For several weeks now, not a day goes by without someone asking my opinion about the recent events in Ukraine. The news headlines are pretty unambiguous on what is supposedly happening, at least in this part of the world – a popular pro-democracy movement to remove corrupt and ineffective pro-Russian government in Kiev. The reality leaves the actual events open to interpretation at the very least.
The following are my thoughts on what is happening in Kiev and around the country, the background to these events, and my predictions for the future. The situation is very close to home to me – as some of my readers may know, I am a native of Ukraine, and lived there until mid-1990s. I still have close family there, and have experienced many of that nation’s divisions first-hand before emigrating. As such, I will not pretend that this is an impartial account. The recent events directly impact people I care for, and make me think both of Ukraine that once was, and of what it is turning into. It is not a cold analysis of something happening in another part of the world, and don’t expect it to be unbiased. It is what it is, for better or worse.
First of all, the backdrop to all of this. It is hard to understand the dilemma facing Ukrainians now, and the roots of modern-day problems, without knowing the history. And in this case, there is a lot of history leading up to this moment.
Ukraine is a land in turmoil, and has been for the past eight hundred or so years. Once the cradle of proto-Russian civilization (the Kievan Rus), it bore the brunt of Mongol invasions in the XIIIth century, which threw the territory into anarchy and lawlessness, devastated its infrastructure and population, and created a power vacuum which was filled alternatively by Tatars, Poland, Lithuania, Ottomans, Russia, Germany, Austria, and just about every other nation with interests in Eastern Europe. While Ukraine was recognized as a separate territory for centuries, the roots of modern Ukrainian nationalism did not come about until the XIXth century. Even then, there was little agreement on what exactly Ukrainian nationalism was supposed to be about – the imagery of Zaporozhian cossacks and distinct clothing styles and language, for example, came from Eastern and central Ukraine, which has very distinct idea of Ukrainian nationalism as opposed to mountainous Western Ukraine at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Many parts of Western Ukraine were assimilated into the country as a result of World War II-era Soviet expansionism, and as such even the dialect spoken there is often incomprehensible to Ukrainian speakers from the East. I remember being in the West of the country in early 1990s, and having extreme difficulty understanding people there, despite turning to Ukrainian as opposed to Russian language.
The modern Ukrainian state has precedent in the aftermath of World War I and the short-lived independent nation that existed under German aegis until the Communist-led assimilation into USSR. I vividly remember Ukraine declaring independence from USSR in 1991, the hysteria associated with establishing a new nation, a mish-mash of ideas that were espoused by political forces of the time, the uncertainty and even some optimism that brought hope to people used to dour fatalism and enduring the worst. I remember the sensationalist politics and the call of would-be Western-educated “experts” who claimed they knew how to get the nation’s moribund economy on track. I remember corruption and cronyism in the government and the impression that nothing really changed with the fall of the Soviet Union – the same people were in charge, just under different monikers, with different titles.
Most of all, I remember the first flickering signs of ethnic nationalism – knowing that having an ethnically Ukrainian last name was a boon in a country where ethnic rivalries are still alive and well; seeing more and more people from Western territories move to Kiev with expectations of paying jobs; noticing the growing divisions between the people.
When I left Ukraine in 1996, I remember many of my friends amongst the upper-middle-class Russian speakers dismissing the Western Ukrainians as vyiky, a derogatory term that is equivalent to hicks. It is easy to understand why. Not only is the Western part of the country much poorer, but it is culturally distinct, with splattering of influences from Polish, Hungarian, and other cultures and languages; the influence of Uniate and Catholic churches is very prominent, as opposed to Orthodox church elsewhere; and, during and immediately after World War II, it was the hotbed of anti-Soviet insurrection that made common cause with the invading Germans. For the people whose parents and grandparents served in the Red Army during the German invasion, the thought of anyone aligning with the invaders and considering leaders of that insurrection national heroes was insulting.
