Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech (Palacio de Miraflores/Miguel Angulo)

After the “color revolutions,” the European “indignados,” “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Arab Spring,” pundits are again trying to make sense of a wave of public demonstrations around the world. Parallels have been drawn between the protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela but only a superficial analysis could conclude that these are equivalent.

The advent of new social media and the easier ability for unorganized demonstrators to mobilize themselves has facilitated the emergence of such phenomena. However, the lack of political coherence often implies an inherent anarchic and unsubstantial character to such demonstrations. If all these protests have something in common, it is that they largely failed to achieve any meaningful change. The Arab Spring did shake things up but it is difficult to see how overthrowing the old regimes has managed to improve living conditions in the Middle East and North Africa.

That said, in 2014, Venezuela’s is probably the most consistent and rational of the protests and it differs starkly from realities in Bangkok and Kiev when it comes to legitimate grievances as well as methodology.

Grievances

When the first protests were held against the “Bolivarian” revolutionaries back in the days of Hugo Chávez, the regime called them American led agitation. Those were the times of high oil prices and boon social programs after all; the public was still unaware of just how disruptive the government’s reforms would become. After a decade of Chavismo, however, it is quite clear that any good it may have brought is easily eclipsed by the catastrophic mismanagement of the state.

It would be easy to say that Chavismo brought corruption but all Venezuelan governments are corrupt. A more accurate critique would be that the revolution misrepresented itself since the old aristocracy was not eradicated; it was replaced. The new regime is not more transparent than the old one but unlike the old one, the new claimed it would be, well, revolutionary. This is the danger of grandstanding and Chávez excelled in the art. Unluckily for his successor, Nicolás Maduro, who is the one left to pick up the pieces.

In what concerns the economy, Chavismo was an unmitigated disaster. More corruption, less foreign investment, gross mismanagement, greater dependency on oil — and thus on the United States — and generalized dysfunction of the economy. Planned economies have failed in the past. Venezuela is no different.

What is worse for the regime is that this is not an academic debate such as the ones being held in the West on how best to deal with the crisis. In Venezuela, even something as basic as toilet paper has become a scarce good and the masses have taken notice. Crime has skyrocketed and the government’s wise policy is to arm paramilitary forces against “imperialist enemies.”

In foreign policy, too, the regime has brought only embarrassment. Venezuela’s oil diplomacy in Latin America has gained it few real allies, its anti-American stance brought it isolation and the few partners it has managed to put together are completely useless. Cuba and Iran are themselves isolated and could not help the regime in Caracas if it actually required foreign aid, be it in military assets or funds. If Venezuela truly wanted to oppose the United States, the way to do it as an Atlantic state would be to befriend the European Union and Brazil instead and help foster such initiatives as Mercosur. Instead, the regime’s buffoon of a leader ensured the enmity of most Western investors. The kitsch tracksuit transpired lack of sophistication in both fashion and statesmanship.

Conversely, neither Yingluck Shinawatra nor Viktor Yanukovich dramatically altered the status quo of either Thailand or Ukraine. This is not to make an argument against change since change can be successful. But between status quo and catastrophic change, the choice is more than obvious.

Yanukovich, in spite of having been elected by a more Russophile base, did not dramatically side Kiev with Moscow. His decision to postpone an association agreement with the European Union seems to have been based on pragmatic and expedient calculations and to have been everything but the product of some type of bias. Ukrainians rising up against him were clearly disappointed in his policy and critiques pointing to shortsightedness may deserve merit. Nevertheless, not only was his policy perfectly legitimate; he was hardly the first politician ever to opt for the short term. Indeed, Ukraine’s economic woes may well have required faster, more decisive action rather than a macroeconomically sound long-term solution.

Yanukovich’s government has been called bullish and exceedingly corrupt, so much so that even many oligarchs have denounced it. Again, as true as this may be, it is hardly revolutionary and even less worthy of any dramatic moves to overthrow the government. Political intimidation and corruption have long been embedded in Ukraine’s political fabric and Yanukovich can hardly be begrudged by those who previously voted for such pristine politicians as Yulia Tymoshenko. The incumbent president may have concentrated power in his and his family’s hands but such phenomena are hardly a monopoly of this administration, even if it may be more shameless about it.

Shinawatra did continue many of her infamous brother’s policies in Thailand such as distributing subsidies to poor communities to unethically secure constituencies or being largely complacent with her associates’ business interests which have long been suspected of corruption. Even so, this hardly marks a big departure from business as usual.

