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Analysis: What the Czech media ignore about Ukraine

Prague, 24.3.2014 19:19, (Romano Voďi)
A young man in a balaclava playing
A young man in a balaclava playing "Requiem for a Dream" during the demonstrations in Kiev (PHOTO: Vít Hassan)

This article was written for the print edition of Romani vod'i magazine at the start of March.

In Ukraine the forces of good from the central and western parts of the country are fighting against the forces of evil from the east and the south, - the pro-EU, progressive Ukrainians against the blinded ethnic Russians and other minorities, and there is a bright future ahead for the suddenly-awakened country compared to its dark, all-but-communist past. This is roughly the way most Czech journalists view the current situation in Ukraine.

Most Russian journalists see the exact opposite. In their view this is not about a revolution, but a coup staged by the United States and NATO countries, who have trained and then exploited for their own purposes the most radical nationalist forces in Ukraine, people who publicly declare Fascism to be their ideology and want to either deport (or Ukrainianize) everyone who is not a "pure" Ukrainian.

Who is right? We must realize that the truth is far more complicated and most probably lies somewhere between these two positions:  It is multi-layered, constantly changing, and a damned mess - in short, it is anything but black and white.

Each of the many segments of the divided country believes that its truth is the only one. Greatly contradictory opinions exist there about the revolutionary uprising of Ukrainian society and its growth into a rebellion whose victors will now share power among themselves.  

What is sad is that hatred and the casting of blame on others is clearly present in most of those opinions. The Kiev middle class, the students, the pensioners, the homeless people who have no choice but to scavenge in garbage cans - each group has a different view of what took place on the Maidan.

Ethnic Russians in Crimea have a different opinion from the Tatars in Crimea, the Jewish community in Odessa has its own view, and different concerns and hopes resonate in the minds of Carpathian Ukrainians, the minority Moldovans, Roma and Ruthenians. The Roma were a discriminated minority prior to the revolution and will probably remain one after it.

The road to the real truth about Ukraine begins with the humble recognition that the people living there are just like us. They are both good and bad, open and closed-minded, hospitable, impressionable, high-toned and low-class. 

People in Ukraine do not enjoy what might be called easy living in the slightest. Anyone who travels to this enchantingly beautiful country between the Black Sea and the Carpathian Basin is stunned by the enormous will of the people to grapple with the life they have been given.    

That life includes privation that takes fathers away from their families as they travel abroad for work - and it also includes the oligarchs who take turns being in power. Even though this piece is going to be mostly about politics, while I was writing it I could hear, with my ears and my soul, the bewitching mixture of joy, sorrow, love, hate, hopes and fears in the Hucul, Jewish, Moldovan, Roma and Ukrainian folk songs that the locals so love to sing there - surprisingly enough, most of the time they sing these songs together, either with heartfelt tenderness or wildly and with great gusto, irrespective of where they were born or to what kind of parents.

For Czech people who are used to looking at neighboring countries - especially those to the east - with disdain, the Kiev revolution must have been a proper shock. The Czechs are used to dismissively calling Ukrainians "ukis" (úkáčka) and looking at them askance as newcomers who should be glad we even put up with them here.   

In certain skinhead communities it is even fashionable to curse Ukrainians as the filthy drunks who are taking jobs away from us Czechs. (Just dare to remind them that we Czechs are in the same situation as the Ukrainians are here when we go to England and other countries for work - many of these would-be patriots will then turn their disdain on you, tell you you're just as bad as "the ukis" are, and punch you for good measure). 

Now these people, whom many here in the Czech Republic approach as second-class citizens, have suddenly set their hearts on putting things in order at home in Ukraine. They have lost patience with the big shots and the nouveau riche there (who are not that different from ours).    

They have said to one another "This can't go on" - while we "Europeans" here in the Czech Republic are obediently keeping our mouths shut and falling into line. In short, this was a shock!

It must have been a similar shock for Czech journalists - for a long time they didn't even know what him them. Then they got their second wind and began to write exactly per the orders of their superiors.

Here they exaggerate something, there they ignore something - whatever it takes to sell a piece. However, when it comes to the media's efforts to objectively capture what is actually happening in Ukraine, the main bone of contention is the role of the ultra-nationalists.

In the beginning, the Czech media ignored their existence, and later began to write about them as "football fans". Be that as it may, the black-and-red flags of the Banderites could not be ignored during the protests, and neither could the banners with the emblem of the nationalist Freedom Party.

