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Ukraine: Buried By History, Lost In Translation

The competing sides, both globally and regionally, will never see Ukraine's reality the same way, so deep are the historical and cultural divides. Analysis from Kiev.

Kiev's Maidan Square on Feb. 24, 2014
Kiev's Maidan Square on Feb. 24, 2014
Piotr Smolar

KIEV — The undeniable truth about the existential crisis unfolding in Ukraine is that the two sides are unlikely ever to share the same reality, the same language. This is just as true for the internal sides between the western and eastern regions of Ukraine as it is for the global sides between the Western world and Russia, which are both fighting for influence in a country that has too long been a mere buffer zone.

Inside Ukraine, there are two opposing narratives, neither of which can be dismissed. First, there are the people of the Maidan protests, united around the memory of the “Celestial Hundred” martyrs, as they call the dissidents who were killed by police in Kiev. They believe they have a moral right, which came at a high cost, to participate in the country’s future.

The Maidan revolutionaries believe their uprising must bring about a cleansing among the administration and the elites, that there should be a clean break from a corrupt political system based on impunity and selective justice, evils that also existed during the 2004 Orange Revolution, but that were badly exacerbated by President Viktor Yanukovych and his predator clan.

Maidan is deeply attached to national sovereignty, and it fought against a regime, not for Europe. Still, for many being part of the European Union would represent a path to national emancipation, freedom from Ukraine’s Russian neighbor, and a way to push forward reforms that have been postponed for too long.

Maidan has a tendency to despise the “genetic code” of eastern Ukrainians, to borrow a popular term among them. They think of these people as immature, manipulated by Moscow, and intoxicated by local and Russian television networks.

This disdain can sometimes be found among the opposition leaders now in power. And it is depressing to realize that not one of them is capable of taking the high road and calling for the reconciliation of the two Ukraines: the one before and the one after Maidan.

The simplified presentation of Ukraine as two geographical blocs is partly true, but it also omits important elements and therefore fails to convey the complexity of Ukrainian society. Debates about the risk of separatism are based on the false assumption that people from the East prefer independence or Russia to their own country.

But we must accept that their fears of a cultural annexation to the nationalists in the West and of the loss of their history are real. That said, most of them still think of themselves as Ukrainian, in their own way. Would we ask a Texas conservative and a student from New York to feel American in the exact same way?

Some might find it inappropriate to keep statues of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in this part of the country. And yet they are part of the urban landscape. Their toppling at the hands of people considered to be hostile is perceived as an act of aggression. Similarly, the Ukrainian Parliament’s decision after Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster to scrap a law that gave foreign languages a regional status sent a disastrous signal at a time when national unity should have been the golden thread in Kiev. They were the mother tongue of at least 10% of the population. Even though interim President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the bill, the damage was done.

Paranoia is poison

Another lack of understanding is dividing the Western world and Russia. Moscow feels it was duped on several occasions by the West’s double dealing and lies. These crises were about principles of auto-determination, interference and sovereignty. Of course, Kosovo in 1999 is one of them, and it served as an excuse for Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist Georgian provinces. The conflicts in Iraq, seen by Moscow as an “imperialistic American war,” and Libya complete the list. In Libya, Russia had not agreed to topple Muammar Gaddafi but only to protect the population of Benghazi.

Russian diplomacy learned its lesson: no more gratuitous and friendly gestures towards the West. Besides, “colored revolutions” are Moscow’s obsessions. The political elite is convinced that these uprisings were in fact orchestrated by “foreign agents” such as the CIA, the U.S. Department of State, multi-billionaire George Soros or those pesky Europeans and their anthem on the rights of rights.

For Moscow, these rights are like Play-Doh, shaped to best suit the circumstances. They are waved when Russia claims to come to the rescue of the Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Crimea. They never existed in Chechnya. They were forgotten in the case of Syria, where the evidence of massacres committed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime was overlooked.

Vladimir Putin’s September 2013 op-ed published in The New York Times, in which he lectured the United States about avoiding a military intervention in Syria, makes for head-spinning reading. “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage,” the Russian President wrote. “This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”

The consequence of this double-speak is serious, even if the darkest hypothesis — that of open war and a divided Ukraine — doesn’t come true. Even as they develop a very pragmatic analysis of the forces at play in the current crisis (a very weak Ukrainian power, the United States weakened by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a powerless European Union in terms of defense), Russian leaders are retreating in a high tower. They are isolating themselves in a paranoia that eventually ends up dooming any regime, even as they claim to be an alternative to a degenerate Western world.

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