Fragments from a War Diary, Part #103
I had a pleasant Friday evening tonight in Lviv, the historical city that at various times has served as a capital of Ukrainian culture and maintains its status as a cultural epicentre of Ukrainian national pride. After I dined in a vegan restaurant with some colleagues, and enjoyed a cheeseburger, which was delicious, I ventured back to my usual local watering hole, where the staff are so wholesome and friendly to me. However something was rather different this evening. The bar had some distinctive new customers that I had not seen there before. They were dressed in jet black paramilitary uniforms, with black balaclavas and black face masks. They were adorned with machine pistols and canisters of mace spray. I don’t think they were there for the extra-large glasses of complimentary limoncello.
This is the sort of unusual thing you get used to in Ukraine. I asked one of my favourite barmaids what had been going on. She is a very lovely person, devoting all her heart and soul to this eclectic array of foreigners who pass in and out of her bar, and she is always very kind and honest with me. She explained that just before she had arrived, the bar had had some problem, of a kind that I did not care to enquire into, and they had called their colleagues in a private security company who attend most promptly to address such issues. And then everything became clear.
In the chaos, confusion and maelstrom of war, you cannot necessarily rely upon the Police to enforce civilian law. Indeed there is no civilian law as such. Society is profoundly disorganised, and while the entirety of the national economy is diverted to support the war effort Ukraine’s civil institutions are left to erode. In a popular bar in central Lviv full of students with affluent families and foreign visitors alike, there is inevitably an infiltration of organised crime. This gang of paramilitary pseudo-officials, dressed in black, are presumably running some sort of extortion racket in which the proprietors of bars and restaurants are free to call upon them for their assistance in maintaining peace and order in exchange for some kind of fee.
The local Police authorities are uninterested in this or - even more troubling - they may have a direct interest in it in that they suffer the existence of such paramilitary groups because they have personal relationships with the leaders or organisers of such groups and they may even be in financial cahoots with these groups. In other words, the Police quietly delegate routine law enforcement functions to private militias pursuant to a murky financial arrangement. The people causing trouble in my favourite bar were soon rendered calm. Whether they went there intentionally to cause trouble so as to cause the proprietors of the bar trouble that entailed their contacting the paramilitary group and hence creating a relationship of reliance, I do not know. However nothing can be considered extraordinary in the chaos of war. The Police may create all manner of informal relationships with a variety of informal people.
Lviv, I increasingly come to realise, is a city that in several ways seems facially normal but underneath a thin crust of civility reveals the obtuse and bizarre. The Police seem to hold a quasi-tyrannical grip upon the town, using more or less informal network to exert control over the hospitality sector. Profuse criminality has become transparent, as rule of law breaks down during times of conflict and people’s attentions are torn away from daily civilian life. The centre of the city appears normal, in the sense that the historical cobbled streets, on a warmish Friday evening in late October, are replete with pedestrians, many of them fashionably addressed, strolling over the paving flags with a casual air of decadence one might associate with a warm summer evening in Italy. Nevertheless there are dark forces in the evening mists. I have seen this more explicitly in the cities of Ukraine to the south and to the east, encountering random bandits in bars in Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia; but I realise that these trends are pervasive in Lviv as well.
The foreign war tourists who drift in and out for a week or two, trying this or that NGO and dipping their toes in the murky fog of war, may many of them miss the insidious undertones of civilian life in a city such as Lviv that presents itself as a civil pro-western vantage point from which to survey the catastrophe which is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, as with all wars, the existence of armed conflict provides a political and economic space that criminals and extra-legal self-justifying authorities can enter and dominate, to the detriment of democracy and the principles of legality that bind us together as Euro-Atlantic nations with common values of decency and into whose club we desperately want the Ukrainian nation to assimilate. Nevertheless we must stand firm to our values and, with courtesy and respect, insist of Ukraine, her government and her peoples that the criminal elements within Ukrainian society now so profiting from the country’s misfortunes are permanently eradicated from the political and economic landscape of Ukraine.
Should the Ukrainians not agree with and pursue successfully this European vision of democracy and rule of law that binds together free states living within a harmonious structure of international law, then Ukraine has no chances for the future. However I am confident that Ukraine can overcome these challenges, relics of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disorganised criminal chaos of the early post-Soviet independence period. I truly believe that Ukraine can embrace the sorts of western values that we expect and require of her, as part of her transition from Soviet-Russian political paranoia to European social democracy, free markets and freedom of expression, politics and living.
Forty minutes short of curfew, we were all bundled out of the bar with menace and grimacing faces because the Police or the paramilitary units were returning to cause harassment. This is the sort of gritty daily nastiness that the remnants of Soviet and Russian thinking cause to linger within the fabric of Ukrainian political society and her public institutions. We are now engaged in a massive exercise in public administration reform and institution-building, if we are to transform Ukraine into a state embracing western values. This is the course, in separating with Russian political traditions, upon which Ukraine has unambiguously and irreversibly departed. She has no opportunity to engage in reverse gear; she must now comply with the standards we require. The process of transformation will be painful; but it is inevitable and inexorable. Out of this cruel conflict will arise, like the Phoenix, a reinvigorated Ukrainian nation of which the Ukrainian people and the West can likewise be proud.