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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Medvedev's Stalin lesson for Yanukovych

Presidents of Russia (left) and Ukraine honor Holodomor victims in Kyiv on May 17. (

The coniferous attack on Ukraine’s president was not the main highlight of Dmitri Medvedev’s most recent visit to Kyiv. Sure, it was funny, and Victor Yanukovych’s administration made things worse by trying to ban footage of President vs. Wreath on television. Yanukovych’s macho ego was due for a little deflating, but far more significant events did transpire.

One example: the two presidents’ homage to the victims of the Holodomor. They may not agree that the artificial famine designed by the Kremlin and implemented by Stalin’s Soviets to kill Ukrainians was genocide, yet they honoured its victims. Actions speak louder than words. That they even went to the memorial is amazing and deserves as much discussion as the incident by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Flashback to the early 1980s, when Ukrainians outside the USSR embarked on a campaign to let the world know that artificial famines were instruments of Soviet policy that took millions of lives in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet propaganda machine and its cogs in Western academia* dismissed the accusations that the Bolshevik-run state had organized the death of millions by famine. Either the fact of famine was denied or excuses like drought or poor harvest were provided. The “myth” of famine was dismissed as a fraudulent figment of “fascist” imagination.

Twenty-five years later, the truth of the matter has been revealed in such a way that not even the Kremlin dares deny the Holodomor. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet apparatchiks were in denial mode. Today, the chiefs of post-Soviet states are lighting candles to honour the memories of victims of Soviet crimes. Now that, in the bigger scheme of things, is progress.

Presidents of Belarus(left) and Ukraine honor Holodomor victims in Kyiv in November, 2009.(

Yanukovych is the first Ukrainian president to deny that genocide took place. His three predecessors are very clear on the issue, as are the heads of all the Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including Metropolitan Volodymyr of the so-called Moscow patriarchate. The nation’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, detailed how he was ordered to counter the Holodomor campaign of the 1980s in his capacity as communist party ideologue. Today, he is unequivocal in his assessment: it was genocide.

In Brussels, Yanukovych singlehandedly dismissed the genocide claim for the sake of better relations with Russia. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, monuments to the Holodomor’s head honcho Stalin are erected. Meanwhile, when Russia’s president came to Kyiv, he makes a point of honouring the Holodomor’s victims. What’s going on?

Ukraine’s president looks silly, while Russia’s president looks progressive, like a senior statesman and real leader. Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin in early May and his honouring of Stalin’s victims in Kyiv are consistent. Yanukovych is sending mixed messages. He does not know what he wants. It’s another argument for letting Moscow run and re-establish primacy over the region. The underlying messages from the Kremlin: a) if they are left on their own, states like Ukraine will fail, and b) the world needs Russia to keep order in the former Soviet space, otherwise you’ll have to deal with yahoos that build Stalin monuments.

The Kremlin has learned that denial and cover-up can only go so far and that sooner or later truths of matters tend to surface, be they radioactive clouds emanating from Chornobyl or archival documents showing how Stalin and his henchmen planned and executed the murder of millions within the boundaries of Soviet Ukraine. (The Kremlin has also learned how to trivialize those truths or make them serve its own interests, but that’s another topic altogether.)

Ukraine’s new leadership has not learned the decades-old lessons of glasnost: cover-ups and denials don’t work. The incident with the falling wreath is but one example.

Perhaps Ukraine’s new leaders do not want to learn and are content with letting Moscow do all of their thinking for them. Otherwise, they would have handled the Holodomor a little differently. For example, Yanukovych could have told Brussels: "Holodomor was genocide. We are not saying that Ukrainians were the only ones targeted and systematically murdered by the Bolsheviks. We know that Stalin committed genocide against other peoples as well. Ukrainians are talking about what happened within the borders of Soviet Ukraine. Ukraine has declassified all of its Soviet archives pertaining to this period and the proof is undeniable: the murder of millions within the confines of Soviet Ukraine was planned by the state. We encourage other former Soviet republics to declassify their documents and do the same. Tell the world about the other Soviet genocides."

