Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ukraine Update

I recently posted on Ukraine.

The situation there continues to be interesting. Now, former president Yanukovich seems to have fled to Russia and is appealing to Russia for safety.

He said he remains the lawful president of the country and denounced the "lawlessness" in the Ukraine and said, "Unfortunately, everything that is happening in the Verkhovna Rada [the new Parliament] has no legitimate nature."

I think that's wrong.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, armed gunmen seized the government headquarters in Crimea and raised a Russian flag above it.

That article describes Crimea as follows:
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership in Kiev following the ouster of Yanukovich on Saturday.
Crimea was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
While legally part of Ukraine, Crimea is highly pro-Russia and at times has pushed for independence from Ukraine. Further complicating this picture, part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Crimea, which gives it enormous stake in the fate of Crimea.

I'm not an expert on Ukraine, Crimea, or Russia, but the scenario that at first blush seems somewhat practical, and also legitimate, would be for Crimea to break off from the rest of Ukraine and become independent, while leaving the rest of Ukraine to the new Parliament.

[UPDATE: See the next post: Ukraine Update (3)]

New Question at Wielding Power

Wielding Power has a new question:

Should Marijuana Be Legal? (Deadline: 5/4/2014)

These questions are still open:

Should Nations Restrict Immigration? (Deadline: 3/2/2014)

Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished? (Deadline: 4/6/2014)

See here for more details.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I recently returned from a vacation and saw the situation in Ukraine had exploded. I hadn't really been following along, so I wanted to wrap my head around what's going on there. Here's the thoughts I gathered briefly. Maybe you'll find it useful.

This is a story with three themes:
(i) Russia vs. EU (East vs. West)
(ii) Economic Troubles
(iii) Political Corruption

A. Timeline

1. Since it's independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with it's national identity- does it want to be more European or more Russian? This is exacerbated by a demographic divide.

2. For the past decade, Ukraine has struggled with ongoing economic problems, including a large debt problem.

3. In the 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yushchenko was defeated by pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovich. However, voter fraud was alleged, leading to the 'Orange Revolution', an uprising that led to a reversal of the result, making Yushchenko President.

4.  In the 2010 election, continued poor economic performance led Yanukovich to victory again with promises of improvement. Prime Minister Tymoshenko called the results fraudulent. The EU thought the election was by-and-large ok. Tymoshenko resigned after pressure from parliament.

5. In 2011, Tymoshenko is arrested and convicted on charges of abuse of power for signing a disadvantageous gas deal with Russia in 2009. She denies the charges and claims this is to prevent her from running in new elections.

6. During this time, political and economic conditions continue to deteriorate. The EU sees recurring reports of deterioration of freedom of the media and assembly since the 2010 election. Concerns are raised over the independence of the judiciary, and a number of prosecutions are accused of being politically motivated. Yanukovich's rule is generally viewed as corrupt and abusive.

7. Simultaneously, the EU and the Ukraine hammer out an economic and trade agreement that's broadly supported by the people. However, due to the above, the EU puts additional constraints on the ratification of the treaty, saying that without reforms (including the release of Tymoshenko), the treaty can't move forward.

8. In November 2013, Yanukovich announces he's abandoning the EU trade agreement and moving closer to Russia, which threatened Ukraine with much higher gas prices if it signed the treaty.

9. November 2013: The people protest.

10. December 2013: the protests grow and become violent. Protestors destroy the statue of Lenin in Kiev.

11. December 2013: Russia offers Ukraine an economic deal: it offers to buy $15Billion in debt and lower the cost of gas by 1/3.

12. January 2014: Yanukovich signs an 'anti-protest' law that clamps down on protestors. Domestic and international outcry leads to it's repeal later in the month.

13. The protests grow. Various deals are proposed by the government and are rejected. The people demand constitutional reform, in particular giving less power to the president.

14. February 16, 2014: In exchange for the release of political prisoners, the protestors agree to leave city hall.

15. Feb 19, 2014: Two days of violence lead to 26 dead. Yanukovich announces a truce with the opposition.

16. Feb 20, 2014: It's announced that 67 people have been killed. In response, the EU sanctions Ukraine.

17. Feb 21, 2014: Yanukovich and the opposition reach an agreement brokered by France, Germany, and Poland that put the parliament in charge.

18. Feb 21, 2014: The Parliament frees Tymoshenko. Parliament dismisses Yanukovich and calls for elections on May 25th.

19. Feb 22, 2014: Parliament calls for the arrest of Yanukovich, who goes into hiding.

20. Russia stops dispersing its loan money and calls the uprising 'illegitimate'.

B. Causes?

I'm not close enough to the situation to say how the three themes of (a) Russia vs. EU, (b) Economic Troubles, and (c) Political Corruption combined to create this outcome. Likely all are at play, but how much each contributed is unclear to me.

