Assessment of the Political Situation in Eastern Ukraine and in Russia

Straßenschild in Charkiv, Ukraine

Interview with Mykola Rjabatschuk

Mykola Rjabtschuk

How do you assess the situation in Eastern Ukraine? How stable or unstable is it? And is it easy to mobilise people in Donetsk, Luhansk or Kharkiv to a "pro-Russian" uproar?

The situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine bordering Russia (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv) remains unstable but they are basically under Kiev’s control, especially after reputable local businessmen were made governors in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and elsewhere. The "pro-Russian" uproar in these regions, including Crimea, is not so much the result of local mobilisation and grassroots initiatives as of external interference – via both rabid propaganda and a massive influx of Russian paramilitary “tourists” that are crossing Ukraine’s open border. (See, for example, this report from Kharkiv). Opinion polls undertaken between 8 – 18 February of this year showed that even in the Crimea only 41percent of respondents support “a unification of Russia with Ukraine.” In other regions of the southeast support is lower still: 33 percent in Donetsk, 24 percent in Luhansk, 15 percent in Kharkiv, and 14 percent in Dnipropetrovsk. This largely confirms the results of an earlier opinion poll (from 2012), in which over 70 percent of respondents in all eastern regions said that they would describe themselves as “Ukrainian patriots” (see p.8).

Which Russian interests in Ukraine would you describe as "legitimate"? What would be the most appropriate way to protect them?

The very term is dubious and historically compromised by the likes of Hitler and Stalin – as it refers primarily to spheres of influence and is used to justify overt or covert aggression against other states. In principle, “legitimate interests” of a state or entity in any other sovereign state can derive only from legally binding bilateral or multilateral agreements between those states/entities, or from some international obligations of the state in question. No other “legitimate interest” beyond the clearly defined and bilaterally or multilaterally agreed legal sphere does exist. If the Russian government feels that Ukraine is in contravention of some bilateral agreements with Russia or some international obligations both nations have entered into, and thereby encroaches upon Russia’s “legitimate interests,” it should, first of all, use diplomatic channels, bilateral and international, to settle the disputed issue. All other methods of solving a problem are sheer banditry.

What is at the heart of the conflict over the law on Ukraine’s state language? What role does the Russian language play in Ukraine today? And will the role of Russian be restricted by the new government?

The Ukrainian and the Russian language are mutually comprehensible and virtually all citizens of Ukraine have some command of both. The tensions over the language are rather symbolical in nature, since Russian had been privileged for decades in both the Russian and Soviet empires, whereas Ukrainian was either forbidden or marginalised and despised, and Ukrainian speakers were either mocked and humiliated as uneducated country bumpkins or, if educated, repressed as “bourgeois nationalists.” This quasi-racist attitude was internalised by a substantial number of Russophones, especially in the southeast, who defend actually not their right to use Russian (nobody ever denied it to them) but their old Soviet right of not having to learn and use, under any circumstances, the Ukrainian language. The controversial 2012 language law was not about the official use of Russian since this is guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution (1996). As a draft, the law was heavily criticised by experts, including the EU’s Venice Commission, but it was rubber-stamped nonetheless by parliament, with multiple procedural violations. It evoked heated controversy because it permitted the use of Russian as an administrative language not alongside Ukrainian (as was the case before) but instead of it. It also absolved officials from any need to know and use Ukrainian – something that was perceived as an insult and as discrimination by millions of Ukrainophones in the southeast, and as a threat to the survival of the Ukrainian language that, as a consequence, might be superseded by Russian (something that has already happened to Belarusian in Belarus). The law should certainly be reconsidered – but in a way that does not allow Russian propaganda to unscrupulously exploit the issue.

Do you think that the radical right in the new Ukrainian government poses a threat? Members of the Svoboda party are holding important positions within the new government – and this is a political party that is openly nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-liberal, meaning it rejects some of Europe’s core values.