That would be the best way to honour all of Stalin’s victims, be they in Ukraine, or Russia.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Russia's European security roadshow in Ukraine

Victor Yanukovych (taller) and Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow on May 8. The Russian president is coming to Kyiv (he calls it Kiev) on May 17. This will be the sixth time the presidents will have met since Yanukovych came to power three months ago. (

Russia’s president is coming to Kyiv to sign a slew of bilateral documents with his Ukrainian counterpart early next week. Some surprises are in store in the realm of European security, according to a Saturday newspaper report. Meanwhile, a Kyiv court has banned protests in the nation’s capital while Dmitri Medvedev is in town.

President Victor Yanukovych continues to bulldoze his version of democracy over Ukraine. Another layer of asphalt will be laid on May 17 and 18 when president Dmitri Medvedev comes to Kyiv. What will his visit bring to Russian-Ukrainian relations? According to Ukraine’s first vice premier Andriy Kluyev, the intergovernmental group is currently working on “ten to twelve” bilateral “documents,” five of which are expected to be signed next week by the two heads of state. The five agreements Kluyev told the Ukrainian parliament about last week concern:

a) the demarcation of the UA-RU border (a prerequisite for UA’s EU membership – like that’s going to happen any time soon)

b) use and development of GLONASS (the Soviet equivalent of GPS)

c) interbank cooperation between Ukreximbank and Vneshtorgbank (UA and RU state banks that handle foreign economic activity)

d) immediate measures for RU-UA scientific and educational cooperation for 2010-2012 (rewriting of Ukrainian history textbooks)

e) program of cooperation between RU-UA ministries of culture 2010-2014 (protection of Russian language that is facing extinction in Ukraine)

But a report in Saturday’s edition of the influential Dzerkalo Tyzhnia cites unnamed sources who claim three additional agreements may be signed by Yanukovych and Medvedev. All three declarations concern regional security in Europe and have not been discussed or debated, let alone disclosed to the public:

f) On European security

g) On Black Sea security

h) On the self-proclaimed breakaway republic of Trans-Dnister

Talk about timing! As the world watches Bangkok, while Brussels’ attention is focused on Athens and Lisbon and Washington stares blankly at Tehran, Moscow convinces Kyiv to dump the Euroatlantic adjective in favour of Eurasian.

Yanukovych is keeping Ukraine’s energy assets off the table for now, according to the report, and the Russians won’t gain control of Ukraine’s oil, gas, nuclear and aviation industries this week. Yanukovych is supposeldy protecting the interests of the oligarchs who backed and continue to back him. Oligarch - not national - interests.

Naturally, official Kyiv wants to make it look like everyone in Ukraine approves of the neo-Soviet lovefest that started with Sevastopol and has secured a court order banning any protests in the nation’s capital while the Kremlin’s chief resident is visiting. Ironically, the Kyiv court cited the Law On Ukraine’s National Security in its written motivation for the protest ban, according to a report on Ukrainska Pravda.

Yanukovych and Medvedev to sign three unannounced joint documents (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia)

Court bans protests during Medvedev’s visit (Ukrainska Pravda)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ukraine Needs More Victory Days

Winning the “Great Patriotic War” wasn’t Ukraine’s only or greatest victory

Typical May 9 breakfast in Ukraine would include bread (

Much ado about reconciliation

The same debate hits Ukrainian airwaves every year around May 9. That’s the day the Soviet Union decided would be Victory Day and parades should mark the end of the Great Patriotic War (called the Second World War in the rest of the world). In Ukraine, however, the war did not end in 1945. It lasted well into the 1950s as Moscow sought to establish its rule over the parts of Ukraine where Bolshevik rule was not welcome. The Soviet Union had the Red Army and the NKVD. Liberation-minded Ukrainians had the UPA guerrilla army and support of the local population. Veterans of all these formations live side-by-side in independent Ukraine today. And every year around this time, the question is asked: Is their reconciliation possible?

In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of appearing as a guest on a television talk show that had veterans of the Red Army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) gather in the same studio to talk about the prospects of reconciliation. In very simple terms, the veterans had different views on victory and defeat. For the Red Army vets, victory meant the defeat of fascism in 1945. For the UPA vets, victory also included Ukrainian Independence following the downfall (defeat) of the USSR in 1991.

The discussion was heated, but much more civil than you will find on Internet forums today. Even ten years ago, there were only a handful of genuine war veterans in the studio. Most of the speakers were “children of the war”, historians, “experts” and politicians. The latter typically exploited the discussion to promote divisions within Ukrainian society, score cheap rhetorical points and thus escalate the tension.

