IN SEPTEMBER 2006, long before the Russian president had broken his own country’s new democracy or thought of invading his near neighbours, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to our Parliament. Perhaps to make a point about the genuine multiparty outfit she presided over, then speaker Baleka Mbete included some opposition figures along with the African National Congress (ANC) heavyweights in a parliamentary tea party she hosted for Putin.
The enigmatic Russian president nodded politely and mostly without comment as the ANC members expressed great appreciation for the "significant role" the USSR had played in the "struggle for the liberation of SA".
As I awaited my turn to exchange conversational niceties with the president in our midst, I dismissed my first thought as somewhat undiplomatic: that, in fact, it was the fall of communism in Eastern Europe that emboldened the reform process in South Africa, initially at the hand of FW de Klerk, and that those seated around Putin were the beneficiaries of that singular moment in history back in 1989.
So when my turn came, I sought the safer topic of my family’s geography and their arrival on these shores back in the late 19th century. I advised the president, with some certainty, that I could claim to be the only South African present who could lay claim to a Russian grandmother!
Putin responded with apparent interest via his interpreter, and asked where in Russia my grandmother’s family originated. I answered: "From Sevastopol in the Crimea." The intense and ultra-polite Putin then put me to rights when he deadpanned: "Crimea is no longer part of Mother Russia, but is now part of the Ukraine."
The cascading crisis in Ukraine, and in particular in the Crimean peninsula, this past week suggests that it is possible that the borders of one of the most contested countries in Europe, if not the world, perched as it is between the eastern borders of Russia and the democratic nations of the European Union (EU), could be redrawn again. And military force has already been deployed by Russia in the largest of the former Soviet republics outside Russia.
Whether this will lead to a reigniting of the Cold War or to a new chapter in the storybook of 1989’s more or less peaceful democratic revolution in the satellites of the old Soviet Union remains deeply uncertain.
Events in faraway Ukraine should resonate deeply over here, even as we preoccupy ourselves with such matters as the Oscar Pistorius trial, which, to be fair, will engross most of the watching world.
By ideological inclination, and joined as we are through Brics and apparent nuclear power deals and the very history my parliamentary colleagues related to Putin eight years ago, South Africa tilts toward Moscow. Then again, the EU is our largest trading partner and the struggle for democracy here in many ways mirrors the demands of the protesters in Kiev who toppled their corrupt and increasingly despotic president, Viktor Yanukovych, last week. Putin’s geostrategic interest lies in securing the Black Sea naval bases Russia leases in Crimea from Ukraine and in preventing the country’s drift from Moscow’s orbit into the West, where the heart of Kiev’s new leadership apparently lies. But, in an ironic twist (for South Africa’s majoritarian government), the excuse Moscow has provided for its actions is the defence of minority rights. The Crimea, demographically, is a sort of Western Cape of the Ukraine. Its population is 60% ethnic Russian but this group forms only one-sixth of the population of Ukraine.
But it is in the universal realm of so-called democratic deepening that the relevant analogy between South Africa and Ukraine and other startup democracies is located. Back in 1991, when South Africa was negotiating its democratic constitution, Ukraine peacefully separated from the Soviet Union and, like us, gave up its nuclear capability. Its first democratic elections went well, then badly, and a people-inspired "Orange Revolution" in 2004 appeared to reset it on a democratic course. But since then — in the words of the Financial Times — "the country has been led by a cynical, corrupt leadership that has taken Ukraine today to the brink of economic meltdown".
There’s a growing and depressingly lengthening list of countries where the democratic wave was accompanied by a deep authoritarian undertow. Think of Egypt recently and Russia itself over the past decade, to mention two stand-out examples. South Africa, despite more than 3,000 protests in the past three months, maintains its democratic stance. But even we, in the words of this week’s Economist survey, have joined the ranks of "some recent recruits to the democratic camp (that) have lost their lustre".
Our next election will be only a part of regaining our democratic sheen. It’s what comes afterwards in reinvigorating our independent institutions and reanimating the checks and balances on an overreaching state that will sustain us for the long haul.