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In Ukraine, both sides go feral

REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairing a Russian government meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Wednesday.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As the crisis in Ukraine has unfolded, I have followed the events from a city that knows the price of ethnic and nationalist conflict in post-Cold War Eastern Europe — Sarajevo.

This town lives in the past. From its perspective, the media coverage of events in Ukraine and Russia read like a familiar script: Well-armed, uniformed and “volunteer” militias appear on the scene to defend national compatriots who have found themselves in the post-Cold War era suddenly a threatened minority within the boundaries of a new country. A powerful protector across the border vows that it will protect its own. Nationalist fervor inflames the media coverage. A war looms.    

A similar script played out in Bosnia more than 20 years ago. This week, a small cast of characters left over from the Bosnian version have come out as among the few international supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine. On Monday, Serbs mounted a demonstration in support of the Russians in the western Bosnian city of Banja Luka. Its population today is a product of Serbian sponsored ethnic cleansing in the 1990s that changed this once ethnically diverse city into a virtually all-Serbian enclave. The demonstrators picked up the rhetoric of Russian demonstrators in the Crimea pledging to fight “the continuation of Nazi policies in Ukraine.” Similar demonstrations are planned for Belgrade and Montenegro.

In the Ukrainian crisis today, both sides have gone feral.

Key law revoked

The new government in Kiev acts as if it wants to feed the testosterone of Russian nationalism. Kiev has pleaded for NATO intervention and promised to take steps to accelerate its eventual membership in the alliance. Despite criticism from EU nations, the new government has revoked a crucially important law that allowed for the use of both Ukrainian and Russian as official languages and was indispensable to ethnic peace in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.

Above all else, the leadership in Kiev has failed to distance itself from its former allies in the street demonstrations among the ultra-right nationalists and, especially, the neo-Nazi Svoboda (Freedom) Party. The fourth largest party in the country, Svoboda has marched with banners in praise of Stepan Bandera (1909-59), a Nazi collaborator in WWII, and laced its public rhetoric with anti-Semitism, discrimination against the Roma and threats of violence.

Putin’s conduct

Putin’s conduct seems to demonstrate the truth of his remark in 2006 that “there is no such thing as a former KGB agent.” In his press conference Tuesday, he still insists that the heavily armed and uniformed militia in Crimea are only local “volunteers,” not Russian troops. His justification for the intervention — that he was responding to a written request by ousted Ukrainian President Anatoly Yanukovich for Russian military intervention — invites comparisons to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev’s rationale for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Although Putin continues to refer to Yanukovich as the “legitimate” president of Ukraine, the Russian president in Tuesday’s press conference appeared to have thrown him under the bus of political expediency. As Roger Cohen pointed out in a commentary for The New York Times, the most effective argument against Putin’s actions in Ukraine would be to quote back to him his own words that he published last September in The Times:  “preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.”

The media and punditry ridiculed an earlier U.S. president for offering what in retrospect was very prudent advice. Speaking in Kiev on Aug. 1, 1991 — the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union — President George H. W. Bush warned of the dangers of “suicidal nationalism.” Within a year, the wars of the former Yugoslavia validated his warning of what dangers lay ahead in in post-Cold War Eastern Europe.

Kiev and Moscow are indulging today in nationalist rhetoric that sounds unnervingly similar to the build-up to the tragic Balkan conflict of the 1990s.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/05/2014 - 10:30 am.

    Russia is working very hard to bring the Ukraine back under it’s direct control.

    The “volunteer” groups are clearly Russian special forces. Many of the public demonstrations and acts that are pro-Russia are being orchestrated or performed by people brought in from Russia.

    Putin’s inability to buy Ukraine with money directed through the old leaders failed. Demonstrations ensued. The change in Ukraine people was too great–the failure of process died with the demonstrators shot in the Maidan.

    It is true that there are fascist elements demonstrating in Kiev also, but one must also note that the the biggest complaint of the hundreds of arrested demonstrators in Moscow at the recent sentencing of the 2012 anti-Putin demonstration was the fascist nature of the vigor of the police in enforcing the new anti-demonstration laws.

    It is entirely in Putin’s interest to stir as much internal dissension in Ukraine, and he is doing a good job of it. Through invasion by Russian troops, funding of external and internal provocateurs he is keeping his place as a decider of Ukraines future.

