luni, 24 februarie 2014

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On various Internet forums, you may find a small but zealous group of posters who deliberately spread misinformation about the crisis in Ukraine’s “Maidans” (city squares). Whether they do this because they are directly or indirectly on the Kremlin payroll (as posters and bloggers from elsewhere have been found to be) or whether they act out of genuine misguided conviction is difficult to say.
Whatever their motivation, however, they share a similar goal: to cloud the issue and to sidetrack discussion. Often, they do this by simply repeating the same long-debunked claims and ignoring informed and logical rebuttals. The goal of such propagandists and “true believers” is not to win over intelligent people, but rather to sow seeds of confusion and doubt into who have only a passing familiarity with the events. False equivocation, word tricks, playing off a general lack of knowledge about the region and its history, and outright lies are their tools. Your antidote is good information, which I hope to provide below.
The following list addresses the most common misconceptions about the situation in Ukraine. Often, these misconceptions are actively pushed by putinists, despite their knowing very well that they are lies. Thank you for giving it a read-through. I apologize in advance for its length.
Myth: Terms like “Russian”, “Russian-speaking”, “Russian ethnicity”, and “pro-Russia” are the same and can be used interchangeably. Reality: they are very different and understanding the nuance matters. Putinist propagandists regularly purposefully conflate such terms to give the impression of support where none exists. Russsian-speaking Ukrainians in general no more want to join Russia politically than English-speaking Irish in Dublin want to become English. Two decades of independent polling data conclusively shows that the citizens of Ukraine, regardless of whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian as their first language, solidly view themselves politically as Ukrainian and Ukrainian only. The “let’s join Russia” fringe political party in Ukraine got zero seats in the last parliament.
Furthermore, only a relatively small percentage of Russian speakers in Ukraine are actually ethnically Russian. The majority is ethnically Ukrainian (or mixed). Just like the majority of English speakers in Scotland are ethnically Scottish. Of course the rights of any ethnic or linguistic minority should be considered and protected. Polling data show that in general, ethnic Russians (and others, such as Crimean Tartars and those who culturally self-identify primarily as Jewish) enjoy protections, a feeling of inclusiveness, and security in Ukraine consistent with that in most democratic European countries. Contrast this with the situation in Russia, where one need not look hard to find videos of, say, Russian citizens of Central Asian origin being beaten up by ultra-nationalist groups for having the temerity to ride the Moscow metro.
The ultimate brazen act of linguistic gymnastic nonsense by the pro-Putin camp goes something like this: it starts with “many people in Ukraine speak Russian” and through deliberately vague intermingling of terms ends with nonsensical conclusions such as “therefore, the majority are pro-Russia” or even “the majority want to join Russia.” Substitute in place of “Russia/Russian” the language/parent country the situation of any other country also with a language legacy based on a brutal colonial status to see just how ludicrously unsound that line of argumentation is. Even in countries with a (relatively) benign colonial history, such as English-speaking India, there is zero call for restoration of their colonial or subservient status to Great Britain.
Myth: Ukraine is a cleft (divided) country. Reality: This is something your political science professor may have told you based on shallow scholarship from 20 or more years ago when the west was just starting to understand the former Soviet states. While there are some east-west divisions in Ukraine, they are far less than “want to sound smart” commentators make them out to be. For example, age is a more reliable predictor of political proclivities in Ukraine that geography is (just as it is in the USA, by the way.) Few if any serious people in either Ukraine or the USA talk seriously of splitting the country (we all joke about it of course) based on voting patterns, even though the “coasts vs center and south” voting patterns in US presidential elections are well known.
Myth: Maidan protesters are Fascist. Reality: No maidan protesters are legitimately “fascist” by any real definition of the term. Russian news media have been pushing the meme that the protesters are “fascist” based on a deep and willful misreading of history and a willingness to characterize right-wing nationalist groups (such as the small but loud political party “Svoboda”) as “fascist” even though pretty much all groups at maidan have a basic aim of a government that resembles those of modern liberal democracies in Europe. It stands to note that such right wing groups make up a small percentage of the total number of maidan supporters, but Russian media focuses exclusively on them and especially their most fringe members. Videos of maidan protests produced by, for example, RT dot com, the Kremlin’s western-facing propaganda arm, are heavily distorted and those produced for Russian internal consumption are even worse.
