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An appeal to western libertarians about the war in Ukraine

August 19, 2014

u-genghis-khan-monumentI decided to write this after I noticed that western libertarians have unaccountably developed a soft spot for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The consensus among them seems to be that Putin is in the right in Ukraine. Even Ron Paul, whom I normally admire, has fallen for his charms. But as a Russian libertarian myself, it leaves me disappointed and terribly sad.

The biggest complaint from libertarians about the Ukraine seems to be that the government in Kyiv is somehow “fascist,” which in their eyes warrants Russian military intervention. I would like to start by outlining some facts about Russia and Ukraine, and hopefully dispel some myths about the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine (also known as the Donetsk Basin).

The simplest way is to focus on some of the most notable characteristics of fascism. The defining characteristic of Fascism is that the good of the State comes before the good of the individual, identified by Laurence Britt as being commonly manifested in the following ways:

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1) Cult of Personality
Putin’s cult of personality is central to the people’s attitude toward his regime as a whole. And his approval rating has soared to an all-time high of 87%. To put this number into perspective: Putin is just 3% shy of the support Hitler had in 1939, just before the start of World War II.

This popularity is because, you see, “Vladimir Putin was sent to Russia by God to help it deal with its troubles.” So great is the idolatry that Putin T-Shirts fly off the shelves at Moscow megastores; pop songs are written about him, praising his qualities; and the Russian Patriarch calls Putin’s reign a "miracle of God.

There is no cult of personality in Ukraine.

2) Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
Just last week, Putin in his address to the Russian Parliament said that quitting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is possible, but not on the agenda at the moment. He also mentioned that Russia is ready to withdraw unilaterally from international treaties, if this step meets domestic interests — as determined by him.

No such sentiment has ever been expressed by Kyev.

3) Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause
In Russia “war on traitors” is rampant and spreading to every corner of our society. People are being fired and publicly humiliated just for voicing their opinions.

People like me, or Vera Kichanova (and everyone else in the Libertarian Party of Russia) are called "fifth columnist" and "national-traitors.”

You may appreciate the installation above: The words on the banner read: “You’re not welcome here.” Annual Kremlin-sponsored extremist youth camps feature, among other questionable things, mock-ups such as these of heads of Moscow human-rights defenders on pikes. Note that this is not some irrelevant event, Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev visit this particular camp every year.

Homosexuals in Russia are vilified and persecuted, with the explicit approval of the Putin government. A year ago the so-called “LGBT propaganda law” was enacted, which made it illegal both to equate straight and gay relationships and to show public affection, both of which are deemed “gay propaganda.”

Nothing like this exists in Ukraine. There are no “national-traitors,” nobody’s being fired for voicing their opinions, and no heads are put on pikes. Of course, there are some extremists, as in every other country. The difference is that in Ukraine they remain on the fringe of the society, while in Russia they are hosted by the government, and their events are routinely graced by President Putin.

4) Supremacy of the Military
A few days ago Putin announced that an extra 20 trillion rubles ($570 billion) had been set aside for the army and fleet rearmament until 2020. That will bring the Russian military budget to 6% of the GDP, the second largest in the world. Ukraine’s military budget is just 2.2% of its GDP.

Meanwhile, “Russia diverts [sic] pension savings to plug budget hole.” Just to make it clear, “diverts pension savings” means they blatantly ransacked people’s retirement accounts.

Russia, by the way, still has a conscription army. Russians are subject to a military draft. Ukraine, until four months into the war, had a professional army filled by volunteers.

5) Controlled Mass Media
There is no freedom of the press in Russia. None, not one report from inside the country can be trusted. Every country-wide channel is tightly controlled by the government. Of course, that includes Russia Today, which receives $300 million dollars from the Russian government every year.

One of the most influential TV channels in Russia is the state controlled “Rossiya One,” famous for its news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov who, among other things, said that the Kremlin can turn the US into nuclear dust any time it likes, and suggested the hearts of gays should be burned. Having listened to him, rather than being horrified, Putin was so impressed he personally appointed him the head of Russia Today . How about that?

On the other hand, and even though Yanukovych tried to control it before he was ousted. Ukraine, has a relatively free press. So much so, for the last 10 years Russian journalists systematically fled to Ukraine because they were forbidden to do their job in Russia.

Not just forbidden, unsafe. Journalists are killed and assaulted in Russia every year. 49 have been killed since Putin first came to hold power in 2001, all of them assassinated for political reasons.

No journalists were killed in Ukraine between 2001 and 2014. Not until the Russian invasion. Since then, several journalists were killed by Russian militants in Donbass.

