Monday, March 24, 2014

Democracy depends on good losers

I have been reading Making Our Democracy Work by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (Knopf 2010). One passage may be of particular relevance to the struggle for democracy now underway in many parts of the world from South Sudan to Egypt. It is also a challenge to those in Washington whose reluctance to follow the basic operating principles of a two-party democracy has led to government paralysis. 

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the national popular vote. But elections are decided by the electoral votes and everything hinged on Florida. Under Florida law (like most states) the candidate who receives the largest share of state’s popular vote also receives all the state’s electoral votes. In the original count, Bush led Gore by fewer than two thousand votes out of the six million cast, thus triggering an automatic recount. Bush still came out ahead but by a narrower margin and Gore challenged the count in four districts. 

The Florida Supreme Court then ordered a recount of the entire vote. Bush’s legal team leapt into action and challenged the state’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in a highly controversial decision voted by 5 to 4 in Bush’s favor.

The process had been complicated by hand counting of machine-uncountable ballots due to various types of voter error. Subsequent studies produced conflicting conclusions on which candidate would have won, had the state been allowed to do a complete recount. For many the Court’s decision was a huge disappointment and many regarded it as unfair.

Justice Breyer, who was among the dissenters on the Court, writes: “Whether the decision was right or wrong is not the point here. If I and three other members of the Court thought the decision was very wrong, so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next. Gore, the losing candidate, told followers not to attack the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. And despite the great importance of the decision, the strong disagreement about its merits, and the strong feelings about the Court’s intervention, the public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully, with no need for troops… without rocks hurled in the streets, without violent massive protest. The leader of the U.S. Senate Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that the public's willingness to follow the law as enunciated by the Court constitutes a little-remarked, but the most remarkable, feature of the case. I agree”

In a New York Times commentary on December 13, 2011, Scott Farris reflected on what some observers have called one of the great political speeches in American history: “In many countries, losing candidates do not peacefully accept defeat, and their obstinacy leads to political chaos, riots and sometimes civil war. Gore understood the risks to America from a prolonged dispute over an unresolved election. Our democratic political system works only when the losers give their consent to be governed by the winners. So, on Dec. 13, 2000, Gore chose to begin a process of healing. He did not merely concede, he gave a remarkably upbeat and friendly concession speech and quoted an earlier losing candidate, Stephen Douglas, who pledged to Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’”

In order to function, democracy requires a loyal opposition which puts country before political partisanship. Al Gore offered a lesson we all will do well to remember.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pain and hope in Ukraine

It is difficult not to write about Ukraine at this time. And I realize how little I and most of us really know about this huge country, the second largest in Europe, which now stands at the crossroads of history.

Recently, I read Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University (Basic Books, 2010). It is a sobering read, a meticulously researched history of how 14 million people were murdered in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945. Snyder writes, “During the years that Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or Europe, or in the world.”

For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was the place that “would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics, rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image.” Everything depended on control of Ukraine's fertile soil and its millions of agricultural workers.

In 1933 Ukrainians suffered the “greatest artificial famine in history of the world.”  As a result of Stalin’s policy forced of collectivization and export of grain from starving villages, 3.3 million Ukrainians died (some say up to 6 million). In the spring of 1933 they died at a rate of 10,000 a day. Thousands of others were deported to the Gulag or to Kazakhstan.

Then, in 1937 and 1938, NKVD operatives shot 70,868 inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in the operation against the so-called “kulak resistance.”  A disproportionate number were of Polish origin. Of the 681,692 death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine (this does not include natives of Ukraine shot in the Gulag).

When Hitler seized control in 1941, writes Synder, he tried to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The German plan envisaged “a vast eastern colony.” The native pollutions were to be deported, killed or forced into slave labor. Depending on demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million peoples, mostly Slavs were to “disappear.” Under the “hunger plan” sixty-five percent of the population of western Ukraine and eighty-five percent of Poles, and seventy-five percent of Belarusians were to be eliminated.

The German military conquest failed, but three million Ukrainians (non-Jews and as many as 900,000 Jews) were killed, sometimes with the assistance of local police forces.

Further suffering followed when the Soviets regained control. Synder records that many new Gulag prisoners were from the lands that Stalin had taken in 1939 with German consent and then took again in 1945. Between 1944 and 1946, more than 182,000 Ukrainians were deported from Southern Ukraine to the Gulag.

This is just some of the history that continues to impact Ukraine today and which the courageous young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine has set out to heal as described by one of its leaders, Lena Kashkarova. It is a daunting but vital task. Last fall Lena, who is of mixed Ukrainian-Russian background, interned in Richmond, Virginia, with the Initiatives of Change program Hope in the Cities. She is currently in Crimea interpreting for CNN. Her recent emails help to correct some impressions created by the media:

Events of the last three months united people from different backgrounds from East and West alike. As I see it, a big part of the population finally lost Soviet identity and became aware that Ukraine is home for all of us, no matter what origin we come from, and learned to hold responsibility for this home.

Another important factor is the role of churches of all confessions as well as other religions who demonstrated enormous support for the protest movement. It started with the beatings by riot police youth by offering refuge in the Orthodox monastery, and it continued with the installation of a prayer tent at Maidan square, and turning churches into underground hospitals; then providing space for cooking, running dialogues and meetings in the cities where no other institution would dare to host them; staying for hours between riot police and protesters; and reading the last rites for those killed.  At times of attacks on Maidan, all the churches rang bells in warning.

In the past there was lots of controversy between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukrainian Patriarchy and Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy (which is subordinate to the Russian one). Not any more. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy condemned Russian occupation of Crimea along with its Ukrainian counterpart, despite a completely different message from its 'boss' in Moscow. In my opinion they all became not separate institutions but one real Christian Church and played a huge role together with doctors, journalists, veterans, students, etc., in making true what seemed to be completely impossible three months ago.

Paradoxically, Russian occupation both divided and brought more unity among Ukrainians. There are people from East and West alike who are ready to defend their country. Russian-speaking Ukrainians with Russian background are ready to fight against the Russian army. There are almost no Russian citizens in Ukraine! There are many people of Russian or mixed origin (as I am) whose native language is Russian, but they are not citizens of Russia. There are huge lines of those who want to get mobilized in the Ukrainian army in a country where [normally] people pay bribes and do everything not to be mobilized for [required] military service.  

At the same time there is a huge divide with those people who hold what I would describe as 'Soviet' identity and – what is most important – have listened to Russian propaganda that pours from Russian TV and other media. The amount of lies and bluff is just overwhelming.

Overhearing Russian TV is just painful. It is not just manipulating facts; it simply fabricates news and rouses hatred! No wonder people who listen to it are scared of "fas—Āists" from the West and are full of hatred towards them. This propaganda will affect our society for a long time.

It's easy to bring division and conflict. It is very hard to reconcile.