Friday, January 31, 2014


I recently took one of those rare “trips back in time,” when I saw the award-winning docudrama No, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s look at the 1988 plebiscite which dealt the death blow to General Augusto Pinochet’s 15 year dictatorship.  Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays a young Ad Man who helps create the TV campaign that led Chileans to an overwhelming No vote against the dictatorship.  His ad agency boss runs the Yes TV campaign.

I was there, in Chile, between broadcast jobs, on the State Department’s dime, conferring with the country’s media elite about the future of television, pushing the idea that the coming age of satellite-driven communication was going to make everyplace equidistant from the global center stage, and make Chile’s “end of the road” self-concept an anachronism. 

Some Chileans thought that was an interesting, if radically counter-cultural idea, but most of them were rightfully preoccupied by something else: the role television was then playing in the upcoming national vote on the political future of Chile.

It was quite eerie to see on the movie screen in Albuquerque the very spots and programs I’d seen in Santiago, in production, or as they ran on Chilean TV, to see my best Chilean friend of the visit, Patricio Banados back in the No anchor chair.

It was a fine madness, bred no doubt by a serene confidence in his own re-election, which led Pinochet to approve a perfectly fair plebiscite.  It was also plu-perfectly Chilean.  Part of the horror of America’s Henry Kissinger-led intervention in support of Pinochet’s 1973 coup was that it wrecked the most civil, democratic society south of the United States.  

Thus, in 1988, after 15 years of state violence and deadly “disappearances,” a Chilean plebiscite still had to be real and fair and open.  Even a dictator’s credibility and honor depended upon fidelity to democracy.

In TV terms, this meant that the ground rules of the plebiscite required that the 2 sides on the ballot – Yes, Pinochet rules for another 8 years; No, he doesn’t, and has to leave at the end of his term – share a half-hour of prime time, seen on every TV channel in the country, to make their cases directly to the voting public.  The order of the nightly 15 minute packages alternated, day by day.

The Yes packages argued that 15 years of economic progress (and there had indeed been some under the Dictator) equaled happiness.  The argument was made with a lot of intentionally old-fashioned images of national pride and productivity and a lot of haranguing by “important people,” including most often, Pinochet himself.  This stale concoction was hard to watch, except when the General was on screen, usually in an ornate military uniform, speaking in a voice sounded almost exactly like a chicken.  Then, even to Chileans, it was chillingly hilarious. 

The No packages were a mix of jaunty young people singing and dancing in praise of freedom, gentle reminders of a more civil time from the comfortable, confidence-building anchorman Banados, who was famous in Chile for having been disappeared from the TV screen by Pinochet, and a few moments of brilliant political video.

One of these showed a notorious newsreel of a policeman beating an unresisting demonstrator, labeling both men as “good Chileans,” and insisting that both could, as that American icon of unnecessary violence and conflict Rodney King said, “get along.”

To a foreign media observer, there was no question which was the more effective campaign, but, as I wrote in the NY Times at the time, pre-election polls had the result “too close to call.”

Clearly a lot of people who didn’t feel safe telling some pollster they were against the government, did feel safe when casting their ballots.  The final score was 56% to 44% for the No.  Not even close.

At the climax of the film, after the National TV Channel’s announcement that the No had won a clear majority, there is a moment of terror at the No headquarters when there is a report that General Pinochet has summoned the heads of the security services to the Presidency.  Everyone there knows someone for whom a crackdown could mean prison or death.

People hold their breaths, until a follow up makes it clear, there will be no second strike against democracy: the Chiefs of Staff will have none of that.  They’ve told Pinochet he will have to recognize the vote and move away from power.

For many of the folks I had met in Chile on that trip, and an earlier one for The Committee to Protect Journalists to protest to Pinochet’s Justice and Defense Ministers the dictatorship’s use of military courts to suppress newspeople, that moment of personal pleasure was followed by a surge of national pride.  This is Chile, they congratulated themselves, here we prefer civility and democracy.

Which brings me (hold tight, this is something of a 180) to today and Ukraine.

One of the first scenes in the movie No, shows an early planning session of the No media team.  There are many points of view, many ideas that someone on the team thinks are essential to the campaign against Pinochet, freedom of speech, the right to organize, the crimes of military, the collaboration of the Church, (you should pardon me) blah blah blah (or as the fabulous Banados titled his first book Bla ble bli blo blu).

“No!” says the Garcia Bernal character, there is only one essential idea: gaining enough votes to win the plebiscite. 

And so it was: people voted for freedom, civility, kindness, and comfort and against oppression, violence, cruelty and discomfort.  The No won big.

Unlike Chile, whose perception that it was the last place anyone could or would go had bred not just insularity but a national identity, Ukraine is riven by an ongoing history of division and conflict, that is not just conceptual but geographic.  South and East Ukraine has a longer and closer (if not much happier) history with Russia, the Russian language, the Russian Orthodox Church, and more recently Sovietized industry and collective agriculture.  In the north and west of the country, the same cultural-historic lines lead more to Poland, Austria and Hungary; the Ukrainian language; the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and less mass-oriented economic and political institutions.

Those fractures are real and deep and active and were highlighted at the beginning of the current crisis when President Viktor Yanukovych withdrew from a promised entente with the European Union in favor of closer collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s plan for a renewed Russian empire.  “We want our Europe,” those first protestors seemed to shout, even as they looked nervously over their shoulders to the not-necessarily-on-board East.

