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Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence (more…)

South-Eastern Ukraine: Extremism and the Anti-Maidan

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

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Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

Extremists have hijacked the Anti-Maidan protests in South-Eastern Ukraine and their extremism and ultra-nationalism are fomenting violence and hatred writes Anton Shekhovtsov

 When masked men distributed anti-semitic flyers in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, some international media outlets rather too hastily assumed that they were a hoax. The incident is still being investigated, so a definite conclusion cannot yet be reached. But even if the flyers are deemed to be a fake, the problem of anti-semitism, racism and homophobia inherent in some elements of the social unrest in Eastern Ukraine remains very real.

Allies of the now ousted president Viktor Yanukovych launched Anti-Maidan in Eastern and Southern Ukraine in late November 2013 as a response to Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests. But Maidan was a grassroots movement, whereas Anti-Maidan was a top-down initiative with protesters sometimes receiving remuneration for their participation. This was especially true of the four large Anti-Maidan rallies held in Kyiv between November 2013 and January 2014. Anti-Maidan organised many fewer protests than Euromaidan and they had started to die out long before Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia.

However, the victorious Maidan revolution re-energised Anti-Maidan, which split into three different, but sometimes overlapping, movements: (1) protest groups mobilised by social grievances; (2) supporters of Ukraine becoming a federal state; and (3) Russian ultra-nationalists pursuing separatist ideas. They overlap because some of the activists mobilised by social grievances may support the federalisation of Ukraine (by which some actually mean  joining Russia in the medium term), in contrast to pro-Russian separatists who insist on the immediate annexation of their region by Russia, as happened with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

The larger part of the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan movement is rooted in almost the same attitudes that underpinned Maidan, especially after the original pro-EU protests, focusing on a limited number of social demands, evolved into the Ukrainian revolution. Despite the different triggers, Maidan and post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan were responses to socio-economic inequalities, unemployment, corruption, crime and a flawed justice system.

The major difference between these movements, however, is that they are dominated by two different narratives and offer two different solutions to their grievances. In inevitably idealised terms, Maidan’s narrative is democratic, while Anti-Maidan’s is authoritarian. Maidan suggests that social grievances can be addressed through closer cooperation with the democratic EU and the West in general, while Anti-Maidan believes that socio-economic problems can be tackled by closer cooperation with authoritarian Russia. Where relations with Russia are concerned, the more radical part of Maidan suggests enforcing a visa regime between the two countries, while radicals in Anti-Maidan insist that their region should become part of Russia. The more radical elements of Anti-Maidan are characterised by different linguistic preferences and choice of media as sources of information; their pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiments are rooted in the lower geographical mobility of Eastern Ukrainians.  According to an opinion poll conducted in 2013, only 13.2% of Eastern Ukrainians have ever been to the West (EU, USA or Canada), a lower figure than for Ukraine as a whole, where the average is 20.6%. (more…)

Eastern Ukraine: Is there a way back from violence?

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2014

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Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

With violent deaths becoming an everyday occurrence in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva deal fading, Rasmus Nilsson asks whether there is a way back to stability and peace.

When Ukrainian tanks rolled into Slavyansk last week, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour of the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the ‘battle for Slavyansk’ indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is starting to be shed. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister’s party has now been found. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on.

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open conflict with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred on by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be either anticipation or confusion.

Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions and that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. UN Ambassador Vitalii Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down – and, following the recent UN report dismissing claims of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, now wants the UN removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. (more…)

Ten things you should know about Crimea

By Blog Admin, on 5 March 2014

Andrew Wilson  offers some key points to think about to understand the current crisis.

1. The new Crimean authorities were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a “coup” in Kyiv, the real coup was in Crimea. The Crimean Assembly building was taken over at gunpoint after a seemingly successful rally supporting the authorities in Kiev. Berkut militia, fleeing from their crimes in Kiev, were allegedly involved.

2. This is totally unlike the Russian war in Georgia in 2008. Then, by most accounts, the Georgians were provoked into firing first. Only one Russian citizen has died in the current crisis, and he was shot by snipers in Kyiv.