Despite the iron fist on mainstream media, internet in Russia was relatively free. Until recently, that is, when Putin decided to annex Crimea. Since then opposition blogs have been routinely blacklisted, online news outlets censored, and the biggest and most successful independent online newspaper saw its entire staff laid off by the pro-Kremlin oligarch. Twitter too is being censored, and Wikipedia.

Further, Putin blocked the sites of opponents, outlawed anonymous blogging, and ordered all bloggers to 'register' with the mass media regulator, i.e., the Kremlin censor.

Nothing like this exists in Ukraine.

6) A single-party state
Even though there are four parties in the Russian parliament, Russia is a de-facto single-party state. The laws on the majority of issues are being passed unanimously. The anti gay law was passed unanimously; so did the ban on foreign adoption; so too the internet censorship law. The Russian parliament also approved the troop deployment in Ukraine unanimously. This is not just because parliamentarians are a bunch of tailors’ dummies: it is done to ensure collective responsibility, so that no one can avoid the blame should any law backfire.

Boris Gryzlov, state duma speaker and a good friend of Vladimir Putin famously said, that the “parliament is no place for discussions.” This is the man whose job in the parliament is to allow debate. Indeed, in Russia the parliament is the place where every bill supported by the president is passed unanimously.

Ukraine, on the other hand, is a democracy. There are 9 distinct parties in the parliament that hardly agree on anything, even on the issues of defence in time of war. Even when there is a majority, the competition is fierce and controversial. As it should be in parliament.

7) Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
Both countries are seriously corrupt, so I’ll just leave it at that.

8) Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
Putin’s Russia has a rich history of persecution of artists and intellectuals under the guise of patriotism and morality.

As many know, the Russian punk band Pussy Riot was famously jailed for two years for an impromptu performance inside a Christ the Saviour church. The Council of Laodicea, the 7th century Quinisext Council and other religious decrees have been used in court as the proof of their undeniable guilt.

The exhibition Ostorojno Religiya! (i.e., Beware Religion!) was trashed by religious extremists. However, no charges or fees were imposed on the vandals — instead, curators were fined a hefty 200,000 rubles for allowing the exhibition to happen! And both were later fired.

Famous Russian gallery-owner and art patron Marat Guelman had to leave Russia because he was systematically forced to close his projects in Russia.

Ukraine does not infringe on the freedom of artistic expression.

9) Obsession with National Security
Ukraine willingly surrendered its entire nuclear arsenal to Russia in 1991 at the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russia promised in exchange that it will never threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, a promise now violated.

Post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin and then Putin started wars in Chechnya, Abkhazia, South-Osetia, Transnistria, and now Ukraine. It resumed testing nuclear-capable missiles, in violation of Cold-War treaties. All in the name of "National Security."

Ukraine on the other hand enjoyed 21 years of continuous peace. It has been a good neighbour. Since 1991 it hasn’t been involved in a single armed conflict. Until now.

10) Religion and Government are Intertwined
Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church has become an increasingly influential political force — the immediate reason for Pussy Riot protests. “We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology,” say the people being called Putin’s God Squad.

Two years ago United Russia (aka The Party of Putin) created a parliamentary group in defence of “Christian values.” The Cossacks were allowed to patrol the streets — and to “patrol the morals.” These are the same Cossacks that form a bulk of pro-Russia militants in Ukraine by the way.

The construction of 200 (!) new churches in Moscow was sponsored by the Moscow government. Even the Communist Party supports the church nowadays. Indeed, there is a blurred line between the Russian Church and state. Says Putin: “The voice of the church should be heard loudly everywhere, especially on TV channels. […] The state should ensure adequate expression of citizens' interests, which binds their world view to the values of Orthodoxy and other traditional confessions.” (Translation here).

Further, Putin made religious education mandatory in all Russian schools. Putin: “Children should be taught by well-trained people, either by theology teachers or priests.”

The reversal from the Soviet era is profound, echoing the famous totalitarian principle, “what isn’t prohibited will be made compulsory.”

There is no compulsory religious education in Ukraine. Church is separate from the state, and ancient religious decrees are not used in courts as legal documents.

11) Fraudulent Elections
I was an election observer during the Russian presidential election in 2012. You can read my report, alas in Russian, here.

Elections in Russia are neither free nor fair. Opposition parties are universally barred from elections. And opposition candidates are just as routinely put in jail or under house arrest. Some are even abducted abroad and tortured.

Libertarian Party of Russia was also refused registration. Libertarian candidate Vera Kichanova was attacked during her electoral campaign and her petition signatures destroyed.

There are 41 recognised prisoners of conscious in Russia at the moment.

Since the release of Yulia Tymoshenko there are no political prisoners in Ukraine. The elections in Ukraine were genuine and “ in line with international commitments and with a respect for fundamental freedoms in the vast majority of the country.”