Right-wing parties are on the rise all over Europe, and Svoboda, with 10 percent of the vote, is hardly the strongest among them. However, the main difference is not in numbers but in essence. Svoboda cannot be properly understood within the Western European framework (where right-wing parties are primarily anti-immigrant) because it rather belongs in the context of national liberation and anti-colonial movements (their primary enemy still is Russian imperialism and neo-colonialism – but not Russians per se, as they emphasise all the time). Svoboda, indeed, is nationalistic, illiberal, and intolerant but barely anti-Semitic (they praise Israel as an exemplary ethnic democracy, and declare they love Ukrainian Jews who are "ours" – but not Soviet Jews who are, in their view, Russian imperial hacks).

Co-operation with Svoboda might be uncomfortable for liberals, however, I fully embrace what Josef Zissels said, the head of the Association of Jewish Communities of Ukraine and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, who compared eclectic Maidan alliances to the Popular Front in France during World War II that united communists, social democrats, monarchists, anarchists, and other very different forces against a common enemy: “Ukraine’s key problem is not Svoboda, although Svoboda does indeed represent a certain kind of internal Ukrainian problem. The key problem is the government, its corruption, and its attempt to impose an authoritarian – and as its attack on the Maidan showed, even a totalitarian – form of rule on the country. In this conflict, the opposition united with the government. Once the problem of government is solved, and once Ukraine’s first non-fraudulent elections have taken place, then will be the time to deal with our “right-wingers” and “left-wingers.” At the moment, we are all allies against a very powerful enemy.”

Personally, Svoboda doesn’t worry me a lot. It seems to gradually transform itself into a respectable centre-right party (since Euromaidan, they have avoided any radical statements and they are trying to marginalise radicals within their own ranks). I am more concerned about some fringe groups of the radical right – of unclear origin and affiliation – that can be used for political provocations and manipulations by various actors, including Russian intelligence. There are some signs that the Ukrainian security services beginning to take care of them, still we should be vigilant.

Many people in Germany think that the EU has unnecessarily provoked Russia by offering association to an internally divided Ukraine – and that by doing so the EU is somewhat responsible for the current crises. What is your take on that?

The very question, I feel, is unfair since it treats Ukraine not a sovereign nation, with an independent international policy, but rather as a Russian appendage and dominion, something that fully corresponds to Putin’s neo-colonial language when he claims “legitimate interests.” It is rather cynical to say that the EU’s relations with Ukraine (and vice versa) should depend on Russia’s (or anybody’s else) whim. With such logic, nobody should “provoke” Russia anywhere in the world – be it in the Baltics, the Arctic, Syria, Libya, or Venezuela. In 1938, the West sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in order not to provoke him unnecessarily. However, this did not work. Putin is playing a zero-sum game: He considers the West his main enemy, and the West cannot just duck and try to avoid this game.

Ukraine is divided on many issues, like most countries in the world, but this is Ukraine’s internal problem, not Russia’s. Between 75 percent and 95 percent of Ukrainians, depending on the region, call themselves patriots, and between 55 percent and 100 percent support Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The EU is partly responsible for the current crisis in one sense only: Since Ukraine’s independence, it has never viewed Ukraine as part of the European project, and after the Orange Revolution it did not offer Ukraine any guardianship, any long-term membership prospects – at a time when Ukrainians’ expectations were high and, under wise guidance, a fundamental transformation within reach. On its own and faced with an imperial Russia, Ukraine has no future. Ukrainians will try to move into the opposite direction, with or without the EU’s consent. However, the price of this drift will be different, depending on the form it takes. This is what the EU should think about, rather than how to please (i.e., not to irritate “unnecessarily”) Mr. Putin.

Mykola Rjabtschuk (* 1953) is an author and journalist in Kiev. He was one of the co-founders of Krytyka, a monthly magazine, and is one of Ukraine’s most influential political commentators. For his human rights activism he was awarded the 2003 Antonovych Prize.
(Picture: Elke Wetzig, License: CC-BY-SA, Original: Wikimedia Commons)

The questions were asked by Walter Kaufmann, Head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s East and Southeast Europe Desk.

Translation from German: Bernd Herrmann