Ethnic Or Economic: Subtle Differences In Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian activists gather in front of a government building in Donetsk on April 9.
Pro-Russian activists gather in front of a government building in Donetsk on April 9.
Olga Filina

MOSCOW — The same picture that we saw at the end of 2013 in Kiev has now simply moved to Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Mykolaiv. Buildings stormed, barricaded streets, people in masks and flags flying.

The differences, at first glance, appear insignificant. Before, there was just one center of the protests — Kiev — whereas the protests now are scattered in different locations. In the capital, protesters stood their ground 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but now protesters are only coming out periodically, on the weekends. But that doesn’t mean, it’s not the prelude to a serious conflict.

The new Ukrainian government also reacted to the protests in a predictable way, calling them “pro-Russian gangs,” as if they had forgotten how Viktor Yanukovych behaved himself and seeming to repeat his mistakes in ignoring the protesters. For example, a third of the police force in Kharkiv risks being fired after showing too much sympathy for the protesters.

What is more, the most active protesters are being threatened with a five-year prison sentence and being labeled “separatists.” Less than a day after those arrests were announced, the government changed the sentencing guidelines to make “separatism” punishable by 15 years in prison. As a result, the number of people who sympathize with the “separatists” is only growing — the more people are arrested, the more sympathy the movement gets.

Now it has both a real excuse for anger and a formal demand — amnesty for the arrested protesters. It’s like magic: The Ukrainian government-vs-protesters pendulum has swung the other way, and is playing out almost like a mirror image of what happened at the end of 2013.

Still, there are some crucial differences, explains Andrei Suzdaltsev, a researcher in European and International Affairs. “The protesters at Maidan were passionate revolutionaries, and they had a clear ideology — national independence, European elections, etc. Things are more complicated in eastern Ukraine. There isn’t a unifying ethnic identify, the ideology tends towards separatism, they don’t have information resources."

History's lessons

Suzdaltsev also noted that as soon as the protesters in Kharkiv took control of the government building, they immediately started arguing among themselves about what the objective was. "Some wanted a more federalist Ukraine, others wanted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. This question hasn’t been decided among the protesters.”

Feb. 23 protests in Kharkiv's Freedom Square — Photo: aureliuscrutch via Instagram

In painting this conflict as a simple conflict between eastern and western Ukraine, most people are getting it wrong, over-simplifying the real reasons for unrest. At the moment, there is no unified political ideology in the East, since there is also no single political center.

Still, it is clear that the people in the East don’t identify with the values of the “Westerners.” It seems like just as opposition to Yanukovych became a unifying battle cry among pro-Western Ukrainians, the so-called "anti-terrorism" crackdown is unifying the Eastern regions against the new leaders in Kiev.

It takes a closer look at the past to understand what's unfolding near the Russian border. “The secret of the East’s diversity is in its history,” explains Natalya Zubarevich, the director of the regional program at the Institute of Social Politics. “Because carbon and steel were manufactured there, the cities developed in an equal but scattered way. No single city could be considered the leader — not the manufacturing leader, Donetsk, not the second-largest city, population-wise, in Ukraine, Kharkiv. The East is angry with Kiev because it is convinced that it is feeding the country. The discontent is more economic than ethnic."

Zubarevich says these concerns are partially justified, though eastern Ukraine’s manufacturing sector was only able to survive after the fall of the Soviet Union thanks to subsidized gas. "These gas subsidizes account for almost 18% of Ukraine’s federal budget. So it’s not really a question of who is dependent — the dependence is mutual.”

Right now, everyone, both in Ukraine and abroad, is talking about how to manage that mutual dependance. There are many scenarios to consider: a break-up of the country, federalization, unconditional unification.

“The amplitude of uncertainty is growing: There still isn’t any agreement between Russia and Europe regarding the future of Ukraine, the country is in limbo,” explains Anna Yazikova, the head of the Mediterranean and Black Sea Research division at the European Institute. “The rebellion is not just in Ukraine — it is on an international level. In offering former Soviet countries economic partnerships, Europe is not taking Russia into account. Russia, on the other hand, isn’t taking Europe into account when it annexes Crimea. At some point the seesaw has to stop. I just hope that it stops before Ukraine falls apart."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!