As a “backbencher,” the air was charged by the time my turn to peak came around. I was told by host Anna Bezulyk to keep it short. I made two points: a) the people in the Red Army and UPA (not NKVD) all essentially fought to defend their own villages against foreign invaders, and b) the divisions of fifty years past are being used to continue to divide the country today by the NKVD’s successors. I concluded with a “why can’t we all just get along” appeal which came out more naive than intended.

After the taping, a Red Army veteran stopped and told me (in Russian) that I was both right and wrong. I was right that the vets fought for their own villages and that the war of the past is dividing Ukraine today. But as far as reconciliation was concerned, don’t expect us veterans to make peace, he said. That’s up to your generation, he said.

A few years later, I was in Lviv carrying the coffin of a 1st Ukrainian Division soldier to his final resting place in Lychakiv cemetery. After his division was routed by the Soviets in the 1944 Battle of Brody, Lev fled west, eventually settling in the USA, where he raised a family. In numerous conversations, the machine gunner bore witness to the truth of the “Galizien” division’s history: yes, they wore German uniforms but with Ukrainian insignias and colours; no, they did not swear allegiance to Hitler and no, they did not kill Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. His reasons for enlisting were pro-Ukrainian and anti-Bolshevik – the bloody terror underwent from 1939 to 1941 in Western Ukraine was enough to get many a young man to volunteer in the fight against the Soviets.

Victory came for Lev in 1991 with Ukraine’s declared independence. His family ended up moving back to the homeland where his western “halychanyn” son wed a “slobozhanka” from the east. She, a daughter of Red Army veterans, bore him three grand children. The war veterans shared many cups and raised toasts at weddings, baptisms and holidays never letting the past get in the way of the present or future. When health took a turn for the worse, Lev was admitted to the Red Army veteran hospital in Kyiv. The doctors and nurses saw an aging veteran who required medical attention. They tended to him and extended his time on this earth, never asking “And what side did YOU fight for?”

Fast forward to May 9, 2007. I had worked on the “Ukrainians in Auschwitz” exhibit opened by the president on Victory Day and thus had VIP access when Victor Yushchenko delivered his remarks on the occasion of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Sitting beside me was Bohdan – a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and an Auschwitz survivor. We listened as the president called for reconciliation between Red Army and UPA veterans – for Ukraine’s sake – and we both cringed when the president was booed. I saw Red Army veterans also cringe and look around in disgust at the booers – a handful of yahoos waving Soviet flags who’d most likely never seen a day of combat. They stood right beside the pool of cameras, so the boos on TV sounded much louder and numerous than they did in “real life.”

After the formalities, Bohdan joined the other vets for a bowl of kasha from the recreated field kitchens. An Auschwitz survivor and Ukrainian nationalist – he was certainly glad that Nazi Germany had been defeated. But he did not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union like those who claim it was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century. He was very glad the USSR fell and that he was able to mark the defeat of the Nazis in a free and democratic Kyiv.

After lunch, Bohdan was walking through Kyiv’s Park Slavy when two little girls – sisters, around 10 years old – ran up. “Z praznikom, dyadechka! Spasiba!” they said handing flowers and hugging him. Bohdan’s eyes swelled with tears. The Ukrainian nationalist didn’t care that the girls spoke in Russian. The girls and their parents did not ask him if he fought in UPA or in the Red Army. They saw a war veteran who needed a hug.

Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak once remarked that “victory days” are celebrated by people and states that are still at war. Nations that have successfully dealt with the past, including reconciliation where necessary, mark “memorial” or “remembrance” days to honour the memories of all the victims of war, be they soldiers, civilians, winners, losers.

WWII continues in Ukraine to this day, fuelled not by the veterans, but by politicians and demagogues who are transforming the myths of the “Great Patriotic War” into a new transnational civic religion for the former Soviet space. They are the ones preventing veterans’ grandchildren from turning the page. They are most interested in keeping Ukraine divided and thus more easily ruled from without.