While demonstrators in Venezuela have thus ample cause for revolt, it is difficult to see how Thais or Ukrainians can possibly justify their explosions of anger other than with political bias. Indeed, in the early days of both crises, most commentators had trouble finding a discernible motivation for them and many press articles ended with question marks. In the case of Thailand, Western media have remained far more detached and noncommittal.

Methods

The methods of the protesters also vary. Whereas in Venezuela, the opposition calls for the resignation of a government that has objectively curtailed freedom of speech and sunk the economy, in Ukraine, it has yet to blame the current economic crisis on the government. In Thailand, it is the opposition that is actually hurting the economy by keeping the country politically unstable. Ukrainians demonstrating in Kiev have pushed for the removal of the president from the onset but only recently did they have grounds to use the human rights card.

While Venezuelans are largely on their own, Ukrainians have sought to enlist the aid of outsiders to their cause by framing theirs as a struggle against tyranny and oppression.

Ukrainian media are hardly up to Western standards but it would nevertheless be wrong to believe there is no freedom of speech in the former Soviet republic. Indeed, one has to wonder how many regimes — democratic or otherwise — would have allowed a string of foreign activists and politicians to pour into their country to lend support to the opposition. The same can be said of police tactics which, confronting severely belligerent extremists within the crowd, still allowed for the protests to continue strong for months on end.

In truth, Chavistas and the West have more in common than they would like to admit for both appeal to “international solidarity.” In opposition, Yanukovich is more parochial.

In Ukraine as well as in Thailand, the opposition has been impervious to compromises. Time and time again, Yanukovich offered terms for the protesters to leave which they repeatedly rejected only to recall their demand that he be deposed. In Thailand, Shinawatra called early elections but the opposition would not relent, knowing full well that they lacked the votes to unseat her democratically.

Democracy is a bit of a problem for Ukraine’s opposition as well. Contrary to the image of a country united against a tyrant that they wish to convey, Yanukovich’s poll numbers have remained steady. While not high enough to win an election outright, they are certainly enough to at least take him into a second round runoff.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, the regime’s numbers have dwindled as the economic crisis worsened.

In violence the crises also differ with escalation and provocation of security forces being a constant in Bangkok and Kiev. In Venezuela, there have been fewer victims.

Change

Finally there is the issue of change. What could be achieved by each of these revolts?

In Venezuela, that much is clear: a government led by the opposition would dump the planned economy and move back to free markets. Poverty would likely remain but employment and diversification should ensure the growth of a healthy middle class in the medium term. Geopolitically, Venezuela would no longer be ignored by international investors. In short, the basket case that is Venezuela today would make a comeback. Politically, too, it is easy to envisage a more transparent and competent regime in place of the “Bolivarians.”

In Thailand, however, things are murkier. If there is no doubt the opposition would pursue lawsuits against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and call off subsidies to peripheral areas, it is difficult to see how any of that would significantly reduce corruption in the country or alter current electoral trends. If, as the opposition wishes, the army were to intervene, would this stave off corruption? Unlikely.

In Ukraine especially, the country would not become particularly more democratic or humane. Corruption is a cultural trait rather than the feature of a given government. Whereas in Venezuela, nationalizations have fostered political appointments and governmental corruption as well as mismanagement on a wide scale, in Ukraine, the levels of corruption have suffered little variation.

According to Transparency International, during Yanukovich’s rule, Ukraine has slipped ten places in its Corruption Perceptions Index ranking. While Yanukovich may have introduced malpractices, it is convenient to remember that the period between 2010 and 2013 was also when the financial crisis hit hardest. Western investment dried up and lowered the energy derived revenues of countries like Russia which Ukraine also depends on. A depressed economy is a paradise for corrupt practices. Comparatively, another peripheral European country like Portugal fell seven places during the crisis.

These are, of course, largely contextual variations whereas Venezuela has been slipping in the ranking ever since Hugo Chávez rose to power and stands today thirty places below its ranking in 2005!

Cautious politicians would do well to listen to tales of human rights violations, on the part of status quo regimes, with more than a grain of salt. This is especially true of those seeking some sort of international legitimacy and support. Too often has Western voluntarism been used as a proxy instrument in unrelated conflicts.

As grey as international relations may seem, good judgement always depends on objectivity, not emotion.