Is Ukraine On The Road To Czechoslovakia, 1968?

The West has woken up to the gravity of the situation. But what real options are on the table?

1968 Bratislava (top) vs. 2014 Kiev (bottom)
1968 Bratislava (top) vs. 2014 Kiev (bottom)
Sylvie Kauffmann

PARIS — The February revolution in Ukraine has stirred things up in Europe. “A tectonic shift,” the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik warned. He himself had contributed to stirring things up in 1989. Was the leader in the Kremlin going to accept these new changes? As incurably rational optimists, the West imagined it was in his interest.

But although we have rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin for the past 14 years, we still do not understand him. Taken by surprise by the reaction of the Ukrainian people to their president's rejection of the EU treaty in November, Europeans and Americans have, once again, been caught off-guard these last days — this time by the decision of the Russian president to intervene in Crimea, in violation of all standing international agreements.

This move is however not without precedent. The question is which prior moment of history will it resemble the most: the 1968 model, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring; or the 2008 scenario, when the same Vladimir Putin intervened in Georgia with the help of separatists from Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Dismayed, opposition intellectuals in Moscow are leaning towards the 1968 model. For now, it looks like the crisis is more similar to the Georgian case. But Ukraine is not Georgia. The size of the country, its history, its geostrategic situation, the pro-European dimension of this revolution make it a much more serious crisis — for all the protagonists: Russia, Ukraine and the West.

For Russia. Why did Putin choose to use force? The Russian president has his own logic, which is not the same as the West’s. Firstly, Crimea is important to Russia, which has a naval base on the Black Sea. Its status was renegotiated by the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Seeing that the revolution in Kiev was bringing a nationalist Ukrainian movement to power, he had reasons to be concerned about the future of this agreement. For that matter, three former Ukrainian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko asked for its revocation on Sunday.

Though Putin is unlikely to shed a single tear for the overthrow of Yanukovych, whom he had abandoned, losing Ukraine itself is much harder for him to accept. Not only does it deal an almost fatal blow to his Eurasian Union project, but it brings the democratic virus to Russia’s doorstep.

Even though the prospect of an European Union membership for Ukraine is far away, it is nonetheless a defeat for the Russian leader. For the last three months, Europeans leaders have come and gone to Kiev like they were at home. By intervening in Crimea, Moscow is retaking the initiative.

Finally, even if the intervention of Russian troops stops here, it has created a hotbed for instability on Ukrainian soil, which diminishes the power of Kiev. It is the “controlled instability” strategy mentioned in a recent Le Monde article by Piotr Smolar.

As a result, the nationalist disposition of the Russians, who, for the past three months, have been served mass media propaganda on the “fascist conspiracy” of the anti-Russian Ukrainians manipulated by the West, may momentarily feel justified. But by taking back Crimea, Russia is inheriting a new problem, particularly with the 200,000 Tatars who have returned there.

As for the opposition, it fears a larger repression, which, in fact, has already started. Several heavy sentences were already given on Feb. 24 and one of the leaders, Alexei Navalny, was imprisoned for a week before being placed under house arrest, where he is forbidden to have access to the Internet. So much for soft power in Russia, if it ever existed in the first place. Sochi is definitely over.

For Ukraine. The new leaders in Kiev are completely unprepared to face this challenge set by Moscow. It is a provisional, non-elected government with a fragile legitimacy. Controlled by Yulia Tymoshenko’s allies, it is not a national unity government. It has made the mistake of removing Russian as a second official language, even though this alone hardly justifies such a reaction from Moscow. It has called upon the mobilization of the army, but the Ukrainian army, torn apart by successive regimes, “exists only on paper,” a political specialist close to the former leadership recently told Le Monde.

By declaring to U.S. President Obama — according to the version of their telephone conversation provided by the Kremlin — that he reserved “the right to protect the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine” (a potentially explosive statement, if taken literally) Putin is threatening to act far beyond Crimea, in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where the Russian minority is mostly located. These regions had remained calm during the uprising in Kiev. Moscow’s interventionist stance since Friday has produced immediate agitation, which is dangerous for Kiev.

But the revolution has also sparked a strong feeling of national identity for the Ukrainians: The Russian-speakers may not welcome Russian troops with open arms.

For Europe and the United States. The intense activity over the phone between the various Western leaders on Saturday reveals the seriousness of this crisis, following the initial surprise. It is a major challenge. The U.S., which had let the EU handle Ukraine on the front line for the past three months, has regained control: Washington took care of clarifying that the Obama-Putin telephone conversation lasted a full hour-and-a-half, providing a detailed report of it and publishing a photo.

For now, Obama is limiting himself to threatening Russia with “political and economic isolation.” The matter now goes beyond the EU. It is raising fundamental security in a country bordering Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, all members of the EU and NATO.

If Russia is reserving the right to protect Russian-speaking people beyond its borders, this will worry lots of people — starting with Baltic republics that are members of the EU and NATO. The G8 could soon become the G7 again. If the United Nations Security Council is consulted, it will be interesting to see what China’s position is, after it very recently signed economic agreements with the former president Yanukovych: Will it conform with the West or stand together with Russia? Unfortunately, if there is one lesson to remember from the 1968 and 2008 crises, it is that the West’s options are very limited.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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