The Corner

As Ukraine Prepares to Vote

Ukraine holds its presidential election this Sunday, and, yes, there is something all too crudely symbolic about the way in which the pro-Russian separatists in certain parts of the eastern section of the country are working to stop people from voting.

Writing for the New York Review of Books, historian Tim Snyder provides some useful background to the election.

Here’s a key extract:

Ukrainian elections also mark the eastern boundary of European democracy, which is why they are so threatening for the Putin regime in Moscow. With a regularity that is clearly unwelcome to the Russian leadership, Ukrainians stand up for their rights. The Russian Federation, which unlike Ukraine is not in any meaningful sense a democracy, has questioned the validity of the presidential election. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda quite effectively shrouds the real issues by shunning political discussion in favor of fantastic stories about a fascist takeover in Kiev.

A great deal of Russian media attention is devoted to the Ukrainian far right. There are indeed two far right candidates in this presidential election: Oleh Tyahnybok, the Svoboda party candidate, and Dmitry Yarosh of the Right Sector. They probably have higher name recognition in Russia and in the West, thanks to Russian propaganda, than Petro Poroshenko, the centrist chocolatier who is leading the polls. Each of the far right presidential candidates is polling at 1 percent…

Moscow insists that the human rights of Russian speaking Ukrainians are being violated, and that this justifies its military intervention. This is ridiculous. The current prime minister of Ukraine is married to a native Russian speaker. The acting president of Ukraine is a Russian speaker. For that matter, both of the leading candidates for president in Ukraine, Poroshenko and Julia Tymoshenko, are themselves native speakers of Russian, and hail from the southeast of the country.

Ukraine is a bilingual country. Electoral posters are in both languages. Candidates switch from one language to another on political talk shows. The giant banners on government buildings that read “One Country” are in both languages. If you watch a soccer game on television you might notice that the man doing the play by play speaks Ukrainian while the man doing color speaks Russian: almost all Ukrainians understand both and most speak both. If you go to a coffee shop you might find a polite waitress who adjusts to the language she thinks you speak best. No country in Europe is more cosmopolitan than Ukraine in this respect.

People in the southeast of Ukraine certainly have legitimate political complaints, above all corruption, but language is simply not an issue. People in the southeast speak Russian all the time in all settings without hindrance, and the current government in Kiev, like the leading presidential candidates, has made it a point to assure people that they will continue to allow the use of Russian where people so desire. Barring a disaster, Ukraine will soon have a native speaker of Russian freely elected as its president. That is more than can said about the Russian Federation, where elections are faked. In Ukraine, people who speak Russian can seek political office without hindrance. That is simply not true in Russia….

And that last is a key point. Putin probably has three main overlapping objectives when it comes to Ukraine. The first is imperial: the reduction (either de jure or de facto) of Ukraine to a Russian province. The second is his ‘legacy’, more important to him now as he ages. To be remembered like Ivan the Great, as a “gatherer of the Russian lands”, would be no small thing. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, “the Russian nation,” Putin has observed, “became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders”. To change that…

But Putin’s most important objective—it is, after all, quite possibly, and quite literally, a matter of life and death— is, surely, securing his position. The rebuilding of empire can come in very handy for a leader set on buttressing authoritarian rule at home, particularly if it comes complete with a ‘Eurasian’ ideology that maintains that western-style democracy is not something that Russians do. Under the circumstances, if Ukraine, a nation that Russians will always see as family, manages to develop into a fully-functioning and flourishing democracy (an enormous if, of course, as the poor choice of presidential candidates reminds us), it would not only represent a colossal setback for the imperial project, but it would also set an example that could prove very dangerous indeed to an autocrat in the Kremlin.

Meanwhile some somewhat encouraging (and not entirely unrelated) news from the Baltics.

Estonian Public Broadcasting reports:

Russian representatives were in Estonia and Latvia in March probing the possibility of repeating the Crimea events in the two Baltic nations, but did not come back with positive news for the regime, says Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

Oreshkin, who works with the Mercator think tank and is a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council, told Eesti Päevaleht the representatives are close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said they met the most pro-Russian parties and politicians in the two countries, but were given little hope of such a line of events happening in Estonia.

After the meetings, top Baltic officials intensified their anti-Russian rhetoric, Oreshkin said, adding that authorities must have known about the missions.

Estonia’s Internal Security Service said they are aware of President Putin’s goal of destabilizing neighboring countries and they have and will in the future stop such attempts, although the authority did not confirm or deny Oreshkin’s words.

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