Here are some more quick facts, this time about Russian “anti-fascists” in Eastern Ukraine

Oleg Tsarev, the pro-russian oligarkh in Donbass, introduced the new flag of Novorossiya. The same flag is heavily used by neo-Nazis in Russia and is called “imperka,” meaning the imperial flag (check out the armbands, and balaklavas.)

A majority of separatists fighting in Ukraine are in fact Russian neo-Nazis with no prior connection to the region. Their warlords are Russian nationals, too (Aleksander Borodai, Igor Strelkov and Babai, to name a few). None of them visited Donbass before the war.

Donetsk's guerrilla separatists kidnap the Ukrainian artist who dared to mock them.

Dmitry Rogozin, now the Deputy PM of Russia in charge of the defence industry, was elected as a member of the ultra-xenophobic “Rodina” (motherland) party. Check out his political ad from 2005 (make sure you enable the captions.)

Scared of the nationalist “Svoboda” party in Ukraine? Sure, they are some pretty bad guys. But check out Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a leader of the Russian ultra-nationalist LDPR party and a deputy speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament. Just few days ago he promised to “wipe out Poland and the Baltic states.” He advocated reducing the birth rate among ethnic minorities by imposing a penalty for the birth of a third child. And he was also a close friend of Saddam Hussein. In the last parliamentary election in Russia his party won twice the share of seats “Svoboda” has in Ukraine.

Just in case you want to know more, there is a great documentary about him: “Tripping with Zhirinovsky.”

A civil war is by definition not a foreign attack. In Ukraine, Russian troops fight with Russian weapons under Russian warlords against Kyiv government. What happens in Ukraine is not a civil war, it’s a Russian invasion.

Some quick facts about the allegedly “fascist” government in Kiev

You know the bill that everyone is talking about, that supposedly “revoked Russian language rights” in Ukraine? It has never been signed into law.

The Law on Education grants Ukrainian families(parents and their children) a right to choose their native language for schools and studies.

There are 8,334,141 Russians living peacefully in Ukraine. It is Ukraine’s largest minority. There are 1,154 schools available to them where all the instructions are provided in Russian. In most other Ukranian schools Russian is taught as the second language.

There are 1,927,888 Ukrainians living in Russia, the second-largest minority after the Tatars. Do you know how many schools are available to them in Russia? None. Zero. There are no schools with instructions on Ukrainian. There are just Sunday schools, all 15 of them.

Furthermore, Russia banned Ukrainian language from schools in Crimea. This was literally the first thing they did.

There is no “fascist” government in Ukraine. In the Ukrainian presidential election of 2014, nationalists generated an embarrassing 1 percent of the vote for Oleh Tyagnibok of ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party, and less than 1 percent for Dmitry Yarosh of the new Right Sector party that sprung up during the protests. Tyagnibok and Yarosh together received fewer votes than Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish candidate who captured a little over 2 percent of the ballots.

Quick facts about the Crimean occupation

Putin admitted that Russian troops took over Crimea, removing any doubt that it was an occupation and not a popular uprising.

The same kind of referendum Putin staged in Crimea is illegal in Russia. Public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation are punishable by 4 years in prison. Putin systematically bans Siberian independence marches, and blacklists every news outlet that dares to mention it — making Russia a kind of Hotel California of nations.

Crimean Tatars enjoyed an autonomy within Ukraine. But since Russia annexed Crimea the deportation of Tatars resumed. Leaders of Crimean Tatars are labelled 'extremists,' and banned from returning home. More here.

Tatar books are being banned in Crimea; Crimean Tatars are being kidnapped; some of them are found tortured to death.

These are the facts about Putin’s Crimea.

Nothing like this happened when Crimea was part of Ukraine.

What I argue is that if you consider the facts, you will see that Russia fits the description of a fascist state much better than Ukraine.

But what upsets me the most is not that western libertarians are defending Russian aggression, but that they are defending lesser freedom as well. Ukraine may be a weak state, but it’s also less oppressive — something libertarians should sympathise with.

Sure, Ukraine has its problems and it’s far from being a libertarian utopia. But Ukraine has freedom of speech and free elections, something Russia lost a long time ago. People of all creeds and religions are left to their own devices, something banned in Russia. And gays are protected by the anti-discrimination laws, the opposite of things is Russia. It’s not much, but it’s much better than what Russia has to offer, and vastly better than what Putin has been delivering by force in eastern Ukraine.

I hope this post will allow fellow libertarians in the west to see through Russian propaganda a little bit better. Should you be interested in a more in-depth information about the Russian attack on Ukraine, check out this excellent report by Andrei Illarionov.

Mikhail Svetov has been a member of the Libertarian Party of Russia since 2010.

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