The fact that Ukrainian nationalism began to coalesce around Western Ukraine was a disturbing development for the rest of us. The fact that it took on some very questionable characters as heroes was a sure sign of things to come. The fact that it attracted ethnic supremacists and neo-nazis by score was a harbinger of trouble. Those same people are a major part of the anti-government movement, and play a very prominent role in chaos in Kiev.
There is a joke in Central and Eastern Ukraine that if Ukrainian national ethos was distilled to its very core, only two words would remain – klyati moskali, “accursed Russians.” There are elements of the nationalist movement currently “protesting” at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) who take that to the extreme. They are the people who would have threatened violence in the 1990s unless you admitted to being a khohol (slang term for ethnic Ukrainian, once used as a derogatory term, but since adopted by many Ukrainians). I am hearing stories from relatives still in Ukraine about nationalists making proclamations that they would violently enforce Ukrainian language and assault or murder anyone speaking Russian, and as much as Ukrainian politics thrive on sensationalism, I cannot dismiss those statements made as downtown Kiev burns. I fear for the safety of my family members there, for my friends who I grew up with and who I shared so many experiences of childhood and adolescence with. I am afraid that they will be swept up in a maelstrom of anarchy and violence as the revolution devours its own children, and as the extremist elements of the movement are given free reign.
But as much as the anti-government forces include some very suspect characters, Ukrainian government is not without fault. Corrupt, underhanded, and downright criminal in its tactics, Ukrainian government was often indistinguishable from organized crime operating in the country. Two decades of sensationalist polemics made for poor governance, and the role of money (both domestic and foreign) in Ukrainian politics cannot be understated. Many Ukrainian politicians made a living of being a front for shadowy business and foreign government interests, often switching allegiances on a whim depending on who was offering a bigger payroll at a given moment. This is why the Parliament’s sudden shift in mood towards the Maidan movement was not surprising. Very few Ukrainian politicians have anything resembling principles, and it was not hard to expect popular discontent.
Maybe there are some leaders in the Ukrainian government who truly believe that they stand for something. Maybe some of them are even sincere. But too many have their hands stained with others’ money and with shifting allegiances to ever be trustworthy – kleptocrats that make the worst of US politicians seem like saints. And whatever new crop of self-important political mercenaries emerges, it is unlikely to ever get better.
Ukraine has a misfortune of being at the crossroads of geopolitical interests of many major powers. Up until 1991, it seemed that Russia won the contest against its competitors, but since then, all bets were off. As Putin’s government attempts a desperate gamble to restore Russia’s power and influence, it goes contrary to the geopolitical interests of European Union and United States. Both sides poured money and resources into either keeping Ukraine in their orbit, or into denying it to their opponents. One could say that the Great Game of the XIXth and early Xxth centuries is alive and well, and the people of Ukraine are caught in the crossfire.
Let there be no illusions that the Ukrainian people would be better off under EU-aligned nationalist rule, or under Russian rule. Until the people of Ukraine figure out what exactly it means to be Ukrainian, what the Ukrainian nation is supposed to be, and what independent course they want to chart for their future, it will always remain a battleground. There seems to be little thought inside the country on what will happen next – all that comes about are promises, threats, vague hopes and little nothings that do not represent any tangible improvement for the nation’s citizens. Things have not changed for the better. The so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2007 did not make much of a difference, and the Maidan movement is so far only succeeding at deepening the divisions in the nation, not solving those problems (unless supremacist rhetoric is to be believed, in which case their “solution” sounds perilously close to what Bandera’s wartime ally espoused). The current chaos can be summed up as supremacists versus organized crime, with much of the nation caught in between and, once again, led astray by false hope, endless inflammatory rhetoric, and external geopolitical interests on both sides of the conflict who could not care less about the Ukrainian people.
And while the Great Game continues, the nation bleeds, people are afraid to leave their homes, and there is no future anywhere in sight for Ukraine.