An outsider viewing Euro2012 — the pan-continental soccer tournament that even to longtime observers seems a bit odd — might reasonably conclude that Western Europe makes a concerted effort to completely forget about the East for several years at a time, only to rediscover the refugees of Soviet brutality with a start at irregular intervals. There is something fair to this; the opening of Euro2012 was not marked with fanfare as Ukraine and Poland opened themselves to the world of sport, but rather a series run by the BBC (and highlighted ad nauseam by the Guardian) accusing the Ukrainians of unfettered racism, especially around soccer matches, and with calls for a boycott because of the Yulia Tymoshenko case.
The boycott — a futile gesture during the Cold War, a more futile one now — appears to be largely based on Angela Merkel’s need to pacify her left wing while she sorts out the collapse of the Eurozone and to keep the Russian suppliers of her country’s natural gas happy, and is already receding into the headlines. The cries of racism have largely fallen flat as the only such incident so far was between Russian and Polish fans; pan-Slavic slurs don’t rise quite to the level of the racism the BBC attempted to conjure.
(I leave to the side the irony of the British Broadcasting Company seeming scandalized by the thought of racist soccer hooligans, showing once and for all that the Beeb’s producers couldn’t find a soccer match if they were dropped off at Eastlands in time for a City-Man. U. dustup.)
What was lost in all of this is the proof of the growth — uneven growth, to be sure — of civil society in the wreckage of the Soviet Union. This is a terribly important thing, and all the more so because we tend to take it for granted.
Civil society is the necessary precondition for healthy government — democracy, constitutional monarchy, and republics all rely on the power of the intermediating, voluntary institutions to live, grow, and survive. This is something President Bush and his team at State did not fully understand as they tried to build democratic governance in Iraq, where civil society was brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein, and something President Obama does not understand as he tries to undermine institutions like the Catholic Church, as they fight not to be compelled to perform mortal sins. Voluntary institutions give their members a stake in society, one such that they see themselves as not mere subjects, but participants, men and women who will defend the system because they are part of it, not beneath it.
Russia has demonstrated firmly that just being able to vote does not make a democracy; the citizens must believe they have some stake in the vote, or they will not care about the result.
Those states where civil society is healthy and thriving are either models of growth — the Baltics and Poland come to mind — or working to reform and grow in painful fits and starts, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and, to a lesser extent, Armenia. Those countries without it — Uzbekistan, Belarus, Turkmenistan — are not merely model brutal dictatorships, but rather model brutal dictatorships falling inexorably back into Russia’s decayed orbit.
By urging boycotts and focusing on alleged racism, the West is undermining civil society at a moment when it is needed most. We take for granted these things because they are so common for us, so everyday. In the former Soviet Union, decades of hard work and diligent efforts by the citizenry have produced wonders — albeit tenuous ones. In Ukraine, there is a thriving, if wildly unpopular, political opposition and the Kyiv Post — the largest paper in the country — is a model for how to hate the Government. Azerbaijan has hundreds of Opposition parties, and most of the controversy that came out of the EuroVision song contest was first carried in Opposition papers and blogs.
But these things exist because of hard work and shared commitment. By treating soccer matches as political tokens, politicians undermine them, make them cheap and tawdry. By treating unusual acts of racism as the everyday, the BBC tells Ukraine not to bother with an open society. By ignoring the real progress so many of these states have made to focus on their shortcomings, we send the perverse message that decent behavior is not even worthy of mention.
That is the real lesson of the cultural events of the last two months. Rare is the Western politician who understands this.