The Ukraine of today is riddled with losses and losers, bad news and few success stories. Ukraine needs more victories (less Viktors, especially of the Yanukovych kind). For the Soviets, the “great patriotic” was the last war they won, so the nostalgia is somewhat understandable. And thank God the Nazis were defeated. But Ukraine will have arrived as a mature nation state once the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviets is commemorated as a victory just as great and joyful as the defeat of Hitler in 1945. In 1991, that was something all Ukrainians could agree upon. And they did. Victory was secured at the ballot box, not the battlefield, when more than 90% said “yes” to freedom in a referendum. But democracy is not as “sexy” as war... When was the last time you saw a movie about an election?

"We beat one enemy, we'll beat the other enemy too!" Courtesy of Serhiy Pantiuk's blog on Ukrayinska Pravda (

Monday, May 3, 2010

EU key to Putin’s pipedream


Item: Russian PM Vladimir Putin proposes the merger of RAO Gazprom and Ukraine’s natural gas monopoly NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy

Background: In the 50 days since his election, Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovych has made improved relations with Russia his top priority. (Relations between the two countries were poor for the past five years because Russia did not like the previous Ukrainian president.) Yanukovych and his government have met with their Russian counterparts 7 times in the past 6 weeks and have made a series of important deals, most notably the gas-for-fleet deal whereby Russia will sell natural gas to Ukraine at significant discounts in exchange for the prolongation of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s port lease in Crimea until 2042.

This deal was rammed through Ukraine’s parliament, causing the much publicized chaos last week. On the heels of the chaos, Russian PM Vladimir Putin proposed the merger of RAO Gazprom and NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy. The state-owned Ukrainian company operate the country’s International Gas Transit System (IGTS)* that currently transports most of Gazprom’s natural gas deliveries to Europe.

Analysis: The chances of Ukraine agreeing to the full merger proposal are slim, unless the European Union agrees. Although official Kyiv has made many concessions to Moscow in recent weeks, Yanukovych said that Ukraine has no intention of giving up the IGTS. Following Putin’s merger proposal, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s presidential administration said that the proposal came as a surprise and has not been formally discussed. But Ukraine’s system is in desperate need of modernization to the tune of an estimated $2 bln per year. And much ado is being made about alternative transit routes that would bypass Ukraine to European consumers. **

With Putin’s merger statements, Moscow is trying to secure an upper hand and better bargaining position in the Russia-Ukraine-EU triangle of talks on the management of Ukraine’s IGTS. The model that previously enjoyed support in Kyiv and Brussels was the creation of an international consortium that would manage the IGTS on a concession basis. The consortium would be made up of the supplier (Russia), storage and transit (Ukraine) and the consumer (EU countries).

Putin’s suggestions of a merger may prove to be nothing more than a pipedream with a purpose: by loudly staking a claim today, Putin hopes to secure a better position in the future consortium. Gazprom is also trying to gain access to Ukraine’s domestic gas market and secure the rights to deliver and collect for natural gas deliveries to households. Moscow may “ease up” on its IGTS designs in exchange for other concessions to Gazprom.

All that said, the Russia-Ukraine merger would only be possible if the EU’s government and energy companies accede to such a plan. Today (May 3), a spokesperson for EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger reacted to the media reports on the possible merger. Marlene Holzner said that it is an “internal matter which concerns the two governments,” Interfax-Ukraine reported. “It is important for us as the European Union that Ukraine should continue reforms on the modernization of its domestic gas market to make it more transparent,” Holzner said. Only if the EU leaves it up to Moscow and Kyiv to ensure transparency, then Putin’s proposal may turn a pipedream into reality. Some Ukrainian media outlets are already spinning the EU Energy Commissioner’s reaction as tacit consent to the proposed merger. (The notion that Western Europe has sold out to Gazprom is oft-repeated in Ukraine.)

* Ukraine’s IGTS infrastructure includes 37,800 km of high pressure natural gas pipelines, 73 compressor stations (5,400 MW ) and 211,000 km in distribution networks, 13 underground gas storage facilities (30 bcm ). IGTS output capacity is 179 bcm (142 bcm to Europe). Current Ukrainian law forbids the privatization of the IGTS or its constituent parts.

** Alternative East-West Gas Pipelines to Europe
South Stream –63 bcm capacity, due 2015 (Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria)

Nabucco – 31 bcm per annum, due 2015 (Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria)

Nord Stream – 51 bcm, due 2012 (Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany)

Ukraine’s IGTS –179 bcm, already in place (Russia, [Belarus], Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania)