- One year after Kiev's bloody Maidan, Ukraine has settled into a rut of despair, poverty and continuing bloodshed. Maidanites count the costs of their ambitions and its toll on lives in Ukraine
- Mainstream media have badly misrepresented the reality of what happened in the Ukraine
This article originally appeared at heise online, a leading alternative German news site. It is interesting not only because it gives a thorough, critical summary of the reality in Ukraine, and how it has been misrepresented in the mainstream media, but also because it is a classic example of the sort of alternative journalism that is taking Germany by storm.
It is precisely this sort of article from which most Germans are now getting their news about Ukraine, after the spectacular implosion of the country's mainstream media due to the preposterous propaganda they have been pushing, and continue to push. It's a foreign policy nightmare for Washington. Basically, they can kiss Germany goodbye as a partner in Europe vis a vis Russia.
Translated for RI by Roman Kut
One year ago the Euro-Maidan in Kiev reached its bloody culmination. By the end, more than 100 people were dead and the political opposition had, together with militant radicals, removed president Viktor Yanukovych from power. In the months leading up to the change, in addition to the demand for a new government, Maidan also made numerous other demands — which have still not been implemented. In the memory of the leading media of this country [Germany], however, only a mythical and simplified interpretation has survived: “Maidan was the fight for freedom of the Ukrainians.”
Several protest motives formed the basis of Euro-Maidan in its first weeks (November and December 2013). The removal from power of Yanukovych and the government was the main objective of most participants, as surveys at that time suggest. Alongside this was the desire for closer political ties to the EU and for the better life opportunities and prosperity associated with it.
In addition, numerous Maidan demonstrators took to the streets against the suffocating might of the oligarchs. They explained their poverty by the richness of this tiny upper class — and not entirely without reason. Many people also stood on the Maidan against police power, against their own lack of rights, against the despotism of the authorities and the almost daily personal enrichment of Ukrainian politicians.
In January and February 2014, the protests became much more violent. Particularly militant right-wing radicals over and over again sought direct confrontation with the police. Fewer and fewer people dared to attend Maidan — the number of women, in particular, decreased considerably (as comparative polls show). In the end, it was above all combat-ready, non-local Ukrainians who stood on the streets of the city center of Kiev. This is proven by interviews and the fact that many future casualties were from the west of Ukraine.
Alongside the motives for protest, gender, regional provenance and the social origin of the demonstrators should be considered. For this purpose, Jörg Kronauer — a journalist from Cologne and a social scientist — points to Ukraine’s Western-oriented middle class. They were the basis of both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euro-Maidan. These cohorts found themselves in a permanently unstable, economically precarious situation. And according to Kronauer, Western supporters in the EU and US connected precisely with these groups.
This evidence indicates that after just one year the Euro-Maidan can be analyzed quite thoroughly and in a more nuanced way. However, in the leading local media, with its view of Vladimir Putin, only a single mythic image of the Euro-Maidan was cultivated: it was a fight for freedom of the Ukrainian people.
Did “the people” fight for “freedom”?
The Maidan has shown the strong will of the Ukrainians for freedom and democracy, writes, for instance, Bild reporter Paul Ronzheimer on the occasion of the anniversary of the onset of protests in November. Back then, “the Ukrainians” cooked soup on Maidan, played pianos, and dreamed of liberty, explains reporter Steffen Dobbert to the readers of Zeit-Online. On Maidan “over 70 Ukrainians fought and died for their freedom”, can be read in Focus. For the ARD correspondent Golineh Atai, Maidan demonstrators were freedom fighters, with whom, as a consequence, journalists virtually automatically “sympathized”.
In an explanation video at Spiegel-Online, the speaker summarizes: “One year ago, people fought on Maidan for their freedom.” And when in January ZDF broadcasted an evangelical service from the German church St. Katharina in Kiev, Andrea Ballschuh, who introduced the Spiegel-Online magazine piece, explained during the service that the “freedom fight of the Ukrainians on Maidan will be commemorated.”
This constantly recurring, simplified interpretation of the events from Euro-Maidan is highly problematic, as it generates an objectively incorrect story — a narrative myth — about the Maidan, which is supposed to stir one emotionally; and at the same time it hinders a sober and critical analysis of real events.
