image of the moment is just that – an illusion. No wonder the “Arab Spring” has also been labelled the “Islamist Winter”.