If one were to skip all the facts one could read on Wikipedia, Ukraine is the country everybody forgets about save for the occasional revolution (called a Maidan) or the occasional mention about the East-West divide and the horribly oppressed Russian-speakers, or, as was the case for the entire past year, save for the whole war thing. Other times people in the West remember Ukraine usually have to do with Chernobyl (nevermind that it was thirty-plus years ago) and there was one time we had a Euro-2012 and it turned out to be reasonably successful. Other than that, no one notices Ukraine a lot: you’d think a country roughly the size of two Frances would be hard to miss, but, apparently, that is not the case.
The first three things out of the above paragraph are, of course, linked together: there was a revolution, called Maidan, which produced a war (that is going on), which was the result of the East-West divide and the horrible oppression of the Russian-speaking population. Personally, I’m still puzzled about the last bit: I’m most assuredly a Russian speaker, and I lived all my life in Ukraine, and nobody oppressed me for speaking Russian, not even once. Well, maybe except my Ukrainian teachers at school, but I can’t really blame them.
This is actually what happened a year ago: I woke up, went onto my LJ and found people asking if I were oppressed. This were the dark days after Maidan somehow won (things were hectic back then) and little green men were popping all over Crimea, and I – naїve as I was then – proceeded to tell those people that no, I’m not oppressed, and more than half of Kyiv speaks Russian anyway. Immediately afterwards these people concluded that I was a fascist and a Banderite, and proceeded to enlighten me about how my country apparently was ‘no more’, how an ‘illegitimate junta’ has seized power and how ‘friendship trains’ full of Right Sector fighters are heading to poor, oppressed South-Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. These people were Russians. Needless to say I now have a lot fewer Russian friends than I have had two years before.
Russians still have more exposure to Ukraine than the West does. Last I heard, Russian TV has nothing but Ukraine, with the occasional injection of Putin – so much that it spawned its own Twitter hashtag. Before that, however, the border was effectively nonexistent, many Russians have Ukrainian relatives and vice versa, and a lot of Ukrainians flocked to Russia to find work. A slightly smaller lot still do. This much exposure didn’t stop the misconceptions: come Putin’s Crimea adventure, thousands of people immediately started going on about how Russians are oppressed in Ukraine, how the country’s gonna break, the East’s gonna secede, and so on. It’s no wonder the West is similarly clueless about Ukraine, and no wonder some Western observers still go around using words like ‘Ukrainian Civil War’ in the public and droning about the ‘interests of the Russian community’, despite almost 80% of the country being Ukrainian. That’s right, Ukrainians speaking Russian, what a revolting thought!
This is why I’m frankly baffled at accusations of ‘Western support’ to Ukraine, particularly in the pre-MH17 era. If anything, the Western approach was as hands-off as possible. The West had suffered from Ukraine fatigue ever since 2007, when it finally became clear shit won’t get done in this country. Back then, Ukraine was a country of constant reelections and the President vs the government vs the opposition melee a trois, so, after a few years of supporting President Yuschenko, the West became tired of Ukraine and its antics – what somebody called ‘a thriving democracy’. Obviously a democracy could be thriving only if something was done, but with constant reelections it’s hard even if you’re a First World country. Then along came Yanukovych with his revenge for 2004, and most of what he and his did hardly endeared him to Europe and the US. In the last days of Maidan European dignitaries went to Kyiv to broker a half-hearted deal that would keep Yanukovych in power (while giving the opposition the government) – which, as we know now, satisfied no one. After Putin grabbed Crimea, the West was in a kind of a shock. Russian narratives about ‘neo-Nazi Maidan’ (the entirety of Maidan was hardly that, but this is for another time) and ‘oppressed Russian-speakers’ were widely circulated through Western media. That UN voted against recognizing Crimean annexation was less of a success and more of a miracle. Western support only began a few months later, when Poroshenko became president, but up until the MH17 shootdown the West paid little attention to Ukraine and the war. The coverage is better now, but not much better: there is a lot less attention paid to neo-Nazis (although Ukraine has neo-Nazis and it’s an another story), but altogether too many Ukraine commentators simply miss the point.
All this has to do with the East-West divide. Historically Eastern and much of Central Ukraine was varying degrees of Russian (going from a Russian vassal state to an autonomy within the Russian Empire to just several governorships within the Russian Empire), while Western Ukraine was Polish, then Austrian, then Polish again. It is no wonder that parts of the country are a tad bit different from each other. Hardly any country is uniform, no matter how insignificant. East and West didn’t matter much during the Soviet times (the notorious UPA’s activities were widespread in the post-WWII years, fueling the intense dislike towards UPA in the East) and didn’t matter much during the first ten years or so of independence. The infamous ‘three kinds of Ukrainians’ schtick started around the 2004 presidential elections and got milked for what it’s worth: and, indeed, most of the West (which voted for Kuchma the Yuzhmash director in 1998) voted Yuschenko, while most of the East voted Yanukovych (Kuchma’s sort of protege, it’s complicated). So it went that Western Ukraine voted Orange, while Eastern Ukraine voted Blue. After Yanukovych won, the concept was shelved until Euromaidan came along and suddenly began to be portrayed as an East-vs-West thing again. As far as I know, the ultimate expression of this is Russia’s ‘Novorossiya’, which would have had comprised eight Ukrainian oblasts in the South and the East, so Russian media stopped beating this dead horse only a while ago. The divide is less pronounced today, but still visible, which will be a yet another topic.
This doesn’t stop Western media from overestimating the issue even now, however. Insisting that Ukraine becomes a federation or, at worst, a confederation similar to Bosnia and Hercegovina have become slightly passe, but you still encounter talk about ‘national dialogue’ and ‘rights of the minorities’. Here Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the East are – again – being conflated with Russians, a fact most of them would probably disagree with.
To end this spiel, I already see my work here already cut out for me: little info on what was actually happening inside Ukraine ever reaches outside Ukraine, much less to the West, thus fueling misconceptions. Those misconceptions are hardly possible to dispel without an in-depth look at the issue – like, for example, the West’s Ukraine fatigue, or the 2004 elections, or Ukraine’s constitutional troubles, or Eastern separatism, or whatever else I mentioned. Oh, right, Ukrainian neo-Nazis!
…And right-wing nationalistic warlords!