3. The proposed referendum is against the Ukrainian constitution. Only a national vote can change the country’s borders.

4. The new Crimean “Prime Minister” Sergei Aksionov was a local gangster in the 1990s. His nickname was “goblin”. His Russia Party won only 4 percent at the last elections in Crimea

5. There are 266,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Before the coup they were chanting “Allah is Great! Glory to Ukraine!” Now they are reportedly forming “self-defence”units. They were all deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944; half died as a result. They were only allowed to return after 1989 and still live in marginal conditions. The 70th anniversary of the Deportation is this May.

6. The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslim. The Crimean Tatar Khanate was the dominant power in the region from 1441 until Crimea was occupied by the Russian Empire in 1783. The campaign to turn it into a Russian Athos, a centre of Orthodox Christianity, only gathered pace after the Crimean War.

7. There is an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (58 percent), but most settled there after World War II. Some 24 percent are Ukrainian. Crimean Tatars are over 13 percent, but nearer 20 percent of the school population.

8. Crimea is a peninsula. It gets all its water and gas from the rest of Ukraine.

9. There are big deposits of oil and gas off the Crimean coast.

10. Russia is re-supplying its Black Sea Fleet for a role in the Eastern Mediterranean, including linking up with the old Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES.

This piece was first published in the ECFR Blog and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Ukraine’s double-edged elections

By Blog Admin, on 5 November 2012

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Photo: oscepa (Neil Simon) via Flikr  Creative Commons license

Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions comfortably won flawed parliamentary elections on 28 October, but opposition groupings too polled well. The result leaves the EU with a dilemma. Andrew Wilson gives two cheers for Ukrainian democracy.

There aren’t many elections where all sides come out happy, but this arguably just happened in Ukraine this Sunday. The authorities were already happy a month or two before the elections, because they were confident of victory by fair means and (mainly) foul. So they could afford to ease off in the final weeks of the campaign. On the one hand, the ruling Party of Regions didn’t get many of the results it wanted – most notably failing to win a single seat in Kiev. In one suburban capital seat the far right Freedom party was able to declare victory over the acting millionairess mayor Halyna Hereha after a three-day struggle over the count. Other surprises included the victory for the candidate backed by the ‘semi-detached’ oligarch Viktor Pinchuk against a real regime insider in Dnipropetrovsk. The Party of Regions didn’t sweep the board in the territorial constituencies, where it once talked of winning 150 seats.

On the other hand, the Party of Regions still won 114 constituencies out of 225, making 187 out of 450 overall, with the 73 the party won in the PR vote. Most of the 44 ‘independents’ are expected to join their ranks, plus seven MPs from smaller parties. If Regions splits or corrupts the opposition, it’s potentially therefore not that far short of a two-thirds’ majority of 300 out of 450 seats.

The one area where the ruling party didn’t get what it wanted was the harsh initial judgement of the OSCE-ODIHR election monitoring mission.  In this respect President Yanukovych is like the Liverpool striker Luis Suárez. Having gained a reputation for diving, Suárez has started to complain that referees don’t give him the free kicks and/or penalties he actually deserves. But it’s his own fault – the men in black have adjusted to his past behaviour. The men and women from the OSCE are doing the same with Yanukovych. But this may make it more difficult to revive the EU-Ukraine agreements that are currently on hold.

The three prongs of the opposition ‘trident’ all did well, although this may not be such good news, as it decreases their incentive to cooperate. Most opinion polls put the ‘United Opposition’ Fatherland and UDAR (‘Punch’, because led by the boxer Vitaliy Klichko) neck and neck, but Fatherland ended up with 103 seats to UDAR’s forty.

Yuliya Tymoshenko was of course not allowed to stand, and it is impossible to judge the size of her sympathy vote, but it seems to have been a factor. Unless she gets out of prison, however, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Front for Change, the other main part of the not-particularly-united ‘United Opposition’ coalition, is now the assumed front runner to challenge Yanukovych in the 2015 presidential election – assuming it goes ahead. No doubt alongside Klichko, and both men are all too obviously already planning ahead. UDAR’s campaign this time seemed to peak too early. It was also unable to shake off the suspicion that it might ultimately ally with Regions. Nevertheless, UDAR did well because it is new. (more…)