This simplification is based on two rarely questioned assumptions: on the one hand, that Ukraine and its residents were less free before Maidan than afterwards; on the other hand, that there is a single Ukrainian people, unified in its political views. The leading German media over and over again make it plain to their audiences and readers: the Euro-Maidan was not a political fight by some specific Ukrainians, but a “revolution” of the entire population against an authoritarian ruler and his little clique.
What freedom is meant?
However, what specific kind of freedom was it actually about? The term “freedom fight” suggests a prior oppression. In the case of the former Soviet republics, many instantly think of the Kremlin’s rule. However, Ukraine has been politically independent of Moscow since 1991 — in this respect the country was as “free” before Maidan as afterwards.
Already before Maidan, Ukraine had the “freedom” to sign an association agreement with the European Union against Moscow’s will. It was precisely Viktor Yanukovych who pushed the agreement during his tenure. And already in the spring of 2012, when no Russian objections against it existed, the finished agreement could have been signed, as the former EU enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen pointed out. Back then the EU refused its cooperation. Its negotiators still wanted to squeeze a little bit more out of it — above all, the release of the incarcerated Julia Tymoshenko.
This means that in the last few years Ukraine has experienced interventions into its state sovereignty in the form of economic and political pressure from several directions. And Euro-Maidan has also changed nothing with regards to the financial bondage of the state — the Ukraine’s dependency on external money-lenders today is at least as high as before Maidan.
Yet, was there not an indirect oppression of Ukraine due to the fact that in 2010 elected Viktor Yanukovych was merely a puppet of Vladimir Putin? Indeed, this assumption can be heard often; however, it mirrors the tenure of the toppled president in a distorted way.
Yanukovych was not “pro-Russian”, writes Reinhard Lauterbach — Slavicist and former ARD correspondent for Eastern Europe.
Rather, Yanukovych pursued a “swing policy” between West and East, as defined by the east-Ukrainian oligarchs — just as his pre-predecessor and political mentor Leonid Kutschma had already done. Other Eastern Europe journalists are also of the same opinion.
More individual liberties?
Domestically, Yanukovych acted in a relatively authoritarian manner. Under his rule, the pressure increased on the judiciary and the administration. Experts on Ukraine state almost unanimously that since 2010 the country had turned more and more into a dictatorship. Are there then new social freedoms and personal rights to freedom with the acquired “freedom” of Maidan?
In this regard also, the Ukrainians have won little. Some personal freedoms are even threatened by the new potentates. Take the example of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The journalist Andreas Stein writes about the phase prior to the parliamentary elections last October:
“These elections, however, can be regarded as free during times of war only conditionally. Presently, nobody in Ukraine can guarantee free movement and a free electoral campaign for candidates who don’t follow the patriotic mainstream. The radicalized and, to some extent, armed parts of Ukrainian society act violently against representatives of other opinions. Defamations such as “agent of the Kremlin”, “separatist”, “collaborator” or “traitor to the Fatherland” and the ensuing arbitrary law are a daily occurrence in the face of the lack of confidence in legal authorities. The post-Maidan government is partly to blame for this.”
Freedom of the press: After the elections, the newly elected parliament decided to establish a “Ministry of Information”. This is supposed to repel “Russian propaganda”. “One doesn’t combat propaganda by propaganda,” criticized Cristian Mihr from the initiative Reporters Without Borders. “One should encourage independent media and critical journalists instead.” Yet the fact that virtually all large Ukrainian TV channels and newspapers are owned by the pro-Western oligarchs makes even hopes for “a free press” seem illusionary.
Freedom to travel: Today, just as before Maidan, the citizens of Ukraine are not permitted to enter the EU without a visa, something numerous west-Ukrainians had particularly hoped for. On the other hand, Ukraine had already eliminated mandatory visas for EU citizens in 2005. The political objective back then was to “establish a visa-free entry on both sides,”
explained Valerij Chalyj from the Razumkov Research Institute in 2010 to Deutsche Welle (currently, Chalyj is deputy chief of the Ukrainian presidential administration). To date, however, the EU has refused cooperation in the matter of visa-free entry.
As far as economic freedoms are concerned — even after Maidan such freedoms belong exclusively to the oligarchs and minions from their inner circle, reports ARD correspondent Jan Pallokat. And, generally speaking, the austerity policy of the IMF and the new government, as well as the high inflation, do their part to ensure that most Ukrainians clearly have less money at their disposal than before — and, as a consequence, fewer alternatives.
A politically homogeneous people?
