Worrying about Ukrainian and Kazakh friends made 2014 a tough year

06 января 2015, 14:44

I don’t know about you, but the new year is a time when I reflect about what happened the past 12 months and consider what the next may bring.
The year 2014 is one of the most difficult I can remember.

The main reason may surprise you: It was the Ukraine conflict, which not only led to suffering among lots of my Ukrainian friends but also consternation among some of my Kazakh friends.
Like everyone, I had my share of personal and family tribulation last year. You learn to expect a certain amount of it and, when it comes, handle it as best you can.
But I couldn’t anticipate the angst I’ve felt from the Ukraine crisis because I could never imagine it happening.
It’s been hard for me to apply journalistic objectivity to the conflict because I have so many friends in Ukraine who have suffered from it.
I started going to Ukraine 12 years as a journalism consultant, teaching editors of independent, non-government-affiliated newspapers what Western journalism was like.
That led to an offer of a Fulbright journalism professor position, which the Fulbright office in Kiev asked me to split between the Odessa National Law Academy in the south and Lviv National University in the west.
Along the way I met captivating Ukrainians who enriched my life.
One is Tatyana Goryachova, editor of the Delovoy newspaper in Berdyansk. She continued to pursue the profession she loves – journalism -- after an unknown assailant threw acid in her face because of stories she’d done about corruption.

Courageous Ukrainian journalist Tatyana Goryachova has been covering the Ukrainian conflict, which has raged near her hometown of Berdyansk. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Goryachova.

Another was Yaroslav Prytula, a professor at Lviv National University who is one of the brightest and nicest people I’ve met.
And another was Lisa, whom I first met in Odessa as a baby but who is now 10 years old.
Tatyana had done a number of stories that courted danger before the year 2014. An example was a piece about a politician trying to take over a children’s library along the Azov Sea in her hometown so he could build a restaurant and nightclub with a crowd-drawing view.
Her stories about his plans outraged the public. Protests ensued, and he backed off – with angry words about Tatyana.
Tatyana never thought she’d face the greatest danger most journalists can face, however: War coverage.
That changed when separatists took over key parts of Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, and the government in Kiev tried to retake them.
Tatyana has reported from such conflict hot spots as Slavyansk and Donetsk. She’s also reported on victims of the war – wounded soldiers and the civilians whom the conflict has driven from their homes.
The population of her city, which is just outside the war zone, has doubled to 220,000 from a tide of refugees escaping the fighting. “The saddest thing is seeing so many homeless, hungry children on the streets,” she said.
Yaroslav’s city, Lviv, has been spared the widespread violence the east has seen.
The city, a fount of culture that has long considered itself European, has long been a bastion of anti-Russian sentiment. Its residents feel such contempt for the Russians and their Ukrainian sympathizers that many have volunteered to fight the separatists. That has the separatists seething with anger.
Although the rebels are too tied up in the east to mount a major assault on Lviv, they’ve tried twice to exact revenge on the city. Those efforts have come in the form of attempts to assassinate Lviv’s mayor, Andrei Sadovy, who has been outspoken about wanting Ukraine to be in the European Union instead of under Russia’s sway.
Both assassination efforts involved attacks on Sadovy’s house, one with a rocket-propelled grenade, another with gunshots.
They have made residents nervous, Yaroslav acknowledged. Those jitters have deepened an already somber mood in the city arising from the deaths of some of its young men in the fighting.
Lisa lives in Odessa, which has been tense for months after deadly clashes between pro-Russian and pro-European demonstrators last summer.

Lisa looks bright-eyed and cheerful in the photo, but life in her hometown of Odessa is difficult these days. Photo by Julia Semenjuk

I’ve been sending money for years to Lisa’s mother Julia, a single parent, to keep the family from living on the edge.
I hadn’t seen Lisa since she was a month old until I visited Odessa in the summer of 2014 to write about the war.
She had long wanted to meet the man she called her godfather, so she was excited about my arrival.
When I showed up, though, the first reaction of the little girl with the most soulful eyes I’ve ever seen was to hang her head in shyness.
But after I headed east two weeks later, she complained to Julia and her aunt Irina about “where is Hal” and “When is he going to return”?
Although the conflict in the east has yet to spread to Odessa, Lisa and the rest of the city’s residents are suffering from it anyway.
The war has caused a further plummet in the value of Ukraine’s national currency, the hrivna, which had already been ailing. That has led to spikes in the price of staples like food and clothing. So Julia has had to worry like never before about keeping food on the table.
Lack of electricity during the shortest and darkest days of the year this winter has also been weighing on Lisa, Julia and everyone else in Odessa.
The east is where Ukraine’s coal mines are, and the fighting has suspended mining. That means lack of fuel for the country’s coal-fired power plants.
So the government in Kiev has ordered rolling blackouts across Ukraine, including Odessa.
As I’m wrote this column in late 2014, I tried not to think about how Lisa and Julia would mark the new year. I feared it would be a sparse and subdued celebration.
I wondered when I returned from my writing trip to Ukraine in August if my Kazakh friends would feel the Ukraine conflict, too.
The answer, of course, was yes.
The Kazakh economy has close ties to the Russian economy, which has been reeling from a fall in oil prices and sanctions the West slapped on Russia for seizing Crimea and supporting the Ukrainian separatists.
So Kazakhstan’s economic growth has been lower than anticipated.
The good news is that the country’s leaders have come up with a strategy for addressing additional economic travail arising from a teetering Russian economy.
What has worried most of my Kazakh friends more than the economic pain from the Ukraine conflict was the potential political fallout.
Many interpreted President Vladimir Putin’s pronouncement last fall that Kazakhstan has never been a nation as supporting Russian nationalists’ claims that northern Kazakhstan belongs to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. ©AFP

A number of Kazakh politicians, starting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, have gone out of their way to assert since then that there was a Kazakh nation – a khanate that existed for hundreds of years.
It has bothered me to see my Kazakh friends fretting about a possible spillover from the Ukraine conflict almost as much as it’s bothered me to see my Ukrainian friends’ consternation about what’s happened to their country.
I’m glad President Nazarbayev is taking the initiative to try to broker a peace in Ukraine by inviting Presidents Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande to Astana for negotiations on January 15.
Peace would be good for everyone involved – the pro-European Ukrainians, the separatists, the Russians, Russia’s neighbors like Kazakhstan, and the West.
In longing for better times, most of us hope for the best when a new year arrives.
Please join me in a New Year’s wish for peace in Ukraine in 2015.
I’d sleep better not having to worry about my Ukrainian and Kazakh friends.

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