Author: Mykola Riabchuk
“Show,” “spectacle,” “theater,” and “performance” seem to be the most popular metaphors employed by Ukrainian observers to describe the May 9 clashes in L’viv between local nationalists and Russian barnstormers who came with red flags from Odesa and the Crimea to celebrate Victory Day in a city that has a substantially different view of the “victory” and a radically different view of red flags.
The “theatrical” metaphors should not undermine the seriousness of the conflict and its consequences for Ukraine’s future. Rather, they signal the staged, prefabricated character of the event, pointing to its Kyiv directors and, arguably, Moscow architects.
The stage for the conflict was set on April 21 when the Ukrainian parliament amended the 2000 law on commemoration of victory in the so-called “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-1945. A politically crucial request was added to raise the red Soviet flag (euphemistically defined as the “Flag of the Victory”) on all official buildings and sites, and to use it at all official ceremonies on V-Day and at relevant events, alongside the national yellow-and-blue flag.
Neither Ukrainian MPs nor the president needed to have been great statesmen to understand the provocative and subversive character of this suggestion. Even if they watched only Russian TV and used no other sources of information, they would certainly have known that the Soviet flag is absolutely unacceptable for a significant portion of the Ukrainian population, primarily in the western but also in the central part of the country. They should certainly have known that for millions of Ukrainians the red flag is first and foremost the symbol of occupation, of terror and genocide, Gulag and Holodomor, Russification, and national humiliation.
For many Ukrainians, like for Poles and the Balts, the Second World War on their territory was a clash of two equally dreadful predators, the Nazis and Bolsheviks. Which of the two was more oppressive might be an interesting question for academic debates, but it is of little relevance for people who feel today that the Nazi regime is dead and buried, while the Soviet regime, in its Putinist neo-imperial reincarnation, is alive and well and still threatens their shaky stability and sovereignty by various means.
This is why a significant portion of Ukrainians does not buy the Stalinist notion of the “Great Patriotic War” and rejects defiantly Russian attempts to capitalize politically on the historical victory by promoting particular nationalistic and imperialistic agenda.
So, the main question is not whether president Yanukovych and his Party of Regions (in fact, the party of one region, mostly comprised of the Donbas) share the Russian nationalistic view of the Second World War as a great victory of the Soviet (read Russian) people and the proof of their superiority over their neighbors, thus legitimizing their current “privileged interests” in the region. This might well be true taking into account the provincial character of the ruling Donbas “elite,” their extremely low cultural and educational level, poor knowledge of both national and global history and the outside world in general, the profound entrenchment of Soviet values and stereotypes in their minds, and, of course, their sheer opportunism driven by multiple business (political-cum-economic) interests. Thus, the real question is not about their views and commitments, whatever they are, but about their complete ignorance of the beliefs of the other part of society that makes up, by various surveys, between one quarter and one half of the national population.
Why have the “Regionals” reintroduced the red flag that is a clear irritant for so many co-citizens? Is it just an attempt to appease and to mobilize their Sovietophile electorate at the cost of the perceived anti-Soviet minority? Is it a symbolical gesture to indulge Russia in exchange for some personal/corporate benefits? Is it merely a maneuver to divert public attention from the dramatic failures of their social and economic policies, from the rampant corruption within their own ranks and growing international criticism of their heavy-handed dealing with opposition? Or, maybe, as Alexander Motyl suggests, it is a part of a wider strategy: to undermine the Ukrainian, i.e. largely pro-European and anti-Soviet identity, and thereby to weaken the social base of the Orange opponents?
All these assumptions may hold some truth but they hardly justify the costs to be inevitably paid for the presumed benefits. In long run, the Sovietophile policies would definitely subvert Ukraine’s European integration, preclude any chances to become a part of the first world, and deadlock it perhaps forever in the Russia-dominated “Eurasian” space of backwardness and despotism. This actually might not be a problem for the ruling “elite” since they personally joined the EU long ago, keeping their accounts, families, and real estate rather in the hostile West rather than in friendly Russia. But the real cost of contentious, divisive policies stubbornly pursued by the Donbas “elite” might be the division of the country at best or its “Ulsterization” at worst.
One may find some disturbing analogies between Russian supremacists waving red flags in Western Ukrainian cities and Ulster unionists marching with their flags through the Catholic quarters to celebrate the 1688 historical victory and symbolic dominance of the colonizers over the aborigines. Aborigines apparently dislike it and react emotionally, as happened in Lviv, to the great joy of Moscow propagandists who represent Ukrainians’ outrage at imperial symbols as a crypto-fascist denial of the “Great Victory” and another proof of solidarity with the defeated Nazis arguably inherent in Western Ukraine. “Perception of past Nazi collaborators divides Ukraine” ran the headline of Russia Today, the leading Kremlin mouthpiece, clearly outlining how the clashes in Lviv should be interpreted for both the domestic and international market.