C. What's Next?

Setting up a new, stable government in situations like this will be difficult, especially given the economic difficulties Ukraine has. Ukraine needs a lot of money, and Russia is likely the best source for it, which further complicates the issue.

D. Was the uprising legitimate?

My guess is probably yes, for now. Yanukovich is widely acknowledged as deeply corrupt and was clearly acting against what the people believed was right. That makes his government illegitimate, and it's up to the people of Ukraine to decide what to do: try to overthrow it/protest for reforms now or wait until the elections.

My thought is that if you can, it's better to wait and deal with the situation via normal constitutional, democratic processes rather than protests in the street. Why? Because otherwise you have no real rule of law, and you're proclaiming that you're just going to follow the law so long as it pleases you. Even the agreement brokered by the EU was outside of the Constitution. It's not clear that the notion and tradition of 'rule of law' means much in Ukraine.

However, because that notion means so little, and Yanukovich seemed to be actively subverting the Constitution, it's a bit foolish to try to play within the rules he's creating and actively manipulating to his advantage. If your laws are leading to terrible results and your president is abusing them anyway, it's time for new laws.

E. Some reading

Here are some links I found helpful:

Here's a timeline. It has much of the above.

Here's a Q&A with CNN.

A Washington Post look at the demographic and corruption issues.

A Time magazine article that focuses more on some of the economic issues.

Here's an article on the EU view of Ukrainian corruption prior to this.

Here's a Stratfor report on the future difficulties.

[UPDATE: see the next post: Ukraine Update]

Friday, February 14, 2014


A little while back, I posted about harm. On the whole, I think its good that we try so hard to avoid harming others.

But, as with anything, there are harmful side-effects.

One of those side-effects is that you can get what you want, so long as you express enough outrage. Everyone else, not wanting to harm, backs off and lets you have what you want.

In general, that's great, but when people learn that they can get what they want by expressing outrage, you start seeing them express outrage about everything.

Over the past few hundred years, Western society has done a great job of reducing the amount of harm that happens. Past societies would probably look at us in wonder.

The result is that as time goes on, I get more and more suspicious of outrage.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Should Government Ban Guns?

Wielding Power has just published its first issue: Should Government Ban Guns?

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Satan in Oklahoma?

Here's an interesting situation.

In 2009, an Oklahoma State Representative sponsored a bill that would allow him to build a monument of the Ten Commandments in front of the Oklahoma State capital, on state property. The bill passed with bipartisan support: 83-2 in the House and 38-8 in the Senate.

In 2012, he paid $10,000 of his own money to build the statue. It's worth taking a look at the pictures to see what it's like.

Is there anything wrong with this statue?

The ACLU thinks so, and is filing a suit claiming that it is unconstitutional.

Setting the law aside, do you think something like this should be ok or not?

Perhaps you think it's ok so long as the State of Oklahoma would allow other groups to put something there, if they wanted. So long as the State leaves it open to other groups, they aren't discriminating. It's just that Oklahoma residents happen to be Christian and generally support the Ten Commandments.

Well, here's a wrinkle.

Another group has applied to build their own monument next to the Ten Commandment monument. They want to build a monument to Satan.

It's worth reading this article for some background. The group doesn't actually believe in Satan; they are probably better described as politically active skeptics. They've seized on this as an opportunity to make a political point.

So now what do you think?

I'm torn.

On the one hand, it's probably better if they just took all the monuments down to avoid this entire battle. You don't want to get into a monument war, with every group setting up something for whatever reason they wanted.

On the other, I think that monuments that reflect the beliefs of Oklahomans are important and worthwhile- it's part of what makes them who they are. The Satanic monument clearly doesn't fit that bill. But the Universal Society of Hinduism has expressed interest in putting up a statue as well. Hinduism is a real religion (unlike the Satanism stunt), but only roughly 1% of Oklahoma residents are Hindu, so you can't really argue that it's reflective of Oklahomans as a whole, the way the Ten Commandments would be.

Ultimately, I believe that groups should do what they collectively think is right. In Oklahoma (and the US more broadly), we tend to very strongly believe in separation of church and state and don't want to give the impression that the state supports a particular religion. With that in mind, I think that the Ten Commandments monument crosses that line by standing on state property (particularly the State Capital). So I'd take it down (and disallow other religious monuments as well).