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Being Like Us

Ukrainian aspirations, American drift

At 2pm this coming Sunday, December 22, Ukrainians here and in Ontario will meet at the Peace Bridge to hold a solidarity demonstration. They want local politicians and good-government people to get with the program supported by the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy activists back home in Kiev, the ancient city whose Maidan, or central square, has been occupied by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators for the past month. The Ukrainians want our help.

They’re demonstrating in all the major cities in Ukraine. The major media in Europe carry the story just as the American media carried the Solidarity story three decades ago—because in Europe, it’s news that masses of citizens in a former Soviet republic want to be European. Back in 1980, when Lech Walesa and the trade-union movement stood up to the Soviet puppet regime in Poland when it sent the tanks in to crush demonstrations, Polish-Americans held mass street protests here in the US. Polish-Americans who were five generations distant from the old country took to the streets of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and other big centers of Polonia. The politicians of both parties joined in.

It took a decade more for the Soviet system to crumble—and for Poland as well as Ukraine, the Baltic states, and subsequently Georgia and other Soviet republics to break away—but the message was very clear: The Euro-American system was everybody’s goal. Everybody wants a Euro-American civil society, where individual expression is protected, where there is private property, the rule of law, some environmental protection, at least a chance at a better standard of living, and freedom from police-state repression, too.

Everybody in eastern Europe wanted American support then. The Ukrainians want it now.

Solidarity rather than…meh

Let’s hope that the potent symbolism of American-Canadian solidarity for a faraway democracy movement actually happens here, now, at an international border that’s been peaceful for one week short of 200 years. Buffalo is actually the optimal spot for demonstrating support for European democracy movements, for international environmental crusades, and certainly for teaching the central lesson that everybody in a democracy needs to learn and re-learn—which is that it can all slip away, so very easily, once it becomes corrupt.

And oh, how corrupted we’ve become. American intellectuals who struggle to understand the new American populism, which is most vigorously expressed by the Tea Party and most wanly by the Occupy movement, get lost in the racism, the Koch brothers’ machinations, and the bizarre magical thinking or paranoia that fringe activists display. The more important item for analysts to focus on is Americans’ widespread alienation.

Alienation. It’s measurable in the ever-diminishing voter turnout for municipal, state, and even national elections. Americans are giving up on their democracy even as the democratic pulse beats strongly everywhere it’s been repressed.

In the 2012 presidential election, only 58.2 percent of eligible voters particpated, down from 61.6 percent in 2008. In the September 2013 primaries for mayor of Rochester and Buffalo, turnout was abysmal: 31 percent in Rochester, only 20 percent in Buffalo. Byron Brown won re-nomination in 2013 with only 14,022 votes; the overall turnout was less than the 26,000 votes with which he won the Democratic nomination in 2009. Bill de Blasio won the general election for New York City mayor this November with 22.6 percent of the vote. An article in Political Research Quarterly argues that this level of voter disengagement is typical for mayoral elections—but it’s not just mayoral elections, folks.

Technicians and political scientists argue that because voter turnout is higher when these local elections are scheduled with national elections, we should schedule them together. But that kind of change is not going to happen.

Nor is a desperately needed fix—public financing of campaigns—that could address the prevasive sense of corruption that is at the root of the alienation.

Democracy and visibility

The 46 million Ukrainians who live in that country, along with the millions of exiled or expatriate Ukrainians scattered around the planet, can expect only tepid interest from US citizens. Their struggle is not daily news here like the Poles of the Solidarity era were. And though there are several thousand Ukrainians in the Buffalo area—enough to support the magnificent spaces of the Dnipro hall on Genesee Street, and a Saturday Ukrainian-language school, and several churches—their presence here is tiny compared to that of the Poles, the Irish, and the Italians.

Yet Buffalo’s community helps out the home-folks. Yuri Hreshchyshyn, along with former Erie County Legislator Greg Olma, has monitored several recent elections in Ukraine with the support of both local donors and of a Canadian pro-democracy organization. Dianna Derhak, a Buffalo attorney, just left for Kiev. Two other local Ukrainian-Americans have been sending videos and reports back to the Buffalo network. There is real energy for the struggle there, and here, because the struggle that they’d hoped had been won when Ukraine became independent again in 1991 has to be waged all over again.

Americans disengage from politics, or go stridently into the fringe movements, because of a sad conviction—that the fix is in, that the insiders always win, that protest is futile. Here in Buffalo, the news about the inside job is a daily phenomenon: We are all supposed to salute when yet another real-estate developer gets public money, by the shovelful, for building yet another office building, yet another bar, yet another hotel, because our political economy is, if more gently, Soviet, too. In Ukraine, where masses of protesters understand what the real Soviet system is like—and it’s back, with Vladimir Putin’s Soviet-style muscling, cronyism, thuggery, and contempt for rules—the streets are full of people who are saying no.

They’re out in the cold in the Maidan, the big square downtown in Kiev. One observes the Ukrainian colors in the night sky of downtown Buffalo, with the usually white tower of the Electric Building on Washington Street lit with blue and yellow because the Ukrainian-American owner, Iskalo, gets to do that for the cause. Come Sunday, maybe the peaceful, prosperous, chilly Ukrainians of New York and Ontario can get some help, and send some videos back to the folks up against the machine back home. It’ll be a good day to live, and to fight, and then to repair to Dnipro for a cold one from Kiev.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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