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Ukraine’s political tensions, economic woes and relations with Russia

March 14, 2014
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Ukraine has dominated the news in recent months, and it will continue to make headlines as the country deals with enormous political and economic challenges. Further complicating the situation is neighboring Russia, which has occupied Crimea and threatens to move into other parts of Ukraine.

A panel of experts at the University of Michigan on March 13 discussed many of the most important issues in the Ukraine crisis: the political uncertainty, failing economy, social divisions, language differences, Russian threats and the media.

Here are edited excerpts from the discussion:

Zvi Gitelman, political science professor at the University of Michigan.Zvi Gitelman, political science professor and the Preston R. Tisch professor of Judaic studies, addressed the political issues:

“I think the task for Ukrainians is to prove to themselves—most importantly—and to the world at large that they are a nation that can live together in a single state. If Crimea can be isolated as an area that can leave Ukraine—and there are plausible and justifiable historic grounds for that, if not legal grounds—the rest of the state might remain whole. On the other hand, if Crimea can be detached, why can’t Transcarpathia or any other region of Ukraine that so desires?”

Pauline Jones Luong, political science professor at the University of MichiganPauline Jones Luong, political science professor, discussed the economy:

“The Ukrainian economy is in dire straits. The seminal question on Nov. 21 was whether those economic problems would be met through an economic union with the European Union or whether they would be met with closer ties with Russia. There was a distinct part of the country, arguably, that was more interested in going toward the European Union and the other section of the population was more interested in going toward Russia, economically. The current government has a huge crisis on its hands in terms of the economy. When Russia came in with the $15 billion bailout, that was essentially to buy off Yanukovych and the country so that the protesters would go home. But it didn’t work. There’s definitely an economic interdependency and that’s part of what makes Ukraine so vulnerable politically and why Russia would step in. But I wouldn’t say it’s the major rationale for Russia to intervene. It’s not the major reason for the crisis in the first place. But it’s more about some of the political issues and the unilateral decision-making that were being made on the part of the former president, who has been ousted, Viktor Yanukovych.”

Greta Uehling, lecturer in the Program in International and Comparative Studies.Greta Uehling, lecturer in the Program in International and Comparative Studies, shared her own observations and those of her friends and sources in Crimea about the current situation in the southern region:

“I want to give a slightly different picture of what’s going on on the ground to help you understand that this is an antithesis of a warm welcome (for Russian troops). A lot of the journalists are focusing on the urban areas, particularly Simferopol and Sevastopol, and if you travel outside those urban areas, what you will see is people who are no longer sending their children to school. People who have placed metal bars in every room of their house so that they can defend themselves. The boarding up of windows. There are at least 200 to 300 Crimean Tatars who have fled the peninsula for western Ukraine, seeking protection. I get emails daily from people asking for help and trying to figure out if they can seek asylum or possibly flee the situation. There has been quite a bit of aggression against journalists, threatening the freedom of speech. They’re having their equipment confiscated. They are being detained. My friends are telling me they are seeing men with baseball bats and ski masks walking up and down the streets with lists. Most recently, I’m hearing reports that crosses, or X’s, are appearing on doorways.”

Mikhail Krutikov, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, shared his observations about how language is used in Ukraine:

Mikhail Krutikov, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan.“Ukraine has developed what I think is an amazing culture of mutual tolerance and understanding. So normally, if you address someone in Russian, you can get a response in Ukrainian, and the presumption is that you respectfully understand both languages. It happens on the street and shops. It happens on the television. There’s quite a lot of Ukrainian television where you can see people who speak Russian. If they are from Ukraine, then the presenter will speak to them in Ukrainian. If they are from Russia, they will speak to them in Russian. I think it’s a strictly observed etiquette, which I find very helpful. So I don’t think there is any serious reason to be concerned about this Russian-speaking population. It’s certainly an issue. It’s an issue that’s being dealt with. There are various opinions. You can find extreme opinions in the West, but they don’t have that much support. The situation could have been quite stable up to the point that Russia openly said that it is prepared to invade Ukraine to protect Russian speakers. Of course, the first people who will suffer from this will be the Russian speakers.”

Svitlana Rogovyk, lecturer in Slavic languages and literatures.Svitlana Rogovyk, lecturer and language program coordinator in Slavic languages and literatures, challenged the simplistic descriptions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians:

“The Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are not necessarily pro-Russia. The daily language for nearly half—45 percent—of the Euromaidan protesters was actually Russian, but that doesn’t mean they are Russian citizens or pro-Russian. Therefore, the particular definitions of ‘mother tongue’ or ‘ethnic Russian’ or ‘native Russian speaker’ or ‘native Ukrainian speaker’ should be very clearly made.”

Ekaterina Mishina, visiting professor of law, was critical of the Russian media’s coverage of the crisis:

Ekaterina Mishina, visiting professor of law at the University of Michigan.“Has anyone tried to watch Russian TV within the last two months? I highly recommend it for those who really want to suffer. I grew up in the times of Brezhnev. I became a student in law school when Andropov was the general secretary. So I remember all that propaganda of that time. Trust me, it never was so disgusting. So unintelligent, so humiliating. Although it was Soviet propaganda, it had some dignity. What we’re seeing now is terrible. The journalists are provoking people. They are appealing to the darker sides of their souls. I’m constantly in touch with my friends in Ukraine and Moscow. My friends who are TV journalists, they say, ‘Don’t watch TV. It’s so fake.’ Those who don’t want to take part in the fakery get fired right on the spot. So what’s happening now is that President Putin is thinking of the happy moment when his dream will come true and the Soviet Union will be back. That is why it is so important for him now to show who is the big boss. Who dictates the role, and the role of Crimea in this dirty game is the role of the hostage. People in Crimea who want to become part of Russia are naive. They are not evaluating their risks.”

Oksana Malanchuk of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.Oksana Malanchuk, research investigator at the Institute for Social Research, discussed the divisions in Ukrainian society:

“Ukraine is not just East and West as people have been saying on TV. It’s more nuanced than that. It’s actually more like four regions, plus Crimea, depending on whether you add it to the South.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for European Studies; Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies.


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