Both the Russians and foreigners buy the news at face value. Even the respectable BBC informed its readers about the “clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian activists,” as if “pro-Russianness” was the main feature of rabidly chauvinistic and Ukrainophobic provocateurs purposely brought to L’viv from southeastern Ukraine. The pre-war Sudetenland Nazis might have been labeled “pro-German activists” by the same logic and with the same precision.
The Russian intent to deepen the Ukrainian divide has become an obsession, as well as efforts to discredit any strong anti-Soviet, pro-European Ukrainian identity as rabidly anti-Russian, xenophobic, and crypto-fascist. These intents may perfectly resonate with the Party of Regions’ desire to marginalize the political opposition by a complex two-fold strategy. One aspect was mentioned already: re-Sovietization and Russification of Ukraine as a way to weaken Ukrainian identity and undermine the power-base of the Orange opponents. The other aspect is aimed at promotion and covert support of radical nationalists in Western Ukraine in order to undermine Ukrainian moderates as real political rivals with potentially a much broader electoral base all over the country.
But the price for this perfidious game might be too high. And there are some signs that the Party of Regions, despite appearances to the contrary, is not homogenous and monolithic in this regard. First, Viktor Yanukovych opted not to sign the controversial decree on the red flag’s official usage and relied on so-called legal expertise. He condemned the violence in Lviv and promised a “determined response to those who want to bask in a bloody fire” but did not specify the culprits. In fact, his reference to “some “activists” [that] are trying again to split the Ukrainian people,” and to the “attempts to exploit politically the tragedies of the twentieth century” can be applied to both sides http://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/20032.html . Hanna Herman, his top adviser, expressed this idea unequivocally by saying that the both sides of the conflict deserve each other: “Яке їхало таке здибало” (“Like guests, like hosts”).
Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of the parliamentary faction of the Party of Regions, seemed to backtrack when he stated that ”probably we have to stipulate this [the red flag official status] not by law but by parliamentary decree and to think more deeply about this matter” http://gazeta.ua/articles/politics/382050. And the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to its Russian counterpart with a sharp—albeit wrapped in diplomatic wording—call to tone down anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the Russian mass media and pay more attention to nationalistic and xenophobic excesses in Russia itself. The statement implies that Russia, unlike Ukraine, has not yet got rid of “politicians who earn political dividends through provoking tensions in bilateral relations.” Still worse, some Russian politicians try to “divide peoples into more or less worthy heirs of the victory over fascism” http://www.mfa.gov.ua/mfa/en/publication/content/53249.htm.
Ukrainian TV, even though largely state-controlled, covered the May 9 events in L’viv in a much more balanced and moderate way than Russian TV networks, engaged in overtly propagandistic Galicia-bashing and anti-nationalistic witch-hunts, in which “anti-nationalism” was as subtle a substitute for anti-Ukrainian angst as Soviet “anti-Zionism” for anti-Semitism.
It is not clear yet whether we are witnessing some splits within the ruling team between the pro-Moscow hawks and more pragmatic doves, or this reflects some backtracking from too rough and assertive anti-Ukrainian policies of today’s mostly Russian and Russophone “elite,” or perhaps some hesitation evoked by the obvious fact that re-Sovietization in Ukraine, despite initial expectations, has not proceeded as smoothly as in Russia and Belarus. One thing is clear, however: the Genie of Russian/Russophone nationalism in Ukraine has been released from the Soviet bottle and is very unlikely to be put back. What looked like mere Sovietophile nostalgia throughout the 1990s has been institutionalized recently as a vociferous political movement, with very strong Russian and probably FSB connections and even stronger Ukrainophobic zeal. This might be a greater challenge for any Ukrainian government than the antithetical and ideological Frankenstein from the Ukrainian far right cherished covertly by the Party of Regions.
Whatever Viktor Yanukovych does with the as yet unsigned law, he will encounter a problem. The red flag has been used already without his signature and is likely to be re-deployed in the future. The regional authorities in Luhansk have already declared they are not going to remove the red flags at least until June 22 – the day when the “Great Patriotic War” began. They may well extend, in good faith, the presence of these flags indefinitely, or even substitute them for the national flags.
In the longer term, they may have no need for a national president in remote Kyiv.