February 21, 2014 12:08PM

Understanding the Protests in Ukraine and Venezuela

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If one believes Tolstoy’s famous dictum, then the protest movements in Ukraine and Venezuela should not have much in common. However, there are several striking parallels between the events unfolding in the two countries—as well as some important differences:

1. It’s the economy, stupid!

Although the popular unrest in Ukraine was triggered by the government’s decision to cancel the agreed free trade agreement with the European Union, the popular discontent has deeper roots. After years of kleptocratic governance, which derailed the country’s transition toward a market economy, ordinary Ukrainians are desperate for change. In 1990, Ukraine’s GDP per capita was $8,200, which was roughly identical to Poland’s. Today, Poland’s GDP is $18,300 and Ukraine’s has gone down to $6,400. Unlike its post-communist neighbors to the West, Ukraine did not pursue deep institutional reforms and its economy was seized by a narrow group of oligarchs, with close connections to political power and to the Kremlin. The son of the President Viktor Yanukovych, Oleksandr, has become one of the richest men in the country during his father’s time in the office, while incomes of most Ukrainians stagnated.

In Venezuela the economic situation has deteriorated sharply since the death of Hugo Chávez last year. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world (officially 56 percent in 2013, although according to Steve Hanke’s Trouble Currency Project, the implied annual inflation rate is actually 305 percent). After years of nationalizations, expropriations, and currency and price controls—all under the name of “21st Century Socialism”—the private sector has been decimated. Hour-long lines in supermarkets are a daily occurrence and shortages of basic food staples and medicines are widespread. And just like in Ukraine, corruption is rampant as the ruling elite rake in the profits from oil revenues. This has resulted in the rise of a new privileged class called the “Boligarchs.” so-named because they’ve prospered tremendously under the so-called Bolivarian revolution. Moreover, Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous nations in the world, with almost 25,000 murders committed last year. A large segment of the population, mostly middle class, is simply fed up as the country quickly becomes unlivable.

2. Governments have responded with repression.

In Ukraine, the "Euromaidan" movement began with peaceful protests in late November, which occurred as a response to the government canceling the free trade agreement with the EU. In Kiev, the protesters gathered and set up an improvised camp on the Independence Square, called "maidan" in Ukrainian. After the protests were dispersed violently by the Berkut riot police on November 30, violence has slowly escalated, culminating in the events earlier this week, in which at least 77 people, and possibly more, died. The government has even paid thugs to infiltrate the opposition camps and incite clashes. Over past days, Ukrainian security forces used snipers and automatic weapons against protesters, resulting in large numbers of casualties.

In Venezuela, the protests began on February 12 after the government refused to release several students who had been arbitrarily detained days before. And just like the Viktor Yanukovych regime, Nicolás Maduro has cracked down on the demonstrations with unprecedented force, using the National Guard and armed paramilitary gangs. On February 19, government forces escalated their attacks against civilians, raiding apartment buildings and shooting people on the streets. The border state of Táchira is currently under military curfew. So far, at least eight people have been killed, dozens have been detained, and many are missing.

3. Foreign governments play a critical role in the events.

The Kremlin has been involved in Ukrainian affairs since its independence in 1991. After all, Vladimir Putin once called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Seeing Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, Russia’s leaders have tried to use natural gas prices paid by Ukrainians as a way of extorting political concessions. Most recently, the Kremlin used gas prices to force the Ukrainian government to walk away from the free trade agreement with the EU, triggering the current unrest. Since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests, Russia has been providing the cash-strapped Ukrainian government with aid in the form of bond purchases.

The roles are slightly reversed when it comes to Cuban influence in Venezuela. Resources-strapped Cuba plays a critical role in propping up the Venezuelan government in return for much-needed oil: Venezuela provides Cuba with 120,000 barrels of oil per day, for an estimated value in 2012 of $3.6 billion (roughly 5% of Cuba’s gross domestic product). Cuban secret services control the security apparatus for the Maduro regime. Maduro himself was reportedly trained in communist ideology in Cuba in the 1980s, many years before Maduro predecessor Hugo Chávez actually came to power and ushered in the current communist government. It’s widely believed that Cuba's ruling Castro brothers were the critical factors behind the selection of Maduro as Chávez's successor. Without the oil, it is very likely that Cuba’s fragile economy would implode. The relationship between both countries is perhaps unique in world history as the larger, richer country has actually become a colony of its client state, up to the point that the Cuban flag flies in many Venezuelan military bases.

4. Countries seem divided by ethnicity and social status.

It has become conventional to distinguish between the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking part of the country and its eastern regions with closer ties to Russia. While it is true that the protest movement has gained relatively little traction in the Russian-majority regions, the ethnic and linguistic differences do not translate exactly into differences of opinion about the country’s future, with most Ukrainians, both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking, favoring closer ties with the EU.

The division among Venezuelans isn’t along ethnic lines, but along socio-economic classes. The official—and disputed—results of last year’s presidential election in Venezuela show a country divided by halves: while Maduro obtained 50.6% of the vote, the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles got 49.1%. The regime draws most of its support from the poorest segments of the population that still receive significant government handouts, as well as public employees and the military apparatus. However, Maduro doesn’t command the same level of loyalty (and even adoration) that Hugo Chávez did with his supporters. Meanwhile, the opposition is mostly composed by the middle class and students. Unfortunately, there is a high level of hatred and mistrust between both camps that will persist for many years to come.

5. Neighbors and regional organizations are slow to respond.

Arguably, the reaction of the EU to the events in Ukraine has been excessively cautious and slow. Only yesterday did European leaders agree to impose targeted sanctions on Ukraine, including visa bans, assets freezes, and a suspension of export licenses for equipment that could be used for internal repression. In December and January, the EU did disappointingly little to articulate a potential relationship with the Ukrainian government that would be more appealing than deepening ties with Russia. Among the EU offerings: an accelerated "roadmap" to EU membership and its benefits, including free movement of people and access to the common market.

On the other side of the Atlantic, several Latin American left-wing governments have actually stated their solidarity with the Maduro regime, including the Mercosur trading bloc. Other nations with more mature democracies such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica have been silent—either out of cowardice or cynicism. Only Chile and Panama have voiced some restrained concern about human rights abuses in Venezuela. Regional coalitions such as the Organization of American States and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States are likely to remain mum. Thus, the Venezuelan government doesn’t have to worry about being held accountable for repressing its population.

A final common trait of the two outbreaks of popular unrest against authoritarian and kleptocratic rulers is the uncertainty about the outcome. Today’s agreement in Kiev gives hope that an orderly transition toward a new constitution and a new election can be achieved. However, given that President Yanukovych has already reneged on similar promises in the past, any agreement that keeps him in power until a successor is elected is extremely fragile because of his lack of credibility. Similarly, in Venezuela, the government has refused to negotiate with the protesters, calling them “fascist.” Yet, as the discontent grows and the protests gain wider traction, they might well become a major headache to the regime.