The claim that the maidan is “fascist” is particularly ludicrous as it comes from Putin’s camp, when Russia (along with Belarus) with its cult of personality, invented enemies, state control of media, state-sponsored right-wing intimidation groups (Nashi), and indistinguishability of government and corporate (Gazprom) interests, while not fascist, are certainly as proto-fascist as you will find in Europe today.
It is true that during World War II, independence-minded western Ukrainian nationalist groups, desperate to throw off the yoke of a Soviet Russian imperialism that had caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s (see Soviet Story documentary for this), took arms from the one group that was willing to give them–Nazi Germany. They agonized over the decision to do so, just as Irish freedom fighters did in accepting weapons a generation earlier and the appropriateness of that decision can be legitimately debated today. However, even if we were to fully believe the full package of lies and mischaracterizations about the anti-Soviet nationalists of the WW2 era as true, this would not somehow magically translate into “right wing Ukrainian groups of today are fascist.” It just doesn’t and they just aren’t (and weren’t then, either, for that matter, but that’s a topic for a different day). Rather, such groups are (as they were) characterized by wanting Ukrainian national (not ethnic) self-determination. Right wing groups are present in nearly all countries of the world. But in Ukraine as elsewhere, these groups represent a small fraction of maidan protesters.
To many of us living in the west, “nationalism” seems like a remnant of a previous century and as such most forward thinking people, like your author, have little sympathy for regressive nationalist mindsets in general. Remember, though, that most of us can afford to do so because we live in countries whose basic right to self-determination are not regularly undermined by imperialist neighbors. Or, to put it another way, could the maidan protesters really be “fascist” if part of their goal is to join an ecumenical EU? The “fascist” meme is utter nonsense.
Myth: Ukraine’s economy is uniquely tied to Russia’s”. Reality: While of course Russia is an important trading partner for Ukraine, as a percentage of GDP, Ukraine both imports to and exports from the EU considerably more than it does to/from Russia. Ukraine’s economy right now is more tied to the EU than it is to Russia.
Myth:Ukraine is culturally tied to Russia.Reality: Ukraine is a large country and has a very distinct national identity from Russia. Sure, it’s possible to choose isolated pockets here and there if trying to push some limited political point (for example, the majority of residents in San Antonio, Texas are Hispanic–I don’t hear any clamor for it to join Mexico either from those residents, from Mexico, or from other Americans). The Ukrainian language is at least distinct from Russian as Dutch is from German (and actually quite a bit more – a Russian language speaker would be largely incapable of understanding pure spoken Ukrainian). The alphabets are similar but different. Ukraine has long-standing and unique literary, cultural, gastronomic, religious, and other traditions—as different as Polish and Russian are, for example. Ukrainian and Russian cultures share some common roots from antiquity but so do, for example, China and Korea. Certainly Ukrainian and Russian culture vary considerably more than, for example, Austrian and German cultures do.
However, putting that aside for a moment, who among us but a few right-wing dead-enders still believe that cultural identity should be the deciding factor of a nation’s fate? Should South Koreans suddenly enter into a freedom-destroying accord with the DPRK simply because of a shared culture? Should the Dutch have joined with Nazi Germany based on rough similarities in language or the Belgians because of a common affinity for beer? As it were, there is one country that for a variety of historical reasons is even more closely tied culturally, linguistically, religiously, and historically to Russia than Ukraine ever was. That country is Serbia, and it is soon happy to join the EU as a full member.
Myth: they voted for this guy, so they get what they deserve.” Reality: Yanukovich’s presidential election, while not without some significant problems, was mostly fair on the day. However, the subsequent Verkhovna Rada (parliamentary) elections were not. The parliamentary elections were MASSIVELY rigged both directly and through candidate suppression and media control and were widely condemned by independent external observers. Without that rigged parliamentary election, Yanukovich could not have done what he did, which was to make a 180 degree U-Turn from his campaign promises and move towards a customs union with Russia rather than closer ties with the EU. Therefore, the claim that the current regime’s actions are that of a legitimately elected government and so the populace should just grin and bear it don’t hold water.