But recent polls suggest that those reasons for division may be receding in the face of awidely-shared national disgust with Yanukovych, his government, his predecessors, and their co-dependents, co-defendants, the powerful apparatchiks and oligarchs.

As I was told again and again during my one reporting visit to Kiev and its rural surroundings in 2008, “They’re all assholes, thieves, thugs.”

It must be said, the historical record supports this harsh judgment.  Here’s hoping it sustains to a successful conclusion today’s ongoing “popular uprising.”

After all, Ukraine already had its “Orange Revolution,” 10 years ago, in which today’s Russian-leaning President Yanukovych was booted out, after a clumsily cooked election and replaced by the European-leaning Viktor Yushchenko.  Yuschenko, who doctors believe was not-quite-fatally poisoned by his opponents, was less Soviet than his predecessors, but not more effective.  Worse, he left office with wealth and real estate that could not have been purchased from his official earnings. His replacement, also regarded as pro-EU, Yulia Tymoshenko has been imprisoned by Yanukovych’s people, who charge her with making billions in corrupt dealings in natural gas with Vladimir Putin.  The judicial process in the Tymoshenko case has been widely judged to be deficient, but not absent of apparently damning evidence that she was a grafter.   

The guy before them, President Leonid Kuchma lost his hold on his notorious kleptocracy when audiotaped evidence tied him to the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, the popular and respected investigative reporter who had made Kuchma’s crimes notorious.  President Kuchma’s greatest accomplishment was creating a national consensus that he had to go.

Polls in the past week or 2, taken in all regions of Ukraine, suggest another consensus is building: they all have to go.

A moment of great opportunity is at hand. 

If that 99 to 1 consensus can be kept together, if the un-powerful 99% can put those traditional disagreements, even temporarily aside, national unity to start over, with a new constitution, new leaders, and very new adherence to democracy and of rule of law, might be a real possibility, and Ukraine might be saved.

You can read that possibility, ironically enough, in the hostile analyses of mostly-Russian “experts” quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, and echoed in the Washington Post, which propose – in headline form in the Monitor, less brashly in the Post – an alleged threat of civil war. 

“Amid ‘civil war’ talk, Kremlin keeps wary eye on Ukraine,” is what sits atop Fred Weir’s report in the CSM, which cites 3 Moscow sources.  Alexei Vlasov, director of the Center for the Study of the Post-Soviet Space at Moscow State University says, "The most dangerous variant for Russia is the threat of destabilization in Ukraine. If the situation goes out of control there, it could lead to civil war." Meanwhile, Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow projects an even greater threat: "The idea that people can take to the streets and force changes in government and policy orientation is something Putin worries about all the time,” he says. “Though the Ukrainian example is not spreading in Russia at the moment, that doesn't mean it won't have any effect."

These fellows sound like the advisors who told Pinochet he should reject the No vote and “:save Chile from chaos.” 

They are referenced and reified by Max Fisher, the WaPo foreign policy blogger: “There is chatter among analysts,” he writes, “ in Moscow as well as Washington, that if Yanukovych panics and calls in the military to disperse protesters it could lead to a civil war.”

Would civil war in Ukraine (with or without some implicit threat it could ignite rebellion in Russia, too) provoke intervention by Putin?  “No way,” says the man himself.  “Not yet,” murmur his local analysts.

“Russia has no intention of ever intervening,” Putin declared at a Russia-EU summit in Brussels. Then he accused European leaders of butting in themselves. “I can imagine how our European partners would react if at the height of the crisis in Greece or Cyprus, say, our foreign minister turned up at one of the anti-European Union meetings there and began making appeals to the crowd."

The reference, Weir writes, is clearly “a dig at EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and other EU officials who have addressed protesters on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, over the past two months.”

Weir quotes “Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant: ‘Putin seems to have come to the conclusion that Ukraine is like a volcano that will erupt from time to time. It's a natural disaster and you just have to get used to it. That's why he comes off looking far more pragmatic, even phlegmatic, than he did [in 2004].’”

So, is this war talk to sell papers, or paper the way to Russian intervention?

I don’t think it matters because I don’t think civil war is coming to Ukraine. 

This is not a country or a culture in love with violence.  It is the government’s resort to force and to repressive legislation that has discredited the Yanukovych regime with this growing majority of Ukrainian citizens.  And by the way, the use of violence attributed to the opposition produces only popular denunciation and disconnection.  The provocateurs are widely suspected of acting for the government, or of being useless nutballs.  Ukraine today, like Chile 25 years ago, has a civil opposition.

In Ukraine, there is a near monopoly on violence that resides in the state and its institutions.  There is no popular army to oppose them, and no popular wish to translate the political battle into literal bloodshed.  Ukrainians will neither support nor sustain terrorism, even to oust their political oppressors and economic exploiters.

Furthermore, as there was in Chile, there is a strong suspicion inside Ukraine’s security services and on its streets, that the state’s violence monopoly cannot successfully be used, because significant numbers of troops and cops would side with the people against their bosses, the generals and politicians.

Putin’s so-called calm in the face of the Kiev uprising may actually be his Obama moment, in which realizes that in Ukraine, as for Obama in Syria, he has no good option.  Russian interference would only trigger Ukrainian resistance and raise the possibility of truly dangerous instability and chaos.

Hence, today’s standoff continues in Kiev’s Independence Square and in provincial offices around the country.  Hence, the possibility exists that tomorrow could bring real political change to Ukraine. As a media guy said to me about Chile, “It could all happen, if we can just get enough people to say No.”

Certainly from what we see reported from Ukraine, no one there is saying anything better.


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