As footage from towns around Ukraine shows us today, those flags are continuing to wave. Moreover, an essential role in the violent revolution was played by the Right Sector, paramilitary units that spark terror and are comprised of radicals from nationalist groups with names like Patriots of Ukraine, Stepan Bandera's Trident, Ukrainian Nationalists, or White Hammer, including football hooligans. 

The ultra-nationalist, xenophobic Freedom Party is an extremist organization that identifies with the ideology of German National Socialism, espouses the Fascist legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and annually celebrates the founding of the Ukrainian division of the Waffen SS. To the non-aligned observer, such connections are like a blow to the solar plexus, especially when one sees the hateful Fascist rituals promising death to the enemies of Ukraine (i.e., Jews, Poles, Roma, Russians - in short, everyone but "real Ukrainians"), or the SS inscriptions, the Wolfsangel rune symbols resembling Nazi swastikas, or the Nazi code numbers 14 (for the 14 words of white supremacist David Lane) and 88 (for "Heil Hitler") on the helmets and shields of those fighting for a new Ukraine.   

Then there is the resurrected cult of Stepan Bandera, who became famous for brutally expelling Jews, Poles and Roma from what is today western Ukraine in collaboration with Hitler's forces just before the start of Germany's attack on the USSR. His national liberation struggle cost the lives of 150 000 people. 

To start talking with Ukrainians about Banderites and Fascists, however, is to court disaster. They will tell you that is all just propaganda from the pro-Russian media and the Kremlin serving to discredit their struggle for independence from Russia. 

They will assure you that these are not Fascists, but radical fighters for a free Ukraine who are well-intentioned and have nothing to do with national intolerance. These are the specific characteristics of a country that was dependent for decades on the Soviet Union even as it desired real freedom and independence.

There probably is something to these specifics, because, for example, there were not just Ukrainian nationalists fighting on the barricades against Yanukovych's special police units, but also two divisions of Jewish fighters, as well as Belarusians, Georgians, Moldovans, Ruthenians and others. Of course, naysayers warn that the engagement of ultra-nationalists on the barricades and their "meritorious service to the nation" may not necessarily pay off for those who are striving for real democracy in Ukraine in the future, and could instead be a time bomb that will explode when everyone least expects it. 

Moreover, the fact that the Russian media is writing about the danger of Fascism does not automatically mean that none actually exists. There is horrifying video footage of the former head of security for Chechen fighters Dudayev and Maskhadov standing at a podium with the commander of the Right Sector for Western Ukraine, Oleksandr Muzychko, wearing a machine gun and saying "As long as blood flows in my veins I will fight against the Communists, the Jews and the Russians".

Fuel to the fire of concerns over the future direction of Ukraine was added by a new language law adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament along with decriminalization of the promotion of the Nazi ideology a mere three days after the fighting ended on the streets of Kiev. Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Russia - countries that have large national minorities in Ukraine - officially expressed their uneasiness with this development and called on the new leadership of the country to respect national minority rights.

The new language law and legalization of Banderite symbols were explosive in the Russian-speaking areas in the east of the country and in Crimea. The Crimean Parliament and the town hall of the city of Sevastopol, as well as its local airport, were occupied by gunmen and volunteers from the ranks of hastily-assembled local militias.

Mykhailo Dobkin, a Deputy of the Kharkiv Oblast Council, subsequently warned that a total attack on the rights of the Russian-speaking population was underway and that the laws adopted posed a threat to anyone who does not accept Nazism. The tensions sparked by this nationalist language law then traveled to Russia, which declared that its army on its western border was on alert.

The Czech media is reporting in this context about "separatist tendencies" provoked by Russia, but the fact is that Russian-speaking inhabitants of eastern and southern Ukraine only took the law into their own hands after the same had been done by the Ukrainian-speaking inhabitants in the center and west of the country. What about all the other minorities in Ukraine?

There will be very little reported about all the other minorities in the days to come, even though their concerns parallel those of the Russians. The only thing is, unlike the Russians, they don't have anyone to provide them with a strong defense. 

The future of Ukraine inside its original borders is, in this situation, extremely unstable, as tensions are rising in anticipation of a possible Russian invasion "to protect their countrymen", and the hatred and mutual recrimination between the antagonistic camps does not bode well. Ukrainian citizens who rose up in good faith against a corrupt regime and paid the price of bloody sacrifice in their struggle against the leaders of that regime are beginning to realize that they are far from having won a final victory.  

The state coffers have been robbed and the economy faces bankruptcy. The time when everyone will join forces to live a dignified life together in a state of mutual tolerance is unfortunately still a long way off. 

Ondřej Mrázek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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aktuální dění, konflikt, Média, Rusko, RV 1-2/2014, Ukrajina


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