    As is seen around the world, repressive governments and quasi-governmental organizations are under attack by the population, for a variety of reasons. The spirit of freedom is in the air, and it is poison to Putin.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/05/2014 - 10:50 am.


    All the billions Putin spent on the Olympics to show the world Russia is a world class country is being destroyed by his nationalistic rhetoric and actions. Russia may be moving back to its status similar to the cold war. Too bad the Chinese government stays out of difficult world politics and does not flex its muscle with Russia and the North Koreans to calm both down.

  3. Submitted by Stefan Iwaskewycz on 06/18/2014 - 02:34 pm.

    False Equivalence

    I am writing this response on the behalf of Maidan MN, a Twin Cities group working to provide accurate information in the face of the massive propaganda campaign launched by the government of Vladimir Putin.

    The author of this article states that “the new [Ukrainian] government has revoked a crucially important law that allowed for the use of both Ukrainian and Russian as official languages and was indispensable to ethnic peace in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.” There was a move to repeal the law in the Ukrainian parliament that was immediately vetoed by the interim President, and the repeal never went into effect.
    Next, Prof. Hayes criticizes the leadership in Kiev for failing to distance itself from its former allies in the street demonstrations among the ultra-right nationalists and, especially, the Svoboda (Freedom) Party. However, no members of Svoboda were in either the government of interim Prime Minister Yatseniuk, nor in the administration of interim President Turchinov. By the time of the May 25th presidential elections, the candidates of the two right-wing parties (Svoboda and Pravyj Sektor) together got less than 2% of the popular vote — a result that was expected by those with detailed knowledge of Ukraine’s politics. That same weekend the National Front of Marine Le Pen in France garnered nearly 25% of the vote in elections to the European Parliament. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin, not the Ukrainian government, has been courting the European far right, including Le Pen and the Hungarian Jobbik Party. There is no equivalence between the enthusiasm for Right Wing positions in Moscow and in Kiev; there clearly is a side that is more enthusiastic about the European Far Right, though it has been loudly crying wolf about the Right in Ukraine. . .
    We wonder — by criticizing both sides in the conflict equally, does Prof. Hayes intend to show that he is objectively “above the fray”? We would like to point out that Ukraine did not annex a portion of Russia, nor is it an irredentist state that has encouraged armed militants to cross an international border to foment a separatist rebellion in a neighboring state. It has not stacked its government with radical, Right Wing elements, nor at any time has the Ukrainian state sponsored the suppression of the Russian language or culture in Ukraine. Any suggestion that the Maidan movement and the government in Kyiv are as equally responsible as the Kremlin for the conflict and the violence in Ukraine is, at best, a false equivalency.
    Finally, to invoke the “Chicken Kiev” speech over 20 years later as somehow wise and prophetic, when it was rejected by Ukrainians with no dire consequences for over 20 years, just adds insult to injury. George Bush’s August 1991 speech in Kyiv — in which he told Ukrainians that their desire for national independence was suicidal nationalism — was difficult for many Ukrainians to understand, given the Ukrainian people’s longstanding dream for independence that was founded not upon an irrational, nationalistic death-wish but on the fantastic level of abuses the citizens of Ukraine suffered throughout the years of the USSR. For example, as Anne Applebaum notes in her book Gulag, Ukrainians constituted a full third of all inmates in the Soviet concentration camp system by the 1970s. This is in addition to the most obvious of Soviet crimes against Ukraine, the 1933 terror famine that killed up to 5 million inhabitants of Ukraine. Another abuse that troubled many in Soviet-era Ukraine was that the Ukrainian language — the majority language — was not recognized as an official state language, and its use in schools and public life was actively suppressed by Soviet authorities. Several months later in December, 1991, approximately 92.3% of Ukraine’s population rejected Bush’s warning that their desire was suicidal and voted for independence anyway — including then, as now, a majority of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine supporting the independence and unity of the Ukrainian state.

    Ukraine is a bilingual country, and should remain so. The people fighting the separatists today in Eastern Ukraine are overwhelmingly Russian-speakers — and a recent PEW poll found that the overwhelming majority of people even in the conflict zones in the Eastern and Southern regions of the country support a united Ukraine and oppose Russia’s aggression. Furthermore, the Ukrainian government has had the staunch support of the opposition movement in Russia. They all know there is no equivalency between Putin’s regime and the Ukrainian government in this conflict. War would never have been possible in Ukraine without Putin’s intervention.

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