Red Faced

03.20.14

Ukraine Hunts for a Scapegoat

Ukrainians are devastated by the Russian annexation of Crimea, furious at one another—and looking for someone to blame.

KIEV, Ukraine—Outside Kiev, outside Ukraine, academics can ask if the country might be better off after the amputation of Crimea. A study conducted last month by a group called Democratic Initiatives showed that even in the midst of revolution, 45 per cent of the Ukrainian population wanted Ukraine to join the European Union and only 35 per cent supported the idea of a customs union with Russia. You take away Crimea, and you shrink that second number dramatically. “Without Crimea, Ukraine would be more consolidated around the EU agenda,” says Irina Bekeshnina who directed the survey. The Crimea issue has helped the pro-Russian factions to organize and consolidate.

But there is nothing academic about the mood in most of Ukraine just now. Emotions are as raw as they get. When the Russian Duma voted Thursday to accept Crimea and Sevastopol as subjects of the Russian Federation, the overheated emotions in the Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, grew absolutely incandescent. All morning long the deputies yelled at one another. Members of the former ruling party—the Party of Regions—accused the new leadership of “breaking the country into pieces.” The post-Maidan revolutionary politicians, for their part, jumped off their chairs yelling at their opponents, blaming Regions for bringing to power the outlandishly corrupt ex-president, Victor Yanukovych.

It was not just the painful factor of Crimea joining Russia that gave an impulse to political battles, but the domestic issue of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Protesters with Russian flags filled streets in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk in the eastern part of the country last weekend. People there demanded referendums like Crimea’s and more independence from Kiev. Pro-Russian crowds tried to storm government buildings. Meanwhile, the pro-Ukrainian population those parts wondered what plan the new leadership in Kiev had for saving their cities from the Crimea syndrome.

Rada deputies asked how it could happen that Crimea, the gem of Ukraine, with strategic naval access to the Black Sea—and beaches beloved by tourists!—had passed to Russia. Was it time to evacuate the Ukrainian military forces from Crimea? That seemed to be a possibility after the head of the national security council in Kiev talked about evacuating their families. But no decisions were taken.

Deputy Irina Gorina blamed revolutionaries for the loss of the peninsula: “If the country’s leaders are late in making decisions, history will blame them for destroying Ukraine,” she said. The issue of timing, of being late reacting, one way or another, was the reason for the country’s dramatic losses various deputies pointed out.

Gorina went further, calling on the parliament members to recognize it was the revolution in Kiev that scared the Crimean population. She urged her colleagues to pay attention to the country’s pro-Russian population. Interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk “began speaking human language with the South and East of the country only the day before yesterday,” she said. Only then did he promise “he would not cancel the Russian language and give more independence to the regions.”

Many felt heartbroken and humiliated watching that television coverage of the splashy celebrations among the Russians.

In fact, it was only this week that Yatsenyuk decided to address the nation about the need for tolerance toward Ukraine’s Russian speakers. “Nobody violates your rights to speak Russian,” he insisted, and added that his wife speaks mostly Russian. But the issue was raised because the Rada deputies voted last month for a law taking away the official status of Russian in 13 out 27 regions of Ukraine. Interim President Oleksandr Turchinov, wisely, vetoed it.

Ukraine’s most popular leader, billionaire Petro Poroshenko told me he had tried hard to build an honest partnership with Russia for 15 years. “But at this stage there is something in the way, the trust has been destroyed—Russian aggression in Crimea managed to drive a wedge in the Russian-Ukrainian people’s friendship—something nobody had managed to do in 200 years,” said Poroshenko, who stands a good chance to become Ukraine’s next president after elections in May.

No pro-Russian rhetoric sounded acceptable for Ukraine’s far-right-wing parties in the Rada on Thursday.  Ultra-Nationalist Svoboda leader Andrei Tiagnibok, famous for calling on Ukrainians to fight “Russian pigs,” took the podium to say that there were agents of the Kremlin in the present government. “We need to purge those officials,” yelled Tiagnibok. “Without raising the spirit of the Ukrainian nation we will never be able to defend our country.”

As recently as Tuesday night members of the Svoboda party demonstrated what could happen to critics of their line. A Svoboda deputy and supporters stormed the office of state broadcaster Channel One demanding director Alexander Panteleimonov sign a letter of resignation. “I told you to write the letter!” one of the group shouted, grabbing the media boss by his tie. Four people forced Panteleimonov into his chair, scolding him for his channel’s coverage of the Crimea referendum.

Channel One had broadcast reports on the people of Crimea and people in Moscow celebrating the announcement of annexation. So had the other TV stations, but Channel One is watched in 90 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

The deputies cursed Panteleimonov as a “maskal,” a derogatory term for Muscovite, threatening to pull him out to the revolutionary square of the Maidan.  The video taken by the Svoboda thugs was posted online. It showed them beating Panteleimonov on the head, forcing him to sign the paper on the table.

On Wednesday, protesters demanded the prosecutor general of Ukraine investigate the attack on Panteleimonov. Tiagnibok has since criticized the members of his party who were involved.

In the square, meanwhile, members of the Maidan Self Defense militia continued training to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But many felt heartbroken and humiliated watching that television coverage of the splashy celebrations among the Russians.

At a corner café on the Maidan square two middle-aged women had tears in their eyes on Wednesday night. “I feel personally betrayed by my government when I see thousands of those who yesterday were our countrymen dancing and running to Putin,” said Marina Miroshnichenko. “No,” said her friend Larisa Boiko, “it is our own fault, too. We are the people: the real power in Ukraine. It is we who allowed things to go so far.” Both women said they worried about their families’ security. Some of their friends had moved children to Western regions, they said, in fear the crisis will grow worse, as it has so many times before.