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Professor lectures on post-communist transition and intervention

| Tuesday, February 7, 2017

“President Putin’s goals are very simple: to ‘Make Russia Great Again.’”

George Liber, professor in the department of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said this in his lecture Monday night called “Back to the Future: Soviet Collapse, the Long Post-Communist Transition and Putin’s Interventions in Ukraine, 2004-2014.” This talk, sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, was centered on Ukraine’s post-Soviet Union history and President Putin’s interventionist role. Liber most recently authored “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine.”

Liber spoke of the history in post soviet Ukraine in the past 25 years following the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 and the emergence of 15 independent republics.

Liber said upon its independence Ukraine had a plethora of problems, including deep internal divisions, flawed political design and major corruption which prevented the new “demokratura” — a blend of democracy and dictatorship — from running smoothly. A lack of economic reform in Ukraine had economic costs, such as a major decrease of GDP and a hyperinflation rate of over 10,000 percent, Liber said.

Liber warned against reading too much into the information, stating that Russian speakers in Ukraine are not always Putin supporters.

“These statistics are even more complex — there are other issues involved, not just ethnic or language differences in Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine is essentially a country in which a population is co-mingled. The Russian population in Ukraine and the Ukrainian population in Ukraine are not that different.”

In a struggle to maintain a solid political regime and therefore defaulting to a pluralist system of sorts, Ukrainian politicians often struggle with resistance becoming corrupt, Liber said.

“These demokratura have democratic trappings — they have constitutions, they have parliaments, they have elections and guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly. In practice, however, according to Asherson, they are manipulated to maintain the privileges of the post communist elite. The authorities in Russia, as well as in Ukraine, discretely falsify elections as well as use violence against some political challengers … the important thing is to keep your mob in power by persuading your people and the outside world that the political process at least roughly reflects the popular will,” Liber said.

This style of corrupt governance ultimately caused two major crises in Ukraine, he said. Liber recounted the events following President Viktor Yanukovych’s rigged election, Yanokovych’s refusal to sign an EU trade agreement due to President Putin’s opposal to it, and his false imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, a political opponent. Each of these events culminated in public demonstrations, some of which turned violent.

“This was the worst political violence in the history of Ukraine since the independence,” Liber said.

Just before signing a peace agreement to calm the protests which was overseen by the EU, Liber said, Yanokovych disappeared, fleeing to Eastern Ukraine for his own safety. Putin took over amidst the chaos and eventually annexed Crimea, and he later attempted to create a corridor from Russia to Crimea, he said. Putin’s interventions in Ukraine peaked when he sent Russian troops to Ukraine under the guise of the protection of the Russian speakers in Ukraine, Liber said.

Liber said that the violence that happened in Ukraine was a result of the peoples’ attempts to find a common future. He said Westernizers, moderate reformists and “Soviet-ophiles” all see Ukraine heading in different directions. Nonetheless, he said, Putin’s interventions have not swayed the deep-rooted desire for growth and change in the Ukraine.

“Despite everything that Putin did, Ukraine did sign this EU association agreement,” Liber said. “Most citizens after 1914 aspired to move closer to Europe than ever before. The hybrid war that Russia conducted in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 only served in the post-Soviet consolidation of the Ukrainian identity, introducing new perceptions of what it means to be Ukrainian. Not that one defines oneself as Ukrainian by ethnic or linguistic realms, but rather one defines oneself as Ukrainian by means of civic standards.”

Although Liber said historians probably shouldn’t make predictions, he said he believes that the conflict in the Ukraine will exist for a very long time.

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