WORLD AFFAIRS.  Now that Americans have finished celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it may be worth asking whether Ukraine could ever get such an inspired, and inspirational, leader.

It certainly deserves to. The current crop of democratic leaders is mediocre at best and shabby at worst. They can issue statements and bang their fists, but they are unlikely to move people to self-sacrifice and solidarity.

The Orange Revolution showed that Ukrainians can be mobilized into a nationwide movement professing humanitarian goals, community, and nonviolence. Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko had their chance to be world-historical figures, but they blew it, preferring the political low ground to the moral high ground.

The failure of the Orange leaders has many reasons, but surely one of the most important was their personal inability to view politics from an irreproachable ethical vantage point. What distinguishes Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela from run-of-the-mill politicos is their ethics — their strong sense of right and wrong and their willingness to place the good of the community ahead of personal gain.  

Ukraine deserves to have a Martin Luther King, if only because Ukrainians so strongly resemble African Americans. Both peoples were held in humiliating captivity until the 1860s; both suffered savage discrimination and systematic violence in the last 150 years; both still experience the very similar consequences of their national traumas — from broken homes and broken cultures to dysfunctional males and overburdened females to excessive pride and excessive humility.

Back in the 1960s, during the heady days of the civil rights movement, some black Americans sought solutions in violence. The system seemed unalterably racist and ripe for smashing. Some Ukrainians may be tempted to respond the same way. The Yanukovych regime appears determined to transform Ukraine into a Slavic version of the Jim Crow American South, in which the knout rules, thugs go unpunished, and Ukrainian language, culture, and identity are confined to “Colored Only” waiting rooms. The temptation to strike back may be strong, but it should be resisted. Ukrainians must understand that violence is not only wrong but also ineffective, leading tyrants to crack down and reinforce their own ugly rule.

Dictators don’t fear bullets; they fear numbers. Dr. King, the Mahatma, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, Mandela, and Havel have shown that nonviolence and people power work. And most Ukrainians, at least those that spent weeks freezing on Kyiv’s Independence Square during the Orange Revolution and the Entrepreneurs’ Rebellion, know that too.

Charismatic, inspirational leaders cannot be predicted. Somehow, almost magically, they just emerge. Who would have expected an obscure Baptist minister in Atlanta to change America? Who would have imagined that a lawyer in South Africa would end British rule in India? Or that a writer of absurdist plays would bring down communism in Czechoslovakia? Such unpredictability is good news, however, as it means that, no matter how hard the Yanukovych regime cracks down on the current crop of leaders, it will never be able to find the future visionary.

The other bit of good news is this: Inspirational leaders emerge when the times are tough, when times demand inspirational leaders. The uglier the Yanukovych regime becomes, the likelier the appearance of a Ukrainian Martin Luther King. Ukrainian democrats may take heart. Sooner or later, they too shall overcome.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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