The second assumption which goes along with Maidan as “Ukraine’s fight for freedom” is the one about a united Ukrainian people. “The Ukrainians commit themselves to freedom,” jubilated the Welt succinctly after the parliamentary elections. The Ukraine feels “passionately” about being “drawn” to EU-Europe, someone is sure at Frankfurter Rundschau. And Springer’s Welt adds insult to injury by announcing in December 2014: “The Ukrainians want to be part of NATO.”
In the beginning of Euro-Maidan, however, media reports often hit the headlines about the split of the country into the “pro-Russian” East and the “pro-Western” West. Back then it was already known that in the course of a decade, “30% to 40% of the Ukrainian population was in favor of EU integration and roughly as many for an integration with Russia,” as the Bremen-based Eastern Europe scientist Heiko Pleines explains.
Yet, this insight had almost no consequences for the media coverage in this country, and currently it can hardly be heard. In the meantime, the leading German media is even propagating a different view: “Today a picture is drawn of a united and Western-oriented Ukraine which is merely destabilized by Moscow and its remotely controlled puppets,” according to the former Moscow-based correspondent of ARD, Gabrielle Krone-Schmalz, in a book.
A society full of cracks
“Ukrainian society isn’t united but characterized by many cracks and contradictions,” explained Roman Danyluk when contacted by Telepolis. The Munich trade unionist with Ukrainian roots has written non-fiction books about the Maidan and Ukraine’s history. Social opinions have evolved historically, he emphasizes. The west-Ukrainian population has always been particularly interested in Central Europe. “The region has been together in a union with Russia for only 46 years,” whereas regions of south and east Ukraine have been part of Russia for almost 350 years.
“Ukraine is a country with (at least) two languages, four large Eastern churches and a completely different commemorative culture of history.”
Furthermore, underlines Danyluk, the economic partition of the country must not be forgotten. Through the EU, many west-Ukrainians hoped to obtain constitutional standards and additional workplaces for their industrial sectors, tourism, IT and agriculture — whereas the industrialized southeast of the country, with its megacities, has traditional interdependences with Russia’s economy.
Social inequalities in Ukraine must also be considered, says Danyluk. They are considerably more blatant than in Germany. The leading German media, however, either does not report about it or depicts everything in a simplified manner.
“In Ukraine, there are many views, many interests, many hopes, and even more illusions.”
Journalists who speak about a single Ukrainian people should know that Ukraine is an extremely heterogeneous country in terms of language, ethnicity, culture and history. Standard works of historians and experts on Ukraine contain clear references to this heterogeneity. The Hamburg-based, Eastern Europe historian Kerstin S. Jobst and the Vienna-based professor for Eastern European history Andreas Kappeler both identify in each of their books five different parts of Ukraine. And the Berlin-based Eastern Europe historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe explained recently in an interview with Telepolis, “without historical review the Ukraine remains a powder-keg”:
“Because of their history, the Ukrainians are heterogeneous and have diverse local and national identities, although the country was unified by means of sovietization. Although most of the people who live in Ukraine define themselves as Ukrainians, yet, not all of them speak Ukrainian, and they feel themselves associated with different historical traditions. Galicia has a different story from central or east Ukraine. Transcarpathia has only a limited similarity to Crimea or east Ukraine. In order to govern such a state appropriately with regards to culture, one has to accept its diversity and be able to deal with it. One cannot demand that all its citizens identify themselves with one nationalistic version of Ukrainian history or that everybody speaks Ukrainian in every situation.”
In the leading German media, however, the self-perception and understanding of history prevailing in west Ukraine, as well as the ensuing political implications, are often imposed on the entire Ukraine.
The tragedy of disruption
Presenting the Western-oriented view of some Ukrainians as an attitude of the entire population is neither correct nor legitimate, according to the Ukrainian journalist Viktor Timchenko via Telepolis:
“It’s not representative when 500,000 or one million people take to the streets.”
These are impressive numbers at first glance; however, there is no proof that back then the Euro-Maidan represented the view of the majority in Ukraine. There have always been split public opinion trends in the country in East–West polls, adds the author, who lives in Germany:
“The tragedy of Ukraine is its disruption.”
Timchenko’s opinion is substantiated by a number of private Ukrainian research institutes. Thus, almost 82% of Ukrainians had no involvement whatsoever in Euro-Maidan. During the three months of Euro-Maidan, only approximately 18% of people between the Carpathians and Donbass attended at least one pro-Maidan demonstration (no matter where) or donated something in order to help the protestors (food, material goods, money). Whereas in west Ukraine more than 53% of the residents supported the Maidan actively, there were only about 4% doing so in the clearly more populous east and south of the country.