Myth:Maidan is about Ukraine’s European aspirations.” Reality: It started as such, but that was just the kindling. The main issue is really corruption. Yanukovich’s government is notoriously corrupt. Yes, the country has fallen lower and lower in Corruption Perceptions Index rankings since he came to power but even beyond that corruption and cronyism have reached proportions not fully captured by the CPI rankings. Under the Yanukovich regime, and especially since the highly problematic previous parliamentary elections, businesses have been expropriated and competition marginalized. For example, if you go to Ukraine’s market-dominating home improvement chain, (owned by a Yanukovich-allied oligarch), you will find prices up to three times that of the US and even neighboring Poland for poor quality Chinese and local goods. Ditto supermarkets. Ditto everywhere else. Corruption has stifled the free market and it has stifled and boxed in Ukrainians. That the police and judges are over-the-top corrupt doesn’t help. To be fair, the corruption started before Yanukovich, but it has reached a crescendo under him, and this is what it’s about, especially as things seem to be getting worse before they get better.
Myth: “Ukrainians will flood Europe and take European jobs/resources.” Reality: Nobody but nobody is talking about Schengen membership for Ukraine in the near future. This is a myth invented by pro-Russian provocateurs to scare off European support and cloud the issue. Even full EU membership is still very far away for Ukraine even in the best case. If and when Ukraine finally will join the EU to say nothing of Schengen, it will need to have passed through extremely stringent milestones now that the EU knows, based on the experiences of Greece and others, what happens when they rush too quickly to accept new members.

Ordinary Ukrainians are NOT looking for handouts and are prepared for several years of hardship and work to build the country up to where it could in the future meet such requirements. They feel, however, that as the situation now stands, that due to endemic corruption, anything they try to build now under the current corrupt system would be in vain, as indeed it largely would be.

Myth: This is about jailed leader Yulia Tymoshenko (the woman with the braided hair). Reality: Tymoshenko is mostly irrelevant to the maidan. Few other than the small number of her political party die-hards tie her situation to these protests. Most Ukrainians recognize her to be an irrelevant opportunist and basically a dishonest person whose personal vanities were responsible for many of the problems of the Yuschenko administration. While she’s not a crook on the scale of Yanukovich’s cronies and probably doesn’t deserve to be in prison for the crimes for which she was actually convicted for, in general, her hands are not clean and Ukrainians in general want to put her in the past.
Myth:It’s all a CIA/EU conspiracy”. Reality: Hopefully to you such claims are self evidently ridiculous, but this is the kind of nonsense that quite a few people in Russia actually think thanks to ubiquity of Kremlin controlled media. To wit, Vitaly Milonov, a Russian lawmaker in St Petersburg is protesting at the US consulate against “US meddling” in the situation in Ukraine. The fact that Russia is widely acknowledged to have engaged in the direct buying of support of certain ethically-challenged Ukrainian lawmakers doesn’t seem to have agitated whatever cell of his body is responsible for detecting hypocrisy. The US has provided a bit of moral support to Ukrainian protesters and a few private citizen ethnic Ukrainians with US passports may have played a relatively small role in providing material support to the protesters, but that’s about it. The EU has done even less, probably because of their fear of disrupting their energy flows from Russia (though Austria, to its credit, is making some noises about looking into the ill-gotten-gains of some Ukrainian lawmakers.
The reality is that the maidan protests are largely self-financed and entirely self-motivated. Putinist “open ended” questions like “where are the protesters getting their sandwiches and hot soup from?” are actually self-defeating: behind every 22-year old protester with the physical strength to stand on Maidan in the face of the government intimidation squads are families and co-workers sending food and clothes as part of their common, national struggle against corruption.
Freedom isn’t free. The maidan protesters are valiantly struggling in extremely difficult conditions against oppression, corruption, and misinformation. Thank you for your time in reading this. Please feel free to pass it along. Don’t worry, this post is fully fireproofed against the down-votes from the Kremlinbots to follow.