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The Difference Between Ukraine and Egypt

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Western governments are turning full circle over Ukraine -- from hailing the protesters in Maidan as revolutionaries to wondering who is going to foot the bill for the bankrupt country they have now inherited. One day Russia is warned "to stay out" of Ukraine, the next commentators fret about whether Moscow will continue to supply it with subsidized gas, and if not, who will.

Yanukovych was a corrupt thug, and exactly the type whom Putin likes to have in place throughout the former Soviet Union. But let us not forget, too, that the Orange Revolution fell apart because it could never provide the quality of leadership needed to establish a law-based democracy. That revolution tore itself part. Yulia Timoshenko is no Aung San Suu Kyi. Whether Maidan will get better leaders this time remains to be seen.

The new Ukraine is indeed Putin's worst nightmare because what happened in Kiev could have been repeated in any province of Russia. All that has to happen is for a local OMON commander to order his units to open fire on a demonstration that gets out of hand. The Kremlin's "vertical" of largely directly appointed administrators is supremely vulnerable to civil disorder, which is why Putin has to appear in person when any natural disaster like a fire or a flood takes place. Each time he takes over the helm of the rescue operation, he calls it "manual control." But another word for it is terrible governance. You have to go back to Tsarist Russia to find a time when the country was so badly and unevenly governed. Outside the hallowed circle of pet presidential projects, such as the Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia's Brezhnev-era infrastructure is falling to pieces. A few miles from the Olympic complex, there are villages with no running water.

There is, however, a long way from recognizing how far Ukraine has fallen in comparison to its neighbor Poland, to actually doing anything practical about it. Let no Europhile, who waxed lyrical about the desire Kiev showed this week to be part of Europe, forget that there is a highly policed border between Poland, now in the EU, and Ukraine. This is the old double electric fence built by the Soviets, to keep the Soviet Union separate from the Warsaw Pact. The fence is back in action with a vengeance and renovated by Brussels to keep all unwanted immigrants out of fortress Europe. That includes the western Ukrainians, who once lived in the eastern most part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ever since their land was seized by the Bolsheviks, they are virulently anti-Russian. To prove their point this week, they toppled a statue of Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian general who defeated Napoleon.

Absent venal autocrats at home or abroad, Ukraine has always been evenly divided about which way it wants to face. A poll conducted in November last year found that 39 percent favored EU integration while 37 percent wanted to join the custom's union that Russia is offering. These figures may now have altered, but there is solid Ukrainian pragmatism behind wanting to keep all neighbors happy. One can safely assume that Russia will no longer want to import Ukrainian meat. Who then will? I doubt if it will be the Germans or the French, who have their own farmers to protect.

A deeper hypocrisy lies behind the West's reaction to the killings in Maidan. The deaths of 82 people was compared to Tiananmen in Beijing or Caracas's Altamira Square. Curiously absent from this list of horrors was a much larger and more recent atrocity: the massacre of at least 900 protesters (the Muslim Brotherhood say it was 2600) in Rabaa al-Adawiya, in Cairo last year.

Before events in Ukraine had reached their climax last week, the US issued a visa ban on 20 members of Yanukovych's government and raised the prospect of sanctions. So did the EU as a whole and France and Germany in particular. The French president, Francois Hollande, called violence "unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts."

The day after the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in Cairo, President Barack Obama interrupted his holiday in Martha's Vineyard to say that he deplored the violence against civilians and had cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt. The massacre occupied the president for all of seven minutes, after which he returned to the golf course.

His secretary of state, John Kerry, said nothing more threatening to Egypt's military rulers than that they needed to "take a step back." Washington suspended $1.3 billion in military aid, but General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi soon found a way of making this up, by exploring a $2 billion arms contract with Russia. In fact when it comes to shooting protesters down in cold blood, Sisi and Putin see eye to eye. Putin remains a pariah but Sisi is seen as having popular legitimacy. A few days after the coup that brought him to power, Kerry backed him for "restoring democracy."

America, the EU's Cathy Ashton, Britain, France and Germany all had the same reaction to the bloodshed in Egypt. It amounted to little more than impotent handwringing. Egyptians will remember how quickly and with what moral outrage the West reacted to a tinpot dictator in Ukraine and how easily it was prepared to bed down with a brutal military dictatorship in the Arab world.