How Ukraine May Have Just Avoided Becoming The Next Syria

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic

An anti-government protester holds a firearm as he mans a barricade in Kyiv

A non-violent protest movement, viciously assaulted by authoritarian security services, turns to arms to defend themselves against the slaughter.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The ongoing chaos in Ukraine bears more than a surface resemblance to the protest stage that preceded the utterly catastrophic civil war in Syria. Currently, the Syrian civil war has claimed 130,000 lives — a figure that’s only an estimate, because fighting is too deadly for the United Nations to give an official count. Is that a terrible glimpse into Ukraine’s future?

Not necessarily. Late on Thursday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suggested he was open to holding early elections, a key protestor demand. If he’s actually serious — and it’s important to stress it’s too early to know whether he is — that can tell us a lot about the future of this crisis.

There are a lot of similarities between Ukraine and Syria even below the surface. Much as the Syrian revolution had Islamist elements working to turn the conflict bloody, there are extreme right-wing elements of the Ukrainian opposition that enjoy attacking government forces (though they haven’t displayed anything like Syrian Islamists’ willingness to kill indiscriminately). Syria borders poorly governed Iraq, giving armed groups easy supply routes through which to acquire more guns. Likewise, Ukranians — who have a fair amount of guns on their own — can access firearms through bordering Transnistria, a Moldovan breakaway province that’s allegedly the epicenter of the illegal European arms trade.

There also important differences. The Syrian government had brought the army to slaughter civilians in the street for months before the revolution turned to violence; the Ukrainian military hasn’t moved against the opposition — yet.

As it turns out, political scientists have figured out some of the fundamental reasons that conflicts like Syria’s and Ukraine’s are likely to descend into civil war. “Poverty, horizontal inequality, and state weakness are factors commonly associated with the onset of armed conflict, and those are certainly present” in Ukraine, Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver who studies the use of violence by anti-government movements, told me. “But the decision to use arms is not automatic, nor is it inevitable.” Opposition leaders need to make a choice to direct their movement away from protests and towards military force.

To see why, let’s focus on the second of Chenoweth’s conditions, “horizontal inequality” — which means economic inequality between social groups. That’s certainly true in Ukraine, where the ethnic Russians in East, generally government supporters, tend to be wealthier than the generally anti-government West, home of ethnic Ukrainians:

ukraine income

CREDIT: Vlad Mykhnenko and Adam Swain

But it’s not just inequality between groups that makes violence more likely; it’s also inequality inside groups. Political scientists Patrick M. Kuhn and Nils B. Weidmann tested a large sample of civil conflicts, and found that inequality inside rebel aligned movements was strongly correlated with a dissident ethnic group’s ability to escalate militarily. The reason, simply put, is that when rebel elites have a large group of poor recruits to draw on, it’s easier to find soldiers. “As within-group economic inequality increases, the proportion of poor increases, which expands the rebel’s reservoir of potential recruits,” in their words.

That’s true in Ukraine. As the map above indicated, Kyiv — the capital and heart of the protests — is the richest area of the country. So you’ve got a movement led in part by central elites, though it’s worth noting that people have been traveling to Kyiv for months to join the demonstrations, with the support of the poorest part of the country.

But Kuhn and Weidmann’s research also pointed to a crucial difference between the two countries. Including the minority group in government, they find, cancel out the effect of intra-group inequality on conflict: “for politically included groups, intra-group inequality seems to have no effect.”

Such inclusion was inconceivable in Syria, as the Assad regime structured its response to the rebellion around dividing the Alawite minority, which supported it, from the Sunni majority. The regime intentionally stoked ethnic fears as a means of heading off a united non-violent rebellion, and it worked.

But Yanukovich’s election promise suggests another way available to Ukraine. Excepting the rigged 2004 vote that prompted Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” and the 2012 parliamentary vote, Ukraine held a slew of elections that international observers judged “free and fair.” These elections had, in the past, calmed the waves of internal strife, restoring legitimacy to the central Ukrainian government and heading off any push towards armed rebellion.

So if Yanukovich is serious about elections, he may have done the first good thing for Ukranian democracy he’s done in quite some time.