The political consequences of these differences were also visible lately during the parliamentary elections. Whereas in the region of Lviv more than 71% of eligible voters cast their votes, only 39.75% of the populace went to the polls in the southern Ukrainian region of Odessa. In other southern and eastern regions the attendance at the polling stations was similarly poor. It was obvious from the beginning that the supporters of the West would win this election, explains Viktor Timchenko. Many people from the southern and eastern parts of the country, however, did not want to elect them. For this reason, they just stayed at home.
The forgotten Anti-Maidan
The civil war in east Ukraine, in particular, fans the flames of the myth of the freedom fight against an exterior aggressor. In fact, Timchenko is certain that Russian fighters are active en masse on the part of the new republics Donetsk and Lugansk — however, there are no regular troops:
“These are, to a large extent, volunteers — certainly with war experience and with technical supplies from Russia.”
But in the case of this civil war also, people in Germany like to forget about the different views in Ukraine. Timchenko, who comes from Kharkov, reminds us that the “Anti-Maidan” came into being more than one year ago as an internal Ukrainian counter-movement to the Euro-Maidan. In the leading German media, this movement was constantly ignored or defamed as “bribed by Yanukovych”. However, many Ukrainians took part in it of their own free will, says Timchenko. They wanted to do something against the happenings in Kiev. “And these people are still there and fight for these new republics.”
Ukrainians against Ukrainians
The Ukraine-born author Roman Danyluk claims that the Anti-Maidan was a reaction of Ukrainians in the south and the east of Ukraine to Maidan and the change of power. With the anti-social cutback policy of the new government, the Anti-Maidan radicalized even further. Although “Russian-chauvinistic” forces also did their own thing in these protests, the Anti-Maidan was originally a social initiative against “miserable living conditions”.
The middle class of the capital and the west-Ukrainian opinion leaders were not prepared for such a protest and took up arms against their fellow citizens, explains Danyluk:
“After the overthrow on February 22, pro-Western and pro-Russian Ukrainians went at each other.”
It was only later that the protests were taken over and exploited by secessionists and Russian nationalistic groups. The separatists take a violent approach against workers protesting in public and act in the sense of local oligarchs’ and Russia’s interests, according to the trade unionist.
Disappointment about the biased media
In light of the aforementioned considerations, the description of Euro-Maidan as the freedom fight of a people against a dictator can be labeled only as a (successful) PR-spin. In this case, it was a specific interpretation of events, one with a clear publicity effect — which helped to fully supplant Ukraine’s many peaceful Maidan participants and their democratic and social aspirations for reforms in Ukraine — in favor of nationalism and neoliberal reformist politics.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the local media in Germany jointly and inconsiderately portray the assumption of a people’s freedom fight. The simplification is pushed by the leading media to such an extent that currently in the Western community the myth has become the outright and predominant interpretation of Maidan.
This is why the Ukrainian journalist Viktor Timchenko is also particularly disappointed by the leading German media. Despite the persistence of the conflict in Ukraine, their reports are biased and superficial. Above all, the correspondents are neither independent nor impartial. Many report based only on their convictions.
“I thought there was more distance,” says Timchenko. “But the German media have taken sides and fight for their side.” In most cases, the reports partly keep quiet about the truth. In this country, it is almost always Ukrainians with an anti-Russian stance that are invited onto political talk shows. This is because a homogeneous picture of the Ukrainians has to be presented.
Clarification instead of PR
At the same time, the largest German media could deploy their resources quite differently: the Ukrainian change of power in February 2014 was one of the most important political events of the last year. And even if on the occasion of the anniversary some media raised critical voices about the new rulers, the most important questions about this event still remain open-ended twelve months later. The persons responsible for the sniper murders on 20 February are as unknown today as the initiators of the armed raid on government buildings the day after. Just as little analyzed is why Western politicians show little interest in finding answers to these questions.
The leading German media possess the required resources to throw light on — or at least advocate for public pressure for the investigation of — these and other grave crimes of the conflict. Instead of mainly relating a mythic/simplified PR-story, the media could regain the lost confidence in society by clarifying these sensitive and decisive questions. It is simply a case of the persons in charge being willing to do so.
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