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Recalling the chasm between the two camps in Ukraine

04 march 2014, 14:15
0

I’ve watched the tragedy in Ukraine unfold with a sadness that comes from knowing a lot of Ukrainians, many of whom struggle when things are calm, let alone when political turmoil reigns.

We’ve all seen what’s happened the past few weeks: Opposition forces ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia, and the Russian military seized the Crimean Peninsula. God only knows what’s going to happen next.

I was in Ukraine before and during the last great political upheaval, the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005.

What struck me then was how visceral the hatred was between those in Ukraine’s two political camps -- the Russia-focused east and south and the Europe-focused center and west. Ukrainian friends tell me it continues unabated.

Ukrainian Presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich did nothing in the 10 years of their combined power to promote tolerance, the way Kazakhstan’s leadership has. It was an opportunity lost.

I wonder if a full-scale national tolerance-promotion campaign could have brought the Ukrainian camps together. The old public-relations guy in me – I’ve done both journalism and PR – says it might have.

©Reuters

©Reuters

But we’ll never know, because neither the pro-West Yushchenko nor the pro-Russia Yanukovich mounted such a campaign.
I was in and out of Ukraine as a journalism consultant in 2002 and 2003, and I was a Fulbright professor there in 2004 and 2005.

What I saw was a directionless country, the vast majority of whose residents were in poverty, making $300 to $400 a month.

Nothing’s changed.

None of the four presidents Ukraine has had since independence has provided the country with the vision it’s needed to spread prosperity among the rank and file.

As a result, some Ukrainians are rich, but most just get by – and have for years.

I know there are poor people in Kazakhstan, but in comparison with Ukraine, Kazakhstan is thriving.

And Kazakhstan’s leaders have offered a vision about where the country needs to be – and road maps for getting there. The blueprints have included dozens of specific goals – such as income per capita – and dates for achieving them.

My Fulbright professorship in Ukraine was split between Odessa in the south and Lviv in the west.

I learned how the country’s pro-Russia and pro-Europe camps felt about each other firsthand because Odessa, a Black Sea resort that is Ukraine’s main port, is pro-Russia and Lviv, a cultural icon which boasts a magnificent Austro-Hungarian past, is pro-Europe.

I remember when I was teaching journalism law at the Odessa National Law Academy under the Fulbright program how surprised I was that most Odessans were supporting Yanukovich in the 2004 presidential election.

Viktor Yanukovych. ©AFP

Viktor Yanukovych. ©AFP

“How can you vote for a guy who spent time in prison for assault?” I asked.

The answer of one of my colleagues at the law academy, whom I’ll call Sergei, was typical.

“That was a long time ago when he was young,” Sergei shrugged. “People change.”

The reason Sergei was embracing Yanukovich, come hell or high water, was that Yanukovich was the guy Odessans thought would promote the interests of the pro-Russia east and south, which included their city.

The question of the candidate’s character wasn’t important for Sergei and other Odessans. It was what Yanukovich could deliver to the 1 million people in Ukraine’s third-largest city.

The fear was that if Yushchenko won, he would funnel more construction projects and other government largesse to the Europe-leaning center and west than to the east and south – partly as a way of punishing those n the opposition heartland.

Yanukovich was from the bastion of the Russia-focused east, the industrial city of Donetsk. Warts or not, he was our guy, most Odessans had decided.

Meanwhile, Odessans expressed contempt for those in western Ukraine who were backing Yushchenko.

Odessans saw them as cultural snobs who put their history above everything else. They looked down on the east and south because those areas were focused on the practical challenge of creating wealth and making a living. “You can’t eat culture or history,” one of my Odessa friends sniffed.

Odessans also noted that western Ukrainian partisans fought with the Nazis against Soviet forces during World War II – an old wound between the pro-Russia and pro-European camps that still festers. Many western Ukrainians defend that action, saying they joined forces with the devil to rid their area of a Soviet devil with longer horns, a longer tail and thicker scales.

Odessans also believed that Yushchenko would be a disastrous president because he lacked the experience to govern the country. Furthermore, he would be a puppet of the West, they said.

Those in the center and west countered that, as finance minister, Yushchenko had taken steps to right a Ukrainian financial ship that was sinking. They also pointed out that Yanukovich had no experience governing, either.

When I moved to Lviv for the second part of my Fulbright professorship – teaching international journalism at Lviv National University – I learned how western Ukrainians felt about the east and south.

If anything, their feelings ran deeper than Odessans’ feelings about western Ukrainians.

One of the first things I learned was that if you speak Russian – as opposed to Ukrainian – in Lviv, you’re in for an unpleasant time.

Most residents of Lviv know Russian – Ukraine has long been bilingual Russian and Ukrainian – but many refuse to speak it.

It’s an act of defiance against the Russians in Russia and the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine who placed a yoke on western Ukraine during Soviet times.

©Reuters

©Reuters

I learned a little Russian while in Odessa, so I knew what Russian sounded like -- as opposed to Ukrainian.

I watched in astonishment the first time I saw a visitor from eastern or southern Ukraine ask a sales clerk in Lviv a question in Russian.

The clerk responded in Ukrainian. She knew Russian or she couldn’t have answered the question, but she was damned if she was going to let the visitor feel superior by conducting the conversation entirely in Russian.

After the conversation ended, the visitor, who could tell from my clothes that I was a foreigner, let me know what he thought of the clerk by nodding his head sideways toward her and muttering an English-language expletive about a lower-body part.

As he turned to leave, I watched a grin creep over the clerk’s face. She obviously knew English, too, and she was delighted she’d gotten under the visitor’s skin.

I didn’t know any Ukrainian but I thought that Lviv residents would cut me some slack if I spoke Russian with them – since I was obviously an untutored foreigner.

Most of the time they did. But not always.

I made the mistake one day of referring to Lviv by the name that Russian speakers use – Lvov.

The person I was talking with became huffy. I never made that mistake again.

But at least the sales clerk who spoke only Ukrainian to the visitor and the person I was talking with who was irritated about my using the word Lvov did speak to the two of us.

Sometimes western Ukrainians refuse to respond at all to anyone speaking Russian. They wait for the other person to speak in Ukrainian – and if that person doesn’t know Ukrainian, well, he’s out of luck.

In case you’ve forgotten, let me refresh your memory about how the Orange Revolution came out.
Pre-election polls showed Yushchenko with a substantial lead over Yanukovich in the run-up to the presidential election. But when

the results came in, lo and hehold, Yanukovich had won.

Yushchenko supporters cried that Yanukovich had stolen the election, and stormed into the capital of Kiev to demand that the result be overturned. And eventually it was.

Yushchenko proved a weak and ineffective leader, opening the door to the dogged Yanukovich to be elected president in 2010.

When Yanukovich scrapped a deal that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union, the rivalry between the east-and-south and center-and-west camps surfaced again – and this time the clashes in Kiev led to bloodshed, taking dozens of lives.

None of us knows what will happen in Ukraine in coming weeks. Hopefully the two camps can finally begin working together on bridging their divide and placing the interests of the country as a whole above their regional interests.

But as I recall how deep the hatred ran between the two camps when I was there – and the fact that if anything it's become worse -- I wonder if the rift can ever be healed.


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