Kyiv on its Own Terms

by Stefan Cieply

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Events in Ukraine have moved swiftly over the past week, leaving much of the media scrambling to explain an extraordinary series of events. Out of this confusion two powerful memes have emerged: that the current events in Ukraine are sectional in nature and that the radical right has driven the events in order to stage a coup. As is the case with most of events of this nature, neither meme is entirely accurate.

Are there two Ukraines? Yes and no. On the one hand, western and eastern Ukraine do have ethnic and cultural differences arising from their distinct histories. (BBC Ukraine History.) The east has been, in one shape, or another within the Russian empire (and for sake of argument, I’m considering the USSR an imperial-colonial successor state) for most of its history. Thus, the Russian language and cultural norms have deep roots here. Moreover, during the twenties and thirties, Stalin repatriated several thousand ethnic Russians into the east so as to break Ukrainian resistance to his policies. The west, on the other hand, has at one time or another, been a part of Lithuania, Russia, Poland, and Austro-Hungary. Hence, it is more European in its worldview. So in that sense, there are differences between the two regions. However, to suggest that the recent events are sectional in nature or that the country is ready to split in two is an overstatement advanced by a lazy media that can only understand world events through the scope of Manichean conflict.

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Think of it as being comparable to Belgium—while there are some in the Flemish and Walloon communities who would like to separate one from the other, most Belgians, while clearly aware (and even proud of) their Flemish or Walloon heritage, see themselves first and foremost as Belgian. In a similar sense, most Ukrainians want to see a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. For now, the challenge is to allow those voices to dominate the public discourse, instead of those who call for a formal separation of the State (found mostly in the east) or those calling for linguistic and ethnic purity (found mostly in the west, especially in the form of the Svoboda party).

As to whether there was a right-wing coup, I say stop reading left-wing and anarchist news sources that only rely on Russian media accounts of the situation. I’ve been seeing a lot of this nonsense on the sites I follow and am frankly sick of it. First off, it wasn’t a coup. The President fled Kyiv with every intention of leaving the country. Most of his cabinet left the country. Members of this own party were resigning in droves. In that sense, to avoid a power vacuum, the parliament voted to proceed with an impeachment process. In many ways, what happened in Ukraine is really no different than when a parliament casts a no-confidence vote. Once impeached, a new set of ministers was selected and confirmed by the parliament. They however will only be in power until the end of May, when a new president will be elected.

The notion of a right-wing coup feeds into the Russian media narrative that the Maidan activists are nationalist extremists hell-bent on creating a fascist state. Yes, radical rightists have been part of the Maidan protests and were often on the front line of the street battles. However, they do not speak for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians. Yet if you follow the events on Russian media, you’d swear it was WWII all over again. This of course makes complete sense. Russia has a deep vested interest in keeping Ukraine within its sphere of influence, both economically and culturally. It will not stand by while Ukraine develops a pathway that extricates itself from exclusive ties to Moscow. Obviously, Kyiv will have to retain some ties with its neighbor, and it should. But those ties should be on Kyiv’s terms, not Moscow’s.

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A lot of people on the left are making a lot of hay out of the participation of the radical right in the events of the past three months. To deny that they participated is foolish—they were/are a visible presence. But to make the jump from noting their presence to declaring the entirety of Maidan activists Nazi extremists (as the official Russian media likes to do) ignores the heterogeneous nature of the activists. Moreover, to suggest that right-wingers have visibility does not automatically suggest that such visibility can be transferred into meaningful political capital. Indeed, in the United States, the Communists were at the forefront of the Popular Front and the Labor Movement (at least the CIO end of it), yet they failed to establish themselves as a viable political entity even though both of those movements were successful in challenging dominant political, cultural, and economic norms. Of course, there’s a history to why this didn’t happen, but the point remains that there is nothing to suggest that the fascists have or will take over.

As to the actual parliamentarians, they are not Nazi or fascists. They are in general members of the center-right Batkivshyna (Fatherland) party and the center-left UDAR party (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform). There are also large contingents of the Party of the Regions, the Communist Party, and the far right Svoboda party. If there is anything to critique this bunch on, it is that they are conducting too much of their work in private sessions. UDAR leader Vitaly Klitschko has said that UDAR refuses to participate in the backroom wheeling and dealing and there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with Batkivshyna, which is widely seen as being as corrupt as Yanukovych and the Party of the Regions. The May elections will be really interesting to this end.

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