Thursday, 20 February 2014

Incentives: Why Ukrainians have a just cause

Note: One of the very few political articles written on this blog. 

First of all, I have to declare that I am not in any way a political scientist and neither do I proclaim any vast knowledge on the subject. I am, as most of my regular reader know, an economist. Yet, the first thing an economist learns (or at least should learn) is that people do what they do because of incentives. There might be a spark which lights the fire, but the underlying material is already there. The same has happened with Ukraine.

Even though I do not profess to have extensive knowledge of neither the country nor the region, I can still compare the anti-austerity protests with those in the EU periphery over the past couple of years (or, in the case of Greece, since 2010). Their main distinction is that even though there was the occasional violence, which at times got very bad, this was not of the extent now witnessed in Ukraine. There have been wounded protestors, use of teargas or Molotov cocktails, yet people were not as persistent nor as willing to sacrifice their lives like the ones in Kiev.

In my mind, this only means that protestors in the periphery knew (albeit deep down) that austerity measures were "necessary", or even better that their governments were out of options (this is not to say that I am endorsing austerity, in fact the reader should know I am in the opposite camp). The demonstrations took place because people have had enough with poverty and declining living standards, yet they saw the situation as being forced to them due to the mistakes made by their own country; and here is where Ukraine is different.

When people decide to put their lives at risk and refuse to surrender when even when many of their compatriots have already been killed, the perspective is different. As already said, I do not know the reason behind the takeover of the Maidan square, but the spark was that the Ukrainian president preferred to remain under Russian influence. Yet, when the incentives to change are so strong that people are willing to give up their lives for it, it usually means that there is something wrong with the current situation. It may be corruption, it may be that the presidency feels like a dictatorship or whatever, but the reason is there; and it is strong.

In fact, the situation strongly reminds me of the Athens Polytechnic uprising in 1973 where students decided to fight against the military junta, an effort which ended in violence when a tank forced its way into the University, much similar to what the Ukrainian authorities have done in the past days. The message, is simple: when people are prepared to die for what they are fighting for, then most of the times, their cause is just.

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