Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ukraine On Edge

"What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . . . . Kerry called the demonstrations in eastern Ukraine a "contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."

Jud's sunflower weeping
The mess in Ukraine today, with Crimea annexed and Russian troops on the eastern border, reflects in part the failure of Ukrainian governments, since 1991, to meet the needs of the people. 

The Yanokovich regime is the tip of the iceberg of corruption, injustice, lack of transparency, and lack of progress on the economic and social fronts.  Yanokovich ran off with billions of dollars he stole from the Ukrainian people; so did his son, and his justice minister, and his secretary of state, and most of his cronies. Billions. Money for roads, transportation, social services, jobs.   The will of the people and the Common Good be damned.

The Ukrainian people, across oblasts, west and east of the Dnieper, have had it.  They are sick of injustice.  They are sick of a bribery system of economic development, where, among other things, high taxes are imposed on small businesses, unless they can pay a bribe.  My friends Luba and Iryna in Starobelsk are victims of this system.  They are sick of top-down policies in which citizens have no say, and the Parliament is a joke.  Humor helps, but it drips with sarcasm. They are sick of the lack of jobs and opportunity. They are sick of human rights abuses.  They are sick of all these things, and the day-to-day struggle for survival, and especially in the face of rampant corruption whereby elected officials enrich themselves shamelessly at their expense.     It's been a long and painful transition since 1991, and it has gotten worse instead of better. 

This is why the Yanokovich government in Kyiv was toppled. 

Not because Nazis, fascists and super-right patriots caused trouble, but because the Ukrainian people themselves, ordinary people of all backgrounds and ages, acted on their pent-up rage and anger in the face of such obscene corruption.  

New York Times
The failure of Ukrainian social and economic policies (if they ever existed for the good of the many) created the unrest that led to protests in Kyiv’s Independence (Mayden) Square.   The EU issue was secondary, and became more so as protests grew. 

The Ukrainians are a patient people pushed over the top.   

Putin seized the opportunity.  He inserted himself onto the Ukrainian scene like some superman and made the situation worse.  In Kyiv, Russian-paid provocateurs, armed “special forces” and thugs deliberately provoked violence and whipped up the crowds.  It resulted in the deaths of over 20 protesters and many more injured.  At the same time, Putin moved into Crimea, implementing a stealth propaganda campaign, sending in unidentified armed forces and “security” people, ramping up nationalistic slogans and the emotions of Russian-speaking people, then invading and annexing through a trumped-up referendum.  It worked.  Many of us, with friends in Crimea, having experienced its beauty and special flavor, watched in horror.   

Putin is using the same strategies out of the same playbook in the rest of Ukraine, taking a bite out of the country bit by bit, as John Kerry and the Obama administration now realize.  

Sure there are some people born when Ukraine was a Soviet Socialist Republic, who might prefer the old days and the old ways. Babushkas. Grandparents and great-grandparents.  There is a generational divide, but it's not consistent. Mayden was full of older Ukrainians, people of all ages. But those with a nostalgic inclination toward returning to Russia are not the majority. Many of them remember the Holodomor, an enforced starvation, and the Stalin purges. Many have relatives or know of people sent to the gulags--writers, artists and intellectuals.  

Ukraine is a large and diverse country. It is beautiful, it’s plains and farmland, its fields and mountains.  Its industrial cities are a mix of ugly Soviet-style buildings and factories and historic architecture and parks.  It is full of art galleries and museums, theaters and opera houses. The smaller white homes with green or blue shutters that dot the Ukrainian landscape have beautiful and bountiful gardens.  Even among the Soviet apartment buildings, people plant lilac bushes and flowers. Newer shops, book stores, cafes, and gathering places add sparkle and an upbeat modern feeling. The Ukrainians I knew actually loved MacDonald's; it was a favorite meeting place. Of course there are plenty of indigenous restaurants and businesses, too, along with colorful markets where people sell fresh produce and crafts and everyday items.  I especially loved the markets, in every town I visited.

Ukraine is not a backwater, although it would certainly benefit by putting thousands of people to work building roads and strengthening infrastructure.  The money for these projects went into the pockets of the few, like Yanokovitch. Stolen. 

Most of the country is wired.  Everyone has cell phones.  More and more people have access to the internet, access to knowledge, access to what’s happening in the world. Even in small towns and villages. They google and research, read international news and newspapers.  The people are educated, talented, thoughtful, contemporary in their outlook.  They are not stupid puppets; they know about censorship; they are aware of media accessibility issues; they communicate online and are good at using social media.                 

The majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians understand that they are citizens of an evolving independent country with great potential.  They are aware of its problems, and gripe about it, but they are also aware of the possibilities. The people born in Ukraine since 1991, and 10-20 years before that, are emerging leaders in local communities across the country, and so are many of their parents. They lead NGOS, a new sector in post-Soviet societies.  The NGOs are serving the public interests and addressing many urgent social needs: poverty, HIV/Aids education and prevention, human rights abuses, elders and orphans, transparency in local government.  These are the NGOs that Putin has attacked as being "the shock troops" of fascist protests in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. Many friends in Lugansk and in eastern Ukraine are in danger because of this.   I worry about stunning Odessa and the southern regions nearer Crimea, too.
The Amerikanka with friends on the street, in Starobelsk.

Maybe if the world saw Ukraine through a different lens, not defined by Putin or those he thrusts before cameras, but by the people themselves, there would be more interest in its well-being.   I lived in Ukraine for two years, in the east, near Lugansk, not far from Donetsk and Khargiv.  I know something of its greatness, its indigenous culture (always under attack), its complexity, its kind and generous people most of all.  That’s why I’ve been ranting about what’s happening in Ukraine since Mayden.  If only my brother Loren were here now, he would urge me on, rant with me. 

It’s a helpless feeling knowing that the country I came to love, and many friends, are in danger.   

It was heartbreaking to watch the Russian takeover of Crimea. 

It is heartbreaking to learn what is happening there now, thousands of people leaving everything behind and moving North. My friend Serdar left to finish medical school in Lviv. Crimean Tatars are leaving in fear, remembering their expulsion by Stalin, their shattered dream of returning to their homeland. Others are leaving because they want "to live as Ukrainians, in peace." This in itself is becoming a huge problem, a refugee problem, and it is slowly making the news, making the headlines. 

It's frustrating, because it takes a while for the media to catch up with the realities on the ground, realities which friends share everyday on facebook and emails, social media and skype. We know, some of us, and can do nothing.  

So I will continue to rant because it's all I can do. 

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