By Sofiya Grachova & Stephen A. Walsh
Recent events in Ukraine have led to a great many misconceptions abroad. That’s not surprising. Ukraine is complicated (like every country). Current events in Ukraine have more to do with internal politics than external ones, and it is taking place in languages that “western” correspondents frequently don’t understand, in addition to histories and contexts they might not be familiar with.
Misconception #1: Ukraine is divided between east and west.
What’s misleading about this idea? Firstly, the way the media depicts this supposed “divide” is that Ukraine is somehow, especially divided, particularly riven. Ukraine is a large country, and like any country, especially of such size, of course there are regional variations. Consider New York and Texas in the United States, or Northern and Southern Italy. This does not mean that any of those countries, Ukraine included, is somehow doomed to be torn apart. When speaking about support for the current regime in Ukraine, not only geographical but also social and generational divides should be considered.
Talk of “divisions” in Ukraine often focuses on the issue of language. It’s true that both Ukrainian and Russian are widely spoken in the country. It is also true that the percentage of people who declare Ukrainian as their primary language generally decreases from West to East. The fact of the matter is, however, that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens are bilingual, actively or passively. Furthermore, people educated in independent Ukraine know both languages fluently. Even in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian has been mandatory in schools since the days of the Soviet Union. Are there some people who refuse to speak Ukrainian? Sure. But there are just as many, if not more, ardent Ukrainian nationalists who don’t speak Ukrainian especially well either. In such a bilingual country as Ukraine, language choice is highly contingent, and most people switch from one to the other multiple times every day. Polls about language use usually restrict people to choosing a single native language. In Ukraine, this choice is less based on actual linguistic knowledge, and more on political and situational decisions. Therefore, the idea that the “Russian-speaking population” automatically supports the current regime and/or union with Russia is highly mistaken.
Recently, the foreign media’s talk about Ukrainian “divisions” also sometimes tries to paint a portrait of a country deeply and equally divided politically. While one should look at both sides of the story, it’s also important to avoid sinking into false equivalency. The regime’s opponents are highly mobilized, but its “supporters” have shown much less zeal – pro-regime protests in the capital were mostly attended by people who were paid and bussed in from elsewhere. Rallies in support of the government in the allegedly pro-regime east have typically consisted of government workers forced to attend. Does everyone in Ukraine support the protests? Of course not. However, one has to consider the degree of investment in the cause. Many Ukrainians have opposed the recent violent turn in the protests, but this does not necessarily translate into their support for the government.
Are there differences in bases of support? Certainly. The protests in Ukraine are supported more by younger people and those with higher education. Politics has a sociological element in every country.
Misconception #2: Ukrainian protests are about joining the EU
The first protests were indeed provoked by the regime’s sudden turnabout and refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union (after promising for many months to do so). “Western” media (and public opinion) likes to presume that matters revolve around them. In reality, Ukrainians are on the streets because of what has been happening in Ukraine. A kleptocratic government at the top and endemic corruption all the way down, declining living standards, the lack of social and economic mobility, all these are the real engines behind the Ukrainians risking their lives on the streets of Kiev. While the protest movement has adopted EU symbology, they are not waiting for some Brussels-based white horse to rescue them. Rather, they are adopting the symbols of the EU for their own ends: to advocate government transparency and responsibility toward its population. It’s not that the protesters don’t understand the realities of association with the EU – it’s that the EU isn’t the subject at all. Ukraine is the subject – and in Ukraine, blue and yellow have their own meanings.
Misconception #3: Protest forces in Ukraine are dominated by the far right.
It is true, intolerant right-wing elements have been a numerically small but relatively well-organized part of the protests. During the two months of peaceful demonstrations against the regime, when the government tried to forcibly suppress the protests twice, right-wing activists attracted a certain following of the rambunctious and impatient. Ultimately, people involved in the violence are not united around an ideology, but around frustration with the regime. Such individuals and groups have been active in the physical fighting against pro-regime forces (which includes police and mercenary hooligans). But they constitute a small minority of the protesters. Violence has not the only form of protest, even since the outbreak of fighting. Protestors have arranged for food, warm clothing and shelter for thousands of individuals, in addition to free legal advice, since November. The Maidan has also involved lectures, piano recitals and public prayer. Away from the Maidan, other demonstrations have involved protests at courts where Maidan activists have been tried, blocking roads to prevent security units from protest sites, or convoys of cars driving to the mansions of regime officials in order to honk their horns and shout slogans. Recently, self-organized units have formed to prevent the kidnapping of protestors from hospitals by state security agents. Because that’s been a problem.
Misconception #4: The protests should cease immediately and give way to negotiations between the regime and the leaders of opposition political parties.
Over the past two months, the regime has continually refused to negotiate and provided a great deal of evidence that its only desire is to suppress the protests by force. On January 16th, pro-regime MPs “passed” a series of laws that effectively abolishes Ukraine’s constitution and establishes a dictatorship. If only this were an exaggeration! What else to call laws that nullify freedom of speech in public meetings, allow for the imprisonment of anyone who criticizes the regime, enable the removal of any parliamentarian from government, and deprive citizens of the right to fair trial? Never mind the prohibition from wearing helmets on the street and any kind of mask, even medical or carnival ones, in public.
One might reasonably ask: how long did the parliament debate these laws? The answer: there was no debate. One might sensibly enquire: how many MPs voted for and against? The answer: nobody really knows – the vote was “passed” with a call of hands that no one counted. Despite howls of criticism the president quickly signed this bill in secret. The regime has shown nothing but resolve to suppress the protests and no willingness to make any meaningful concessions.
The idea that violence is only a result of attacks by the opposition is belied by this legislation. The authors of this text have a younger brother on the streets of Kiev, working as a medical aide. We are worried sick every day and the last thing we want is violence on the street. Nevertheless, we cannot avoid the words of Nelson Mandela in 1953:
We had to analyze the dangers that faced us, formulate plans to overcome them and evolve new plans of political struggle. A political movement must keep in touch with reality and the prevailing conditions. Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organization and the struggle we serve. The masses had to be prepared and made ready for new forms of political struggle. We had to recuperate our strength and muster our forces for another and more powerful offensive against the enemy. To have gone ahead blindly as if nothing had happened would have been suicidal and stupid.
What’s going on in Ukraine is, of course, not the same as Apartheid South Africa. The Ukrainian government is not discriminating on the basis of race. Rather it is discriminating against anyone who would oppose them.