People & Power

Ukraine: A dangerous game

As crucial elections approach, is Ukraine really as divided as people have been told?

For months, the Ukrainian crisis has been deepening, with Moscow-backed separatists responding to Russia’s expansionist ambitions and rhetoric, and Ukrainian nationalists looking to the West for support.  

But are the underlying divisions as clear as they’re portrayed? What basis is there for assuming that what must follow is civil war and partition – as some seem to fear?  

Journalist and filmmaker Michael Andersen has worked extensively in Ukraine. With national elections set for later this month, People & Power sent him to assess the narrative that has taken the country down such a dangerous path.  


By Michael Anderson

When People & Power asked me to take a look at the fault lines running through the current crisis in Ukraine, my first thought was this wasn’t a country I recognised – or at least not in the way it was being portrayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, most Russian commentators, and also quite a few Western media pundits, politicians and other “experts.”

That narrative – which said Ukrainians were hell-bent on tearing their country apart – just didn’t ring true. I’ve travelled and worked in Ukraine off and on for 15 years, and it all seemed a little preposterous to me. Nevertheless, in March and April, 2014, as the political situation deteriorated, I tracked back and forth across the country in search of people who could help me make an accurate assessment.

Well, I can only report what I found – and that was an overwhelming majority of ordinary Ukrainians keen to reject the myths of fascism, division and unavoidable civil war that have been vigorously peddled by those with something sinister to gain.

… There is little real basis for a civil war here, and there are no intrinsic or deep rooted social or ethnic tensions that by themselves should trigger the so-called ‘Yugoslav scenario’ that some are predicting.

Let’s look at some of those myths:

The Russian president has stated that “terror, murder and pogroms” are taking place in Ukraine. “The perpetrators”, according to President Putin, “are nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russo-phobic, anti-Semites”.

It was interesting then that the very first person to catch my eye in March, filming amid the demonstrators on the famous Maidan in Kyiv, was an elderly pensioner wrapped up warm against the cold. She was holding up a handwritten sign which read: “Putin – Do I look like a Nazi to you?”

Of course, such sentiments mean nothing in isolation, but I know that she wasn’t (and isn’t) alone. Spend any time perusing the thousands of comments and satirical cartoons on social media coming out of Ukraine in the last couple of months and you’ll see just how many people have seen through Russian propaganda since this crisis began.

President Putin has also repeatedly sworn or (as some would have it) has threatened, that he will defend the millions of Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine; people who, according to Moscow’s line, are in such dreadful peril they have to be rescued by their motherland.

But again that day, scattered around the Maidan, I saw several signs being held up which read: “I am Russian but I don’t need your help.”

What has surprised me more is the way President Putin’s “division” narrative has been so eagerly embraced by some Western media outlets. An enduring image from this crisis — found time and again in recent months on TV screens from Los Angeles to Warsaw — has been a map of Ukraine torn in two, with ethnic Ukrainians in the West, ethnic Russians in the East, a thick black border between the two, a clear implication that a civil war and partition will be the inevitable outcome of longstanding, historically rooted tensions between two bitter antagonists.

Yet I quickly found that this doesn’t marry with what expert analysts on the ground are saying: namely that there is little real basis for a civil war here, and there are no intrinsic or deep rooted social or ethnic tensions that by themselves should trigger the so-called “Yugoslav scenario” that some are predicting.

Professor Nataliya Chernysh is a sociologist who has studied the attitudes and opinions of this country for the past 20 years. According to her nationwide surveys, conducted among Ukrainians from across the political and social spectrum, she has found that “only seven percent support the idea of dividing Ukraine into two different countries… . Ninety-five percent of all respondents answered that they think Ukraine is our motherland.”

‘What about Crimea’

“Ok…” sceptics might argue, “But what about Crimea?”

Back in 1954, when Crimea, with an overwhelming majority of ethnic Russians, was transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union there was little tension. As a favoured holiday destination for people from across the USSR, it received plenty of investment as a “showcase” for Socialism. But since 1991, as part of independent Ukraine, Crimea has often been ignored, it’s former “special” status unheeded by the new country’s political leadership. This inevitably created some unhappiness, and this was exacerbated by this winter’s dramatic events in the capital, Kiev, which saw the pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich deposed.

I wasn’t surprised therefore, while traveling through Crimea, to meet people who were frightened of the changes they saw coming their way. They were worried about possible bans on the use of the Russian language and increasingly by the stories emanating from Moscow of Ukrainian fascists from Kiev being sent down to destabilise the region. In mid-March, 97 percent – at least officially – voted in favour of joining Russia, and soon after Crimea was annexed by the Kremlin.

However I also met many other Crimeans who were proud to be Ukrainian. And several polls from 2013 show that even amongst the Russians here, only a little more than half actually wanted Crimea to become part of Russia again.

According to Putin, the demonstrations that toppled the Ukrainian government in February, and which subsequently posed a threat to Crimea, were led by neo-Nazis from Western Ukraine; unapologetic fascists whose ideological roots date back to the 1930s and 40s, and the “Bandera partisans” (followers of nationalist Stepan Bandera) who fought on Germany’s side in World War II. It’s a theme which some in the Western media have picked up, too, reflected in several reports about extreme right-wingers now in power in Ukraine.

The country goes to the polls on May 25 to elect a new government. It can only be hoped that its citizens – whatever their background – defy the provocation and send a clear signal that harmony rather than conflict should be the theme of the months and years ahead.

But according to Andreas Umland, an internationally recognised expert on right-wing movements, this is an issue in desperate need of some perspective.

‘A manufactured crisis’

Support for the far right across Ukraine is minimal (extreme nationalists are expected to get around 10 percent of the vote in forthcoming elections), and it is a grave mistake to give them more prominence than they are due.

“The Bandera wing was an ultra-nationalist organisation, ethno-centric, xenophobic, anti-Semitic…Most Ukrainians who think of Bandera today, prefer not to remember the problematic aspects of their history. But I wouldn’t over-interpret it. It’s not an expression of widespread fascism.”

Millions of Ukrainians, he pointed out, had died during the war, victims of both sides of that conflict – and for the media to frame this current crisis in historical terms and to continue echoing Moscow’s emotive and inaccurate language about “fascists” could only destabilise things further and create more panic.

“This panic can then be used by Russia as an excuse for a military invasion. That is playing with fire.”

Tragically, driven by more inflammatory rhetoric, mostly from Moscow, this wholly manufactured crisis is now taking on a life of its own. Earlier this month, the interim government in Kiev admitted that it had lost control of parts of the east of the country. In recent days, a “referendum” organised by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk – a ballot no genuinely impartial observer could describe as legitimate – unsurprisingly delivered a huge local majority in favour of secession from Ukraine. This was promptly followed by appeals to the Kremlin for the area to be taken back under Russian sovereignty. Sporadic outbreaks of violence are increasing.

“If the Russian army moves in tomorrow, nobody here will protest,” a middle-aged man had shouted at me in Kharkiv, from amid the ranks of a small group of pro-separatists gathered under a statue of Lenin.

Of course, my journey had told me that many people would object, but my anxiety now is that it might soon be too late for the vast majority of Ukrainians who want nothing more than for their country to be stable, prosperous and unified. The country goes to the polls on May 25 to elect a new government. It can only be hoped that its citizens – whatever their background – defy the provocation and send a clear signal that harmony rather than conflict should be